Athletics: Sotherton jump raises Olympic hopes

Somewhere in his Birmingham office, Charles van Commenee, the UK Athletics coach for jumps, has pinned up a list of this season's goals for Kelly Sotherton. It is already making pretty comfortable reading for the 27-year-old heptathlete whose performance in Gotzis last month sent her racing up to second place in this season's world rankings behind the ineffable Swede, Carolina Kluft.

Somewhere in his Birmingham office, Charles van Commenee, the UK Athletics coach for jumps, has pinned up a list of this season's goals for Kelly Sotherton. It is already making pretty comfortable reading for the 27-year-old heptathlete whose performance in Gotzis last month sent her racing up to second place in this season's world rankings behind the ineffable Swede, Carolina Kluft.

Admittedly a number of leading contenders have yet to do a heptathlon this year, including the woman with whom Sotherton has been training in Birmingham, the Olympic champion Denise Lewis. But in improving her mark from 6,059 points to 6,406, this former Hampshire county netballer has served notice that she is an athlete in a hurry to realise the potential which has been apparent ever since she won the English Schools title 12 years ago.

Already, one of the main targets - to achieve 6,300 points - has been comfortably surpassed. The main remaining aim, to finish in the top eight at this summer's Olympics, is now looking distinctly possible for a natural competitor who, it seems, cannot stop improving.

Five of her seven events in Gotzis were personal bests. Two weeks ago, in Bedford, she lowered her 200m and 100m hurdles times, and last Sunday, at the European Cup in Bydgoszcz, she produced her furthest long jump of 6.78 metres to finish third in her event.

It was indicative of the standards Sotherton is now setting for herself that the latter performance induced nothing more than annoyance, given that she had missed the Olympic A standard qualifying mark by just two centimetres.

Sotherton, already assured of an Olympic heptathlon place alongside the woman she acknowledges as "The Queen" - Sotherton's training ground nickname, for now, is Princess - wants to double up in the long jump at Athens, a pattern of competition that Kluft, and France's Eunice Barber pursued with great success at last year's World Championships.

"It was frustrating to finish so close to the A standard," she said as she contemplated her performance. "Just two centimetres..."

As luck would have it, Sotherton has an ideal opportunity to secure her entry this Sunday when she competes in the Norwich Union British Grand Prix at Gateshead against a stellar collection of long jumpers.

Germany's Olympic champion, Heike Drechsler, will be there, as will Italy's (and originally, Derby's) former world champion Fiona May, Russia's world silver medallist Tatyana Kotova and world triple jump record holder Tatyana Lebedeva, as well as Lewis - who has a lifetime best of 6.69 - and a certain athlete who has been in the news quite a bit recently, Marion Jones of the United States.

Now there is a field to bring the best out of an up-and-coming talent, even if the Gateshead breeze threatens to annul any effort for statistical purposes.

So have the advances of this season been exactly what she expected? "In my dreams," she announces with a burst of laughter. "I didn't think I'd get this far so quickly. But I've worked really hard this winter and being able to train with an athlete of Denise's stature is wonderful. We complement each other because we have different strengths and weaknesses."

What both have in common is a coach who is notoriously blunt in his opinions, and unabashed in expressing them. Both athletes creased with laughter at the Olympic camp in Cyprus recently as they recalled the atmosphere.

"There are lots of laughs, lots of banter," Sotherton said. "And it can get quite heated. People laugh at us - we are like an entertainment trio. Charles is outspoken and loud and everyone hears him. Everyone hears us as well..."

Sotherton's current advancement has come as a result of the calculated decision she took last year to give up her full-time job as a debt collector for HSBC bank in Birmingham. "I was working in an office, not banging on people's doors," she mentions with practised ease.

"In the old days I would be up at 6.30am for an 8.00am start, and I would have to go to training after work. I'd get back home at 8.30pm and that would be it for the day. Now I've got time to train twice a day, and I can concentrate on sorting out little bits of technique in different sessions.

"People wrote me off a couple of years ago," she added. "I was 25, 26, and people were saying that I hadn't achieved my potential. This is all about proving those people wrong."

Despite assistance from the Lottery, funds are still tight, and her family are helping out where necessary. "I can't go shopping," she said. "I can't save money. I can't afford a mortgage." Travelling is one area where she can economise, as she recently moved to within five minutes of the Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr.

Her performances this year appear to have taken even the experienced Van Commenee aback. "Amazing" was his immediate response to Sotherton's effort in Gotzis.

"I think Charles is quite surprised that I'm still in one piece," she said. "It has been a revelation training with him. When I went to Cyprus last year and produced a hurdles time of 13.32, I thought to myself 'Wow, this is working.' My total in Gotzis was obviously very satisfying, but I think there's a little bit more to come..."

She is in a very different position now to the one she found herself in four years ago. "I should have gone to the Sydney Games," she said. "I was crying my eyes out watching it on TV." Not so now, although working with Lewis was something she found hard to come to terms with initially. "I was very much aware that she was Olympic champion," she said. "She's not a robot. She is human, and I didn't realise how hard she works.

"I admit I've got a little bit of arrogance. But I think you've got to have that to succeed. After four years hard work, I might be where Denise is now.'

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