Athletics: Sotherton steels herself for all-conquering Kluft

As Kelly Sotherton got down to work in her double shift at the English Institute of Sport's indoor arena in Sheffield yesterday, it was inevitable that Carolina would be on her mind.

As Kelly Sotherton got down to work in her double shift at the English Institute of Sport's indoor arena in Sheffield yesterday, it was inevitable that Carolina would be on her mind. For Great Britain's other individual track-and-field medal winner from the Athens Olympics (other than the absent Dame Kelly Holmes, that is), the Norwich Union European Indoor Trials and AAA Championships happens to be preparation for the considerable challenge of locking competitive horns with Carolina Kluft, the Swedish golden girl of world athletics, in Birmingham next Friday night and in Madrid on 4 March.

While Dame Kelly is undecided whether to go for gold at the European Indoor Championships in the Spanish capital next month, Sotherton, winner of the heptathlon bronze medal in Athens last summer, is aiming to challenge for a medal in the five-event heptathlon. In doing so, the 28-year-old Birchfield Harrier is getting ready to put herself on the line against Kluft, who has swept all before her in the multi-events world since taking European indoor bronze as an emerging teenager in Vienna three years ago.

Outdoors, Kluft has won world junior, world senior, Olympic and European heptathlon titles. She has also captured the world indoor pentathlon crown. Victory at the European Indoor Championships would complete a remarkable grand slam of major titles for the remarkably talented Swede, who turned 22 only last week.

"Carolina is going to be favourite for the gold in every competition until she finishes her career," Sotherton reflect-ed before getting to grips with the shot put and long jump in Sheffield yesterday. "She is absolutely amazing. She's so talented she could probably do any individual event, apart from distance running, and be world-class at it.

"In Madrid, obviously other people are going to be aiming for the silver and the bronze, but you never know. No athlete is invincible. Carolina might have a slip-up. She might have a bad long jump."

Kluft almost slipped up in the long jump at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, although after two no-jumps and the prospect of fouling out she produced the longest jump of the competition with her final effort - eclipsing even Eunice Barber, who went on to win the gold medal in the individual long jump.

Sotherton was on the brink of failure herself in the long jump in the Olympic heptathlon before a last-ditch 6.51m put her back on course for a medal. Kluft was the first to congratulate her. "She gave me a hug," Sotherton said. "She said, 'Ah, I feel for you. Well done'. That was nice of her."

Just three months previously, when Sotherton turned up at the Gotzis heptathlon in Austria and started putting serious points on the board, Kluft had wandered across to the knot of Swedish journalists gathered at track-side and asked them: "Who is she?" Sotherton was ranked 21st in the world in 2003, and not good enough to make the points standard to qualify for the World Championships. Her rise to third place in Athens last year was one of the great British track-and-field success stories of 2004.

It was also testament to the coaching prowess of Charles van Commenee, the man who guided Sotherton's sometime training partner, Denise Lewis, to heptathlon gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and who last month left the employ of UK Athletics to return to his homeland as technical director of the Dutch National Olympic Association.

Now self-coached, Sotherton launched her season with personal bests in the shot and high jump at the Midland Open Meeting in Birmingham last weekend. Yesterday in Sheffield she took fifth place in the shot, putting 13.77m, then led the long jump with a personal best of 6.43m before being shaded in the final round by Jade Johnson's 6.50m. "I have a slight muscle tear in my quadricep," she said. "I'm not quite at my best."

This afternoon the native Isle of Wighter will contest the 60m hurdles and the high jump. Then, next Friday night, she faces a two-event challenge against Kluft in the Birmingham Grand Prix meeting. Both are entered for the long jump and the 60m hurdles at the National Indoor Arena.

Kluft has been in sparkling form in the indoor season. In Gothenburg last week she found the 6.84m measure in the long jump, a world-leading mark in 2005, and clocked 8.23sec for the 60m hurdles, just 0.04sec outside her personal best. Like Sotherton in Sheffield, this weekend she is contesting four events at her national championships in Malmo. She is also competing in the GE Galan meeting in Stockholm on Tuesday, in a special three-event challenge (long jump, 60m hurdles and 400m) against Austra Skutye, the Lithuanian who pipped Sotherton to silver in Athens.

Asked about the prospect of facing her fellow Olympic medallists next week, Kluft replied: "I respect everyone, but I compete against myself." When it comes to multi-event competition, only Kluft, it seems, is capable of beating her multi-talented self.

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