Christmas comes early for born-again Lewis-Francis

Unlikely 100m silver rewards fresh attitude after years of underachievement
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The Independent Online

It was the morning after the night before and Mark Lewis-Francis could not have radiated a more sparkling glow had he won the gold medal in the European Championships 100 metres final rather than the silver. "I'm over the moon," he said (not an entirely unnatural feeling for someone who happens to be a resident of Slough, the home of the Mars Bar). "I don't think I slept. I kept dozing off, then waking up thinking, 'Is it real? Is it real?'... It felt like Christmas Eve."

At 10am at the team hotel yesterday, though, the British sprinter who had done a carpe diem job in the big race the previous evening had yet to unwrap his shiny present. The medal presentation ceremony was to come later yesterday, back at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium.

"It's one of those presents you know your grandma's going to bring you in the afternoon, and you know it's going to be the best one," Lewis-Francis continued, all wide-eyed like one of Jimmy Stewart's kids in It's a Wonderful Life, aged 27 going on five again. "Like a shiny new bike?" it was suggested. "Yeah, definitely that," Lewis-Francis concurred. "Hey, to come here as underdog and to leave with a medal... that's storybook stuff."

It is that. It would be stretching it more than a little to suggest that Lewis-Francis had ever sunk so low that he had considered jumping off a bridge and bringing an end to it all, as Stewart's character did in the classic Frank Capra film before the divine intervention of his guardian angel. The one-time boy wonder from the Black Country, the world junior 100m champion of 2000, fell upon some desperately hard times, though, after the memorable night in Athens six years ago when he held off Maurice Greene and anchored the Great Britain 4x100m relay team to Olympic gold.

He tested positive for cannabis, receiving a three-month suspension and a public warning. He had surgery to the Achilles tendon on his right foot, then surgery to the Achilles tendon on his left foot. He lost his Lottery funding and had to start eating into his savings to continue as a full-time athlete. The coach who had unearthed him as a raw kid and nurtured him on to the world stage, Steve Platts, died of cancer. And he also endured the trials and tribulations of upping sticks from the West Midlands and moving himself and his young family to the south, changing coaches and training groups not once but twice.

"I was in a really bad place, physically and mentally," Lewis-Francis said. "I had no emotion. I didn't know if I could carry on doing it. I started to have doubts that I never thought I would have. It was Linford Christie who motivated me. He gave me the belief again.

"I kept thinking, 'Am I too old to come back?' And he told me he was 32 when he won [the 1992 Olympics] in Barcelona. He said, 'Look, I did it; so you can you.' That definitely spurred me on. Plus he's had legends in the past, you know: Darren Campbell, Katharine Merry, Merlene Ottey, Frankie Fredericks, a whole bunch of people. Sometimes I think he doesn't get the credit for that."

Christie has been described as a lot of things in his time but perhaps never before as a guardian angel. For the past 18 months the fastest British runner of all time has been steadily knocking Lewis-Francis back into shape. The fruits of Christie's coaching labours emerged from the four-man blur behind the victorious Christophe Lemaitre in the European 100m final in the Montjuic arena on Wednesday night.

After intense scrutiny of the photo-finish picture, it was announced that Lewis-Francis's charge had won the silver medal by 0.001sec, with Dwain Chambers (struck by calf cramp in the semi-finals that he asked to be kept a secret, not wishing to make any public excuse for his defeat) out of the medals in fifth place, just 0.006sec behind. Having finished fifth in the trials meeting in Birmingham last month and been picked originally only for relay duty, and having scraped through from the semi-finals as a fastest loser, Lewis-Francis was back in high-speed business as a major championship medal winner again.

"I knew when I crossed the finish line that I was in a good position," he reflected. "I would have said third but when they said second and I saw the photo-finish picture I was like, 'I'll take it'. One-thousandth of a second!... You could see on the picture: I've got that 32 double D chest.

"Yeah, great moment, great moment. It means so much to me after everything I've been through. It's the same feeling as winning the relay gold in Athens. Maybe even better."