Denise Lewis was on the outskirts of Birmingham, educating some primary-school pupils in the rudiments of track and field, when news came through that Merlene Ottey was in training to run for Slovenia at the European Championships in Barcelona in July. Ottey, the veteran sprinter, turned 50 last Monday.
"Oh my God!" Lewis could not help exclaiming. "I can't think of anything more scary than trying to be in the European Championships at 50."
It seems odd to think that Lewis has been retired for six years now and yet is only a pup of 37 herself – the same age as Haile Gebrselassie, the star attraction in the Bupa Great Manchester 10km today, and just a year older than Paula Radcliffe, who intends to prepare for another Olympic marathon after the birth of her second child. Then again, Britain's greatest female track and field all-rounder did do herself some serious damage when she dragged her already battered body through the seven events of the heptathlon to win her Olympic gold medal in Sydney 10 years ago.
Now a mum of three, Lewis looked a near-mummified figure back then, all swathed in bandages to protect her badly injured right foot and left Achilles tendon. As her coach, Charles van Commenee, reflected when she was preparing to defend her Olympic crown in Athens in 2004: "Struggling through those two days in Sydney gave Denise the gold medal but it mashed up her foot. She will be paying the price for the rest of her life."
"He wasn't wrong," Lewis acknowledged, six years on from what proved to be her painful last stand in the Greek capital, where she failed to make it past the fifth event, the long jump. "I can't really do any high-impact stuff. The charities I'm involved with would love me to run a mara-thon for them but I just can't do it. I'm not able to run. If I'd had the opportunity at the time I retired, I would have liked to continue in a different sport, but that's way down the line now. I can sit back and fondly watch the younger people getting on with it."
Having joined the BBC television track and field commentary team last year, Lewis is particularly well placed to follow the 24-year-old Jessica Ennis getting on with the business of being the latter-day golden girl of British athletics. Like Lewis before her, Ennis has shown the mettle required to conquer physical hardship en route to the top of the global pile, overcoming the triple stress fracture of the right ankle that ruled her out of the Beijing Olympics to win the heptathlon title at the World Championships in Berlin last summer and the pentathlon crown at the World Indoor Championships in Doha in March. The next big target for the young Sheffield woman, who runs in a 150m street race in Manchester today, is the British heptathlon record that Lewis set at Talence in
France in July 2000: 6,831 points. She is getting ready to have a crack at it at the Hypo Multi-Events Meeting at Gotzis in Austria on 29-30 May.
"I enjoy watching Jess," Lewis said. "I like her attitude. I like the way she competes. She's done remarkably well, and there's more to come. When I went to Gotzis in 1996 I broke the British record for the first time – Judy Simpson's record, which had stood for 10 years. Everything goes in cycles and I'm in a good place, loving the fact that my event is moving on.
"Jess will break the British record. End of. That's it. It's like the sun will come up tomorrow. Gotzis is a perfect opportunity for her to do it. Everything is run so well there, it gives you the best opportunity to get the best out of yourself."
Lewis won once in three attempts at Gotzis. Carolina Kluft won five times in five appearances there but has not been back since 2007, having made the decision to move on to the challenge of the long jump. The Swede is only 27 now but insists there will be no return for her to the heptathlon, in which she proved untouchable after graduating from the junior ranks. Can Lewis understand the enduring self-enforced exile of the woman who succeeded her as Olympic heptathlon champion in 2004?
"Not really," she confessed. "There's only one athlete who has been double Olympic champion in the heptathlon, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. That proves how difficult the heptathlon is. But if there's one athlete I believe could have done it – in her sleep – it would be Carolina."
Denise Lewis was introducing the UK Athletics Summer Sports Tour to pupils at Albert Bradbury Primary School, encouraging them to take part in athletics and watch the Aviva European Trials and UK Championships at Alexander Stadium in Birmingham on 25-27 June. Tickets available from uka.org.uk or 08000 556 056Reuse content