Robbie Grabarz has spent the last couple of months treading what has become a well-worn path in British sport; the one that leads to Steve Peters’ door. Friday night in Doha Grabarz begins his outdoor season, targeted to peak with a medal in August’s world championships, at the opening Diamond League meet and will do so with the joy back in his jump thanks to the astute assistance of Peters’ sports psychology.
Grabarz’s career, suitably enough for a high jumper, has gone through a succession of dramatic highs and lows over the last two years. The low point came in January 2012 when, stripped of his lottery funding, he entered Olympic year “skint.” He ended Olympic year as a bronze medallist and followed that by winning the $40,000 prize for the leading high jumper in the Diamond League. He was no longer skint.
That high brought expectation and a pressure that Grabarz struggled to manage. At the European indoor championships in Gothenburg earlier this year he failed to live up to his billing and came sixth. Peters, meanwhile, fresh from another Olympic triumph with British Cycling was ready to branch out (with Dave Brailsford’s backing – an acute awareness of the need to present new challenges to staff and athletes is one of Brailsford’s own notable psychological skills). British Athletics and Liverpool were first in the queue and Grabarz – who may be followed up the path by Luis Suarez – came looking for a way to “put the smile back on his face.”
“Steve asked me: ‘Why do you do it?’ He made me confront that question,” said Grabarz. “It was a matter of relearning how to enjoy it. I explained that to Steve. Everyone expects me to come out and jump the British record every meet. It doesn’t happen. It’s accepting that I’m not perfect – no-one’s perfect.”
The notion of concentrating on yourself, what you can control and disregarding external factors, whether it be opponents, supporters or conditions, is characteristic of the approach adopted by many of Peters’ subjects, who include Victoria Pendleton and now Becky James, Britain’s latest cycling world champion.
“I want to jump higher than anyone ever has,” said Grabarz. “That’s why I do it. But if someone else jumps higher there’s nothing I can do about it. I just want to concentrate on bringing my best to the table.”
Peters divides his time between athletics, cycling and Liverpool and Grabarz, who was pointed in Peters’ direction by Peter Eriksson, British Athletics’ new head coach, will not shy from consulting him again.
“We’ll stay in touch,” said Grabarz. “It’s nice to have that access. I like to be accountable for everything I say and do. I don’t want to say ‘Here’s my brain, I’m handing it over to you’. I want to work it out for myself but if it can be done quicker talking to someone else, why not? [Since March has] probably been the best training I’ve ever done. I’m doing it with a smile on my face again.”
Grabarz not only has the smile back he also believes he has the spring back in his step. Last month, he judged, was “probably the best training I’ve ever done.” The training he did over the winter in preparation for the indoor season was, on the other hand, “unenjoyable.” Since his failure in Gothenburg he has made technical adjustments, tweaking his run up, as he seeks to improve on last year’s two Diamond League victories, in Birmingham and Rome, as well as equalling the British record of 2.37m in August in Lausanne as he floated on his Olympic high to the end of comfortably his best season.
It was far removed from the previous one in which he failed to qualify for the world championships and saw his central funding removed. He began last year by clearing the Olympic qualifying mark as early as January and will look for a similar encouraging start to the outdoor campaign, which includes the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games in London and the worlds as key stopping off points.
“My mind is good for competing,” said Grabarz. “Last year was loads of pressure and I did well there. I know where I’m at. At the end of the day I just do it for myself and no-one else. If I’m not going to enjoy it any more I’ll pack it in.”
Shara Proctor, a disappointing ninth in the Olympic long jump, Christine Ohuruogu and Andrew Osagie will also be in action on Friday, the first of 14 Diamond League meetings. Osagie has the most daunting challenge, running the 800m against the dazzling David Rudisha, the Kenyan who broke the world record in London. Ohuruogu has started the season in encouraging form running 50.58sec at a meeting in Jamaica last weekend. Among her opponents is Allyson Felix, 200m gold medallist in London who steps up a distance.
Brits to watch in Doha...
Christine Ohuruogu (400m) - The Olympic silver medallist produced a superb run in Kingston on Saturday to finish second behind Jamaica's Stephanie McPherson. Ohuruogu's time of 50.58 seconds was her best ever season opener and it's worth noting she has only once run faster than that in the lead-up to a major championships.
Robbie Grabarz (high jump) - Britain's flamboyant high jumper, with a penchant for fixing up old cars, has been somewhat under the radar since a superb season in 2012 when he was consistently the top performer in his event. Bahrain's Mutaz Essa Barshim, who won bronze with Grabarz at London 2012, is the man to beat following a PB of 2.37metres indoors earlier in the year.
Shara Proctor (long jump) - For an athlete who got close to the dream seven-metre target last season, Anguillan-born Proctor has had mixed fortunes. She mustered a disappointing fourth place at the European Indoor Championships in Gothenburg in March but won in Birmingham with a best of 6.78m. She has outdoor competition under her belt pre-Doha following a recent competition in Florida, Gainsville.
Tiffany Porter (100m hurdles) - Perhaps her biggest claim to fame was being caught up in the Plastic Brits row in March last year. A back problem curtailed her progress outdoors and Olympic ambitions. She has a best this year of 12.94 seconds, some way short of her PB of 12.56, and, in Doha, faces five Americans who beat her when she ran that time in Des Moines in the US last month.
Andrew Osagie (800m) - Osagie smashed his personal best in the Olympic final last summer, having previously become the first British man to qualify for the Olympic final over that distance for 20 years. That final time of 1minute 43.77seconds put him fourth on the all-time UK list but still three seconds off world record holder David Rudisha, who will be among his rivals in Doha.
Jack Green (400m hurdles) - Green has a point to prove in 2013 after crashing out at London 2012 and failing to make the final. His run in Doha will be his first in competition outdoor over the hurdles. His stride pattern has been the biggest cause for concern and he faces tough opposition against Bershawn Jackson and LJ Van Zyl.