Kelly Sotherton is nestling on a chair in a room overlooking the empty lanes of the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, and the chock-a-blocked carriageways of the M6 beyond. The Commonwealth heptathlon champion is not exactly sitting pretty in the world rankings five weeks ahead of the Beijing Olympics. That is because she has yet to contest a heptathlon this year, and won't in fact be doing so until the Olympic crown is on the line in the Bird's Nest Stadium. The clamour to pin the nation's hopes upon her shoulders has been deafeningly muted.
It was the same last summer before the World Championships in Osaka. Sotherton was in the world rankings back then, but languishing down in 12th place. No one, it seemed, was considering her pedigree as a proven major championship performer.
Sure, she had missed the podium at the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005 and again at the European Championships in Gothenburg in 2006. Sure, her faltering form in the javelin – the penultimate of the seven events contested over the two days of a heptathlon – was becoming something of an Achilles heel.
But the woman from the Isle of Wight, an adopted Brummie since 1998, was still an Olympic medal winner, having taken bronze behind peerless Swede Carolina Kluft and the Lithuanian Austra Skujyte in Athens in 2004. She was also the reigning Commonwealth champion. And her record in six previous championships at international level, outdoors and indoors, read: four medals, two blanks.
Against popular expectation, Sotherton proceeded to add a World Championships bronze to her tally, finishing behind Kluft and Lyudmila Blonska of the Ukraine, and narrowly edging Jessica Ennis, the emerging bright young thing of British athletics, out of the medal frame. In doing so, she amply rewarded the perceptive few who had invested the faith of hard currency in her.
"I think I was 80-1 to win a medal on the Wednesday before the Championships started," she reflects, with a smile of satisfaction. "I know some people – some coaches – did very well on me." That is because the coaches know the track and field game. It is also why a fair few of them will no doubt be investing some more tangible faith in the 31-year-old making the podium again in Beijing, possibly with an each-way wager this time.
In the meantime, Sotherton is still waiting for a public outbreak of great expectation. Even though Kluft – seeking "a fresh challenge" as a long jumper and triple jumper after six years as an unbeatable multi-eventer – will be a glaring absentee from the heptathlon in Beijing (together with the injured Ennis, former world champion Eunice Barber of France and world indoor pentathlon champion Tia Hellebaut of Belgium), the pride of Birchfield Harriers has yet to be hailed as a major prospect for gold.
"Yeah, I'm kind of an oversight again," Sotherton muses. "But, you know what, that's cool. I went to Osaka as an underdog and won the bronze medal. People just underestimate me. They should look at my record. I've performed well when it matters. I've won three medals out of three in the last two years [European indoor pentathlon silver behind Kluft in Birmingham last year, World Championships bronze in Osaka, plus World Indoor pentathlon silver behind Hellebaut in Valencia in March this year]. I've won six medals from eight international championships. Not many people have done that. Ever.
"But I'd rather be an underdog going into Beijing," she adds. "And I will be. People are just going to see what I've done in individual events and put two and two together and come up with five: 'Ah, she's not going to come back with a medal, etc.' But I know what I can do. And my coaches do. And if you're a true athletics fan, you'll know."
Down the A34 at the National Indoor Arena in February, Sotherton gave the wider world a glimpse of what she can do, leaving Kluft trailing in her wake over 400m and in the 60m hurdles in the Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix. Since then, she has suffered temporary kidney failure while training at Formia in Italy. "It was scary at the time, but I've recovered well," she says.
The two and a half weeks of training she missed is the reason she decided to skip the Gotzis Heptathlon in Austria last month and concentrate on contesting individual events in the lead-up to Beijing. That she happens to be in finest fettle was evident when she clocked a highly impressive 51.01sec split on the final leg of the 4 x 400m relay at the European Cup in Annecy a fortnight ago. Her self-belief has not been diminished by the fact that three of her rivals have already registered better heptathlon scores this summer than her own lifetime best, 6,547 points.
Tatyana Chernova, a 20-year-old Russian prodigy, won in Gotzis with 6,618 points, while Blonska was runner-up with 6,570. Olga Chelyabinsk, another Russian, has scored 6,559.
"All of these girls have done fantastic scores because they've had to try to qualify for their Olympic teams and I'm in the lucky position where I don't have to," Sotherton says. "I'm not as worried as I'd be if they were scoring 6,700. They're all scoring 6,400, 6,500, apart from Chernova on 6,600. I'm not worried about it, because I know I can score that. Without improving on anything else from Osaka except the javelin, I know I can do that. And I know I'm going better in the other events too. I know inside that I can do it. I am actually very confident.
"And I don't want to disappoint my old coach, Charles. He knows I can do better and I want to prove I can do it at that level. He's going to be there in Beijing. There's a lot of people coming to watch me so there's going to be a lot of pressure. But I'm excited about it because I know I can do it. And I'd still have that attitude if Carolina was there, if Jess was there, if Eunice Barber was there."
It is hardly surprising that Charles van Commenee remains a motivating force for Sotherton. The Dutchman guided Denise Lewis to heptathlon gold in 2000 and he transformed Sotherton from an overweight night-clubber who worked as a debt collector for the HSBC Bank, with full-time training guiding her from 57th in the world rankings in 2003 to third spot on the Olympic podium in 2004.
Since his departure back to Holland, she has worked with a team of specialist event coaches, latterly under the coordination of her jumps expert, Aston Moore. In an attempt to ease her Achilles heel, she has been working with Mike McNeill, the javelin guru responsible for unearthing and nurturing Goldie Sayers, the British record-holder in the event and a genuine Beijing medal prospect. It says much for Sotherton's confidence that she has chosen to pit herself against Sayers in the javelin in the Aviva National Championships and Team GB Trials at the Alexander Stadium next weekend.
"I've got to be able to throw in a stadium full of people, and put myself under pressure," she maintains. "I've got to be able to throw something decent here. If I only throw 36m I'll be happy, because it'll be 5m farther than I've been throwing in the major championships and it'll give me 100 points more. That would put me No 1 in the world, and that's what I'm aiming to be."
In pursuit of that goal, Sotherton has added a physiologist to her support team, Steve Ingham, who formerly worked with the Olympic gold medal-winning rowers Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. She has also added specialist vision training to her preparation routine (of the kind that Clive Woodward adopted with England's Rugby World Cup winners in 2003), using the Johnson & Johnson Achieve Vision Programme. "I've noticed the difference in a lot of areas, especially the hurdles. I can sight the hurdles quicker and react quicker. That might make 0.1 of a difference, but that's the difference between winning a gold and a silver medal."
The focus for Sotherton in Beijing is trained sharply on Olympic gold. There is, though, a nightmare scenario of taking silver behind Blonska, a reinstated doping offender. "Hopefully that won't happen," Sotherton says. "I've trained so hard this year to make sure that doesn't happen. If she does beat me...I'll be upset. The thing that was most disappointing about her winning silver in Osaka was that if she had got the ban that she should have been given, Jessica would have been on the podium with me.
"But I'm not thinking about what Blonska's doing. I can't do that, because it takes away from what I have to focus on." That, specifically, is a chunk of precious metal with the glint of gold.
Life and times
Born: 13 November 1976, Newport, Isle of Wight.
Vital stats: 5ft 11in, 10st 4lb.
Home life: Moved to Midlands from the Isle of Wight, trains at Birchfield Harriers' stadium.
Major achievements: Olympic bronze medal, Athens 2004; Commonwealth gold, Melbourne 2006; World Championships bronze, Osaka 2007.
This season: Finished second in three-event triathlon at Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham – Carolina Kluft won the event by 18pts. Set personal best of 2min 09.95sec in 800m at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia in March but had to settle for silver.
Extras: As teenager she played netball for Hampshire, but also won two English Schools' Championships in heptathlon.
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