Johnson waiting to take the great leap forwards

British long jumper's determination has been rewarded with selection for European Cup
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Strictly speaking, one of the most remarkable performances by a British long jumper this season never happened. When the leggy and exuberant figure of Jade Johnson touched down in the sand at the Arles meeting earlier this month, she appeared to have landed in seven metres territory for the first time in her fitful, but highly promising career.

The hitch was that her foot had been marginally over the line ­ frustratingly, the 21-year-old's supreme effort was a no jump. However, as it was the last effort of a competition which she had already legitimately won with 6.58m, her legal personal best, there was no urgency about smoothing the mark from the pit.

"Everyone was crowding round, saying 'Oh my God! Measure it! Measure it!' " Johnson recalled. "So they did, and it was 7.10 metres..." Johnson is not quite into the big league yet, but she is heading fast in the right direction ­ and her selection for this weekend's European Cup in Bremen offers her the opportunity of taking another large stride forwards.

This fast-talking Londoner has the talent and personality to become one of UK Athletics' future stars ­ but it is a tribute to her determination that she has not joined the great ranks of the might-have-beens after chronic injuries threatened to halt her career in mid-flight.

Johnson sprang to notice at the age of 14, when she produced a phenomenal leap of 6.24 metres, which ranked her fourth in the UK senior rankings that year. Athletics observers did simple extrapolations and pencilled her in for greatness.

In the course of the next year, however, she hit a growing problem ­ an additional five inches in height. After giving this startling imitation of Topsy, Johnson stopped at her current height of 6ft 1in. But she did not have strength to go with her stature, and for the next couple of years her lower back problems became so severe that she was virtually bedridden.

"By 1997 it would take me all morning after I had got out of bed to straighten my back," she said.

Johnson, however, had plans for herself that she was not prepared to alter. Since winning all the races at her school sports day at the age of eight, a performance that saw her earn the nickname "Little Flo-Jo" in honour of the multiple Olympic champion of that year, Johnson was convinced that athletics was to be her life.

"Afterwards I said to my Mum that I wanted to go to the Olympics and win the gold medal. The event's changed, but I still want to do that..." By 1998, without medical back-up because she had been out of the sport for so long, she turned her situation round by approaching the former British international triple jumper John Herbert to coach her.

"As John says now, I went to him with broken wings," she recalled. "I was in bits and pieces. But he's done a fantastic job to get me back jumping." A course of exercises to strengthen her mid-section, aided by regular sessions with osteopath Torbin Hersborg, put Johnson back in competitive shape.

In 1999, after a three-year gap, she finished the season with a best of 6.52m. Early last season she improved still further to 6.58m, but, frustratingly, remained 7cm short of the Olympic qualifying distance.

"She crashed and burned from not getting to the Games last year," Herbert said. "It brought her down to earth a little bit. She had to re-evaluate things and set herself some new goals." The primary aim is to earn a medal at this year's European Under-23 championships, although the World Championships in Edmonton hang in the background.

For now, however, she is preparing herself for what is potentially the most competitive single event taking place in Bremen this weekend. Italy have selected the Olympic silver medallist Fiona May; Spain have the current world champion, Niurka Montalvo, while the home team boast the Olympic champion herself, Heike Drechsler. Herbert, however, is sanguine about the prospect. "For me, Jade has got nothing to lose," he said.

The defiant tone is characteristic of a man who has produced at the highest level ­ Herbert was a 7.97m long jumper and a 17.41 triple jumper, and won the European Cup when it was held in Russia in 1985.

"'At the time the Russians were regarded as the kings of the triple jump, so to stuff them on home ground was one of my greatest inspirations," he recalled.

"I am passing some of that killer instinct on to Jade. I say to her: 'You have got nothing to fear. You are the new kid on the block. A lot of people out there can see that ­ and if they haven't seen it, they will. As long as you keep working, the future is yours...' " British athletics awaits the emergence of another high flier.