The Dutch master, the mind games and the secret combination to British gold

The Charles van Commenee interview: Coach behind Denise Lewis' Olympic odyssey gives Simon Turnbull an insight into the making of a complete athlete
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The Independent Online

How Charles van Commenee has managed to make it to Birmingham on time is something of a mystery. His office is in Eton and, as Lynn Bowles has been lamenting every half an hour on Radio 5 Live, the M40 has been blocked all afternoon. "Oh, I haven't come from Eton," the Dutchman says as he leads the way to the restaurant at the Great Barr Hotel. "I've been all round London looking for a track for Denise to train on. They've all been booked for school sports days." Welcome to life in the fast lane of British sport. Van Commenee is the man who guided Denise Lewis to Olympic heptathlon gold in Sydney last September. He is also attempting to steer her to the World Championships title in Edmonton in two weeks' time. And yet here he is, having to steer Britain's golden girl from pillar to post in search of somewhere to hone her Midas touch.

"It's not how it should be," the affable 43-year-old Amsterdamer says, tucking into his melon surprise. "I do understand that it's good that people want to use the tracks. It's good for the grass roots. But it's not very good for the high-performance athletes. It's not ideal." It's not how it is in Holland, either. In the three years Lewis spent there training at Van Commenee's side they were never more than 10 minutes away from first-class facilities that were permanently accessible, nor from first-class medical treatment. So why move from Amsterdam – where van Commenee worked as a technical director for the Koninklijke Nederlandse Atletik- Unie, the Dutch athletics federation – to join the staff of UK Athletics? "To work at a higher standard," Van Commenee says in his fluent, high-standard English. "Britain, I consider, is one of the top three countries in the world. In athletics, that is. Holland is a better sports country than Britain. In the Olympic medal table, for instance, we finished eighth. For a small country, we won more medals than Britain did. But athletics is meaningless in Holland. And for me that is the challenge.

"There's an awful lot of talent here. And I want to work with other coaches and the staff at UK Athletics in order to get the best for that talent. That's why I'm here. It has nothing to do with Denise. It's not really in her interests that I'm here. When she was in Holland she could disappear. She could switch off the phone and just train and rest. That's not possible here. There are so many more people she has to please.

"Nobody bothers her in Holland. She's anonymous over there. Like Yvonne van Gennip would be here. Who the hell is Yvonne van Gennip, you might ask? She's a triple Olympic champion in speed skating. She's a celebrity in Holland but nothing over here."

Van Commenee has been over here since March, based at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in Eton, working as the technical director of jumps and combined events for UK Athletics. The main thrust of his brief is to ensure Lewis and the other élite British jumpers, decathletes and heptathletes are properly nurtured. Strictly speaking, he is responsible for the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Dean Macey, Ashia Hansen, Dalton Grant, Susan Jones, Jade Johnson and Janine Whitlock, though in practical terms he coaches only Lewis at first hand.

"The other athletes have their own coaches," Van Commenee says. "I communicate with their coaches. I'm trying to help out, giving guidance and direction. I also have to direct the jumps and the combined events. I have to make sure that from this winter on we have a programme in place." Van Commenee has been so busy putting everything into place in his new job he has not yet had time to look for a house in west London. In the meantime he is staying in Welwyn Garden City as a guest of Jean Pickering – wife of the late, great Ron and winner of the European long- jump title in 1954. He has been a friend of the family since Shaun Pickering – the international hammer-throwing son of Jean and Ron – became a neighbour in Amstelveen, the Amsterdam suburb which also numbers Ruud Gullit among its residents.

Van Commenee was an athlete himself in his youth, though he never got close to international level. Dogged by injury, he gave up at the age of 22 to concentrate on coaching. It soon became clear that the young Dutchman had a flair for nurturing athletic talent as he rose through the coaching ranks from club to international level. In 1987 he was appointed national javelin coach, and from 1992 his remit expanded to include responsibility for all throwing disciplines plus combined events.

It expanded still further in 1993 when he was asked to coach Huang Zhihong. "Ah, Huang Zhihong!" Van Commenee exclaims, rocking back in his chair, the very name animating his every feature. The Chinese shot-putter who wanted to spend time in Europe after retaining her world title in Stuttgart in 1993 left quite an impression. "You have to understand that this girl was taken up in an institute of sport when she was 12 years old – 2,000 miles from her parents – and she stayed there until she was 27," he says. "In the meantime she only slept, ate and threw the shot. That's it.

"She didn't know how to buy bread or cook a meal or buy shoes. I didn't coach her only as a shot putter. I also had to teach her how to cook rice. Yeah, I taught a Chinese how to cook rice! The girl was on a sort of discovery journey. She'd never fallen in love before. She'd never been lonely before. She'd never got stuck anywhere on her own. She stayed for three years, from the age of 27 to 30, but she went through a lot of things other people would go through when they're 13 years old."

Coaching Lewis has been a rather more conventional proposition for van Commenee. He first met her in 1994, at a multi-events competition at Valladolid in Spain. Darrell Bunn, the coach who guided the Birchfield Harrier to international level, could not make the trip, and Van Commenee helped her smooth problems with her long-jump run-up. They remained in touch, and in 1997 Lewis moved to Amsterdam to train with him.

The fruits of their labour were evident during the course of two gruelling days in Stadium Australia last September. Swathed in bandages, protecting a damaged foot and an injured Achilles heel, the partially mummified Lewis emerged as Olympic heptathlon champion. She has yet to conquer the world in the World Championships, though, and there are serious doubts about her ability to do so in Edmonton on 4 and 5 August.

The main question mark hangs over the fitness and form of the 28-year-old Wolverhampton woman. She only returned to competition last month, and her performances in four events at the AAA Championships last weekend were not greatly encouraging. The high jump gave particular cause for concern. Lewis struggled to clear 1.68m, 0.19m short of her best.

"Denise is having problems in her jumps," Van Commenee concedes. "All the pains and injuries she carried with her after Sydney have not gone away. But at this point she is probably in better shape than she was at the same stage before the Olympic Games. Last year, apart from the very last week, she didn't train or compete for nine weeks before the Games. At least now she is on her feet and competing."

Unlike Eunice Barber, it would seem. The adopted Frenchwoman who beat Lewis so impressively to the world title in Seville two years ago has not been seen in competition for three weeks now. The word on the grapevine is that she is suffering from a shoulder injury, but Van Commenee remains wary of the threat she could pose in Edmonton – steeled by the disappointment of her failure in Sydney (she retired injured after the long jump, the fifth of the heptathlon's seven events) and sharpened by a winter's training with Bob Kersee, the coach with whose help Jackie Joyner-Kersee put the world record out of reach.

"I'm sure Barber will be hungrier after what happened in Sydney," van Commenee says, the clean plate before him a gleaming testament to his own healthy appetite. "It's good for the sport to have these two girls in the heptathlon. There is not a great difference between them. Probably one day one wins and the other day the other. I think they're of the same standard, when they're both physically all right. That's a good thing. That's what made the decathlon big – you know, with Jürgen Hingsen and Daley Thompson. Hopefully the same kind of thing can happen over the next few years."

In the meantime, while the rest of Britain's World Championships hopefuls get ready for their date at Crystal Palace tonight for the Norwich Union British Grand Prix, Lewis is already in Edmonton preparing for her next battle with Barber. Van Commenee flies out to join her this morning. "We have a training camp for the next two weeks," he says, explaining the early departure. Plus people won't bother Denise over there. She needs to escape from – how do you say it? – the hassle."

The chances of Lewis overcoming all of her hassles – her lingering injury problems, her lack of fitness and form – are considerably greater with the cerebral, methodical Van Commenee guiding her. You cannot reach any other conclusion during two-and-a-half hours in the company of the engaging Dutchman, particularly when the conversation veers towards the mental side of sport and why Holland always lose penalty shoot-outs in football.

"Arrogance," Van Commenee, a lifelong Ajax fan, says without hesitation. "When the Dutch football team come on to the pitch they think they are superior to the opposition, that they are going to win anyway. I don't think they prepare for taking penalties and when all of a sudden they have to it's too late.

"Denise has 10 scenarios right now on what might happen just in the hurdles: 'What happens if I'm last at the first hurdle? What happens if I'm first at the first hurdle? Or what happens if I've had two fouls in the long jump and Barber has jumped seven metres? What do I think about at that moment? Do I lose it? Do I focus on jumping far with the last attempt? Or do I play it smart and make sure I get a decent jump in?' All of these scenarios are prepared.

"In a football match, when you come to the point where penalties have to be taken the coach asks the players who is feeling well, who is confident enough to kick the penalties. Some do. Some don't. Nobody knows the order. You have to prepare these things. You have to know what to do. Preparation is key in sport. And so is the mental side. It's crucial. For me, that's what makes coaching such a fascination.

"Every athlete, I think, has a secret combination of buttons that makes them tick, and it's my job to find out that combination. I need to know about biomechanics, about physiology, the rules of the sport and the principles of coaching. But it's the mental side that makes the difference. That's certainly the case with Denise. There are many more Denise Lewises around, physically. But mentally... she has overcome so many difficulties over the years."

Whether she can overcome the difficulties of 2001 remains to be seen. Come 5 August, though, the world will know if this is another golden year for the very singular Denise Lewis.

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