Gunnell passes first test

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The Independent Online


reports from Birmingham

Her time provided the statistical evidence, but her face - freed from the tension that had masked it the previous day - said it most clearly: Sally Gunnell was back.

After nearly 18 months out with injury - save for two low key races in Germany last summer - Britain's Olympic champion successfully completed a series of three races at the AAA Indoor Championships here yesterday. Atlanta may be a long way away yet, but Gunnell has taken a giant step towards retaining her 400 metres hurdles title.

Having negotiated heats and semi-finals of the 400m flat on Saturday, she finished second in 53.07sec behind the European Cup champion, Melanie Neef, whose time of 52.50 put her third in the all-time UK list behind Gunnell and the British team manager, Verona Elder.

"I just couldn't have asked for more," Gunnell said. "I was worried about doing three rounds - I thought: 'Am I pushing myself too much?' Considering I had only put my spikes on three weeks ago I was a bit scared. But I am really happy with that. Now it's just a question of getting more races."

Gunnell, bronzed after her recent training break in South Africa, said she had hoped to run in the region of 53.36, the time with which she began her world-record breaking season three years ago. Her performance, despite a tentative start, was therefore an unexpected bonus.

Neef will not race over 400m again until the European Indoor Championships, where she is a strong medal contender.

Between races on Saturday, Gunnell, now 29, had complained of stiffness in the foot which was operated on last August to remove a spur or bone which was pressing into her Achilles tendon. Yesterday, however, she felt no discomfort as she ran. She had dared to hope for a trouble-free run after waking up in the early hours of yesterday morning and discovering that her foot felt fine.

There was no such consolation for Linford Christie, who hopped out of the 60m final on Saturday after aggravating an adductor muscle injury he had incurred after the semi-final. Christie, who is due to run in the Ricoh International in Birmingham on Saturday, will fly out to Munich this week to consult the medical specialist Dr Muller Wolfhardt.

Christie may well now be regretting his decision to enter the AAA championships at short notice after failing to get into yesterday's meeting at Stuttgart. His team-mate, John Regis, was more successful in his application and won the 200m there in the promising time of 20.77.

There were several other performances here yesterday to enliven a knowledgeable if painfully sparse crowd - scarcely more than 1,000 tickets were sold over the weekend. Mark Hylton retained his 400m title in a personal best of 46.45 - which sets him up for next Saturday's meeting against a field including the world indoor champion, Darnell Hall, and his domestic rival Du'Aine Ladejo. That field may also include Iwan Thomas, who ran 45.22 yesterday beating Ladejo in Johannesburg.

Nick Buckfield twice broke his British indoor pole vault record on Saturday, raising it to 5.65m. Catherine Murphy added the AAA indoor 200m title to the outdoor version she won last summer in a time of 23.69.

And Judy Oakes won a record 36th national title in the shot with a distance of 18.57m, two centimetres further than her own championship record.

n Ethiopia's Haile Gebreselassie set his second world indoor record in eight days in Stuttgart yesterday, clocking 7min 30.72sec over 3,000m. Last weekend he broke the 5,000m record in Sindelfingen, Germany.