Athletics: Denise is a real fighter, but she is up against it

Colin Jackson on athletics
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The Independent Online

I did feel for Denise Lewis as she began to defend her heptathlon gold medal in the early hours of yesterday's first morning of athletics action. She ran an excellent time in the 100 metres hurdles, 13.40sec, but then she was weak in the high jump with 1.73m. That had her trailing Sweden's Carolina Kluft, the clear favourite, and Britain's Kelly Sotherton, who looked in great shape.

Denise simply isn't. She won her gold in Sydney despite calf, shoulder and Achilles injuries, and she has had no luck again this time. I must say I've been surprised how little she changed after becoming a mother in 2002; I thought it would make her softer, but she's still as hard as nails! Denise is a tremendous fighter and competitor and she fixed in her mind to come to Athens to win, but the ankle injury she suffered in the run-up to these Olympics was a serious blow.

Few athletes know better than I do about how injuries can scupper your chances. In team sports you might be able to recover and come back and play your part. In our sport you are alone, and athletics is all about having your body in absolutely peak condition for the final of the season's major championship.

Athletes start training in October or November, with the date of the Olympic, World Championship or other major finals of the following summer fixed in their schedules. All their work is focussed on that day. The training is scientific, based on phases of preparation. The technical term for this is the "periodisation" of the year, each phase lasting around six weeks. We start with weights and longer runs to build basic fitness and strength, then move gradually to work on technique. As we get closer, we do intense repetition work, to hone our speed. If all goes well in an injury-free year, the early training provides a foundation of strength for the explosive speed required to win races.

Injury interrupts all that. When Denise damaged her ankle she was back doing rehabilitation work when she should have been sharpening her speeds. Rehab is dead time; all you are doing is working to get your body back to zero. Meanwhile, your rivals are gaining competition fitness, and it makes it incredibly difficult to compete.

In my career, although I was twice world champion and am still the indoor and outdoor world record holder, I never won Olympic gold. I won silver in the 110m hurdles at Seoul in 1988 in my first games, then in Barcelona I got injured in the second round. In Atlanta I'd battled with illness all year, and in Sydney I'd had injuries and was just not prepared for the games.

When it comes round, you can try all you like to talk yourself into giving your best, but if you have missed too much preparation your body is simply not in peak shape. So many times I'd arrive at championships and think: 'If only I had four more weeks.' It's like going into an exam when you know you haven't done enough work. Denise is a fighter and she knows she has produced miracles before, but in the back of her mind I know she'll be wishing she'd had more time.