Kelly Sotherton: Late starter shifts her sights from chip shops to championships

After securing Olympic bronze in Athens, Britain's top heptathlete lost her inspirational coach but retains her appetite for success at the highest level
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The Independent Online

"Hopefully, never again," she says, with feeling, of her debt-collecting years, and I don't suppose she needs to hope too hard. After all, she has landed some handsome endorsements on the back of her bronze in Athens. But her other ambition, to bring home the gold medal from Beijing in 2008, could be trickier to pull off.

For now, though, her sights are trained on next month's World Championships in Helsinki. The only problem is, so are Carolina Kluft's. I ask her whether being a heptathlete in the age of Kluft, the Swedish phenomenon who seems nigh on unbeatable, is like being a golfer in the age of Tiger Woods? "I see it more as the Michael Johnson effect," she says, "where the silver medal is everyone else's gold medal. But she's not that far ahead of the rest of us. She's only 200 or 300 points away, whereas a couple of years ago it was 600 or 700. The gap is closing.

"But saying that, Kluft is still probably the greatest heptathlete the world has ever seen. She has this amazing aura. And she always finds the big performance when she needs it. Her long jump might not be so great, then suddenly she pulls it out for the last jump. But it's also the way she enjoys it, relishes it. She embraces everyone, claps everyone. She's a great role model for all athletes, not just heptathletes. And I've certainly learned to enjoy my event a little bit more from watching her."

Sotherton is six years older than Kluft, which does not augur too well for her hopes and dreams. Yet she is determined to pursue them not only to Beijing but also to London in 2012, when she will be 35. "I don't think I'll be doing the heptathlon by then. Maybe just the long-jump."

Sotherton was a late starter, indeed last year's Olympics was the first global competition in which she had competed. But she reckons that an athlete's career should last a minimum of 10 years whether you start at 18 or 25, and it is interesting to hear her talking bullishly about competing in 2012 because she was one of the few leading British athletes to pour cold water on the London bid, suggesting that the capital could be saddled with a load of "white elephants" along the lines of the Millennium Dome.

"I don't imagine Mr Coe was very happy with me, although I'm convinced now that the Games will be great for London because they've addressed that legacy issue. But I do think that it might be harder to perform in our own country. When you go overseas you can really focus, but if you're in this country, where your everyday life is, then it could be different. I've said that before and one journalist wrote that I was just getting my excuses in early. But I'm sure they [the British Olympic mandarins] are planning for that, and that we'll go away to get that focus, then come back into London."

It is refreshing to talk to an athlete with strong opinions, although I fancy that Sotherton's opinions might be even stronger than she is letting on. While she can only imagine what "Mr" Coe's response to her reported comments about the London bid might have been, she knows that the 2012 campaign's vice-chairman, Alan Pascoe, was none too happy, because he phoned her up to tell her so. She has since become a little more circumspect, a little more media-savvy.

We meet in the lobby of the Croydon Hilton, where most of the athletes are staying prior to the Norwich Union Grand Prix meeting (last Friday) at Crystal Palace. Even among her fellow competitors she stands out. She is tall, pretty and graceful, and frankly the lobby of the Croydon Hilton needs as much prettiness and grace as it can get. There is, however, a good deal more to Sotherton than meets the eye. While she poses for The Independent's photographer, she lets rip an enormous burp, then leans towards my tape-recorder and says cheerfully, "I burp and fart a lot." Perhaps it's her diet, I venture. She has lost six kilos since last year and is missing her beloved fish and chips.

"I'm a proper chip shop girl," she says. "I love chip shops. Although I've also got a very sweet tooth at the moment. I keep eating ice cream."

Sotherton comes from the Isle of Wight, where, she says, there is hardly anyone who doesn't at least know someone who knows her. "I'm a proper Isle of Wighter," she adds. "Ellen MacArthur and Shirley Robertson live there, but they're just adopted."

At Ryde High School back in the early 1990s she was bullied by girls who resented her success on sports day, among other things. There were afternoons when they'd wait for her to come out of school, but she spotted them and started running. And - what do you know? - they never, ever caught her. "I like to think of those girls thinking, 'we used to pick on her and look at where she's got to'," she says.

Not that she was getting anywhere until the Dutchman Van Commenee became her coach. "He taught me to focus, he taught me that even if there's a Mexican Wave going around the stadium, you've got to act like you're the only person there. Tunnel vision, I suppose. I saw a psychologist all last year to help with it. You have to learn to do it away from the track and then bring it to the track. It's hard to explain."

Van Commenee was already coaching Denise Lewis, whom he had guided to gold at the Sydney Olympics, and saw similar potential in Sotherton. But joining Van Commenee and Lewis was like moving in with Jack and Vera Duckworth, an old married couple always at each other's throats.

"The first week I joined them they had a massive, amazing argument. I thought, 'Oh my God, what have I got myself into?' It was at the track, and it was quite exciting. We were all looking out of the window at them. But they're both very passionate people, and being with them made me passionate." She laughs. "It was like a love triangle. In fact there are a couple of people who think it really was a love triangle."

Van Commenee belonged to the uncompromising, autocratic school of coaching, and would sometimes storm out in disgust during Sotherton's sessions with the javelin - still by far her weakest event.

"But most heptathletes have maybe two weak events and I only have one," she says, defensively. "A few years ago I was only good at two or three, now I'm good at six. It's not that I can't do the javelin, it's that I find it hard to get a feeling for it. Steve Backley has been helping me, and you can't get much better than that. At the Olympics I won Britain's first athletics medal, and Steve came up to me and said, 'You've inspired me'. I thought, 'God, this is Steve Backley, I've been watching him since I was 12 years old.

"Anyway, I'm technically much better now, throwing it much better than I was last year, but I still need to find my rhythm. It will probably be another two years before I can start lashing it, and I will never be a 60m thrower, but I can throw 45m to 50m. The problem is that I find it hard to get aggressive with the jav, even though I can do it with the shot."

In general, though, Van Commenee did make her more aggressive. "He was sarcastic and rude and said that I needed to lose weight, that my bottom wobbled too much. I think he'd be happy if he could see me now, because my bottom's got smaller. But Charles would get very upset if I didn't do as he said. And that upset me. I was scared of going to training and failing. But Denise kept telling me that I should keep my eyes on the prize, that he would get it for me."

In the event, he didn't. While Sotherton's achievement in bagging bronze in Athens was being celebrated at home and by the rest of the squad, Van Commenee was angrily contemplating what might have been.

"One of the other coaches, I think it was Greg Richards, actually had to calm him down. He was absolutely mad with me. He thought that I hadn't tried hard enough in the 800m, that I'd already settled for bronze. And what he said was right, he just said it at the wrong time, just after I'd received the medal and just as we were going into the press conference. It was very hurtful, but actually it was true. I could have done better."

Van Commenee is no longer Sotherton's coach. He is back in the Netherlands as the Dutch Olympic Committee's technical director, having failed to get the job he coveted, as the Performance Director of UK Athletics.

"Personally I think he took the Dutch job four years too early," she says. "It would have been nice if he'd got me to Beijing, and hopefully he regrets it. But I've lost my coach and it's a shame. I think he let me down a little bit, and I think [UK Athletics] let me down a little bit too."

Sotherton, to put it mildly, is not hugely enamoured of the way athletics has been run in Britain. "But I think there are going to be some good changes. I think there will be a difference in how funding is dealt with. I use my Lottery [funding] properly, for what it is meant to be used for. But not everyone does. They've got to do something about that. In fact, the whole system needs to be revised. There are so many potential athletes out there who could be great, and they're not even getting a chance."

Meanwhile, the great ones are falling by the wayside; Dame Kelly Holmes is about to retire, and Lewis already has. It is a shame that Lewis, still only 32, could not have kept going, giving us two world-class heptathletes. But perhaps she would not have enjoyed the competition. Sotherton says that there was a moment in Athens, after the high jump, when she saw the realisation on Lewis's face that her training partner had become her match. Shortly afterwards, well down the field and carrying an injury, the former champ withdrew tearfully.

"We didn't talk much last August," Sotherton recalls. "It wasn't a good month for her. But I've never had any problem with Denise. Yes, she's got some of that arrogance and selfishness that you need to get to become the best in the world, but underneath it she's very caring and loving. And she says now that she can't wait to watch me in Helsinki, that she will still have those heptathlon butterflies waiting for me to compete. Imagine an Olympic champion saying that about me!"

Sotherton's eyes widen, but I wonder if she doesn't take it as her due? If, perhaps, she isn't acquiring some of that arrogance herself? In Helsinki, maybe we'll find out.