Olympics: Lewis puts final pieces together in medal jigsaw

Britain's only defending Olympic athletics champion is fit to fight for her crown. Simon Turnbull talks to her in Paphos
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The Independent Online

Denise Lewis was not short of something to while away the morning as she settled into Team GB's pre-Olympic training camp here on the west coast of Cyprus yesterday. On the four-and-half-hour flight from Manchester the previous night she had a 1,000-piece jigsaw packed amongst her luggage.

"I usually bring one to keep me occupied," the reigning Olympic heptathlon champion said. "This one's of white tigers in a jungle - one big one in the middle and lots of smaller ones around. It looks really difficult."

It ought to be a doddle, then, for the wonder woman from Wolverhampton. In managing to get herself to Britain's Mediterranean Olympic staging post in just the one piece, Lewis has performed another supreme odds-defying feat.

"It's a miracle," her Dutch coach, Charles van Commenee, ventured to suggest. "Three weeks ago she was on crutches. I wouldn't have given her a chance of being ready."

Two days after Lewis damaged her left foot while long jumping in the Olympic trials meet in Manchester on 11 July, even Max Jones, head coach of the British athletics team, was writing off her chances of making it to Athens at the squad announcement in London.

And yet last Friday night the Birchfield Harrier was back in long-jumping action, registering a season's best of 6.17 metres in the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace. The following afternoon she tackled two events in a UK Women's League fixture in Manchester, finishing third in the 100m hurdles (14.00sec) and second in the shot (14.87m).

"When I was on crutches and could barely walk, I thought I'd had it," Lewis reflected, her feet safely on Cypriot soil. "I thought, 'Girl you're not supposed to do this one.' Well, it looks now like I am meant to do it. Maybe there's a message there."

The message, it would seem, is that Britain's one and only defending track and field Olympic champion (now that Jonathan Edwards has swapped the triple jump runway for the BBC commentary box) still has the eye of the tiger in her. Having pushed her body to the limit to win her title in Stadium Australia four years ago, she is not going to relinquish it without personally being in the heat of Athenian battle.

Not that Lewis has headed into the Mediterranean sunshine with golden expectation burning on her back. Carolina Kluft, the cool young Swede with the Midas touch, would have to go into serious meltdown for Lewis to make history as the first British woman to retain an Olympic athletics crown.

At the World Championships in Paris last year, Kluft took the gold medal with 7,001 points. Lewis finished fifth with 6,254 points. Her lifetime best score is 6,831 points.

At 31, Lewis also happens to be 10 years older than Kluft - and she is carrying the physical legacy of her victory in Sydney four years ago, when she prevailed through seven gruelling events despite suffering from a damaged right foot and left Achilles' heel.

"She really mashed her foot up struggling through those two days," Van Commenee said. "She won the gold medal but she is still paying the price.

"People forget that she got injured nine weeks before Sydney and was unable to train for eight weeks. This time, she's been injured but she's on the way up again. She's been written off, and maybe that's a good thing. It takes the pressure and expectation away, but she is very competitive. We are going to Athens to [win a] medal."

The likely absence of the injured Eunice Barber, the Frenchwoman who took World Championship silver behind Kluft in Paris last year, would undoubtedly help Lewis in her quest for a place on the podium - and that of her training partner, Kelly Sotherton, the latest multi-talented protégé of Van Commenee. "I wouldn't be here unless I thought I would be in with a shout," Lewis maintained.

There was one thing missing as the champion set about her giant jigsaw in the guarded west wing of the beach-side hotel the British team have commandeered. "I'm making plans for her to come out and see me compete in Athens," Lewis said of her daughter, Lauryn.

The bandage-swathed, partially-mummified British heroine of Sydney 2000 became a fully-fledged mummy of a different sort two years ago.