Simon Turnbull: Rugby star Watt is now making great strides in long jump

Olympic Diary
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The Independent Online

Two weeks out from the World Athletics Championships in South Korea, and less than a year away from the London Olympics, Mitch Watt is standing in the No 1 spot in the world long jump rankings. At the Aviva London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace last Friday night, the 23-year-old Australian trumped Britain's Chris Tomlinson with a leap of 8.45 metres. Only one athlete has jumped farther in 2011: Watt himself, with an Oceania record of 8.54m at the DN Galan meeting in Stockholm last month.

It might have been different for the golden boy from the Gold Coast. He might have been wearing the No 13 or 15 shirt for Australia in tomorrow's Tri-Nations fixture against South Africa in Durban, preparing for the Rugby World Cup, which starts in New Zealand on 9 September, rather than the World Athletics Championships and Olympic Games.

Back in 2005, Watt was a member of the star-studded Queensland Schools' rugby union XV. He played at outside centre or full-back in a team that also included scrum-half Will Genia, outside-half Quade Cooper and open-side flanker David Pocock, who all started for the Wallabies in their 30-14 defeat against the New Zealand All Blacks last Saturday.

"I did athletics when I was younger," Watt said. "I won a couple of national titles – under-14s and under-15s – but then stopped and started playing rugby. My mates were all playing rugby and I wanted to try something different.

"I ended up making the Queensland Schoolboys' team with Quade Cooper, Will Genia and David Pocock, guys who have gone on to be stars of the Wallaby team. I was an outside back. I played outside centre and full-back. I wouldn't want to compare myself to anyone. I just used my speed."

Would the speedy Brisbane boy not rather be preparing with his old mates for the Rugby World Cup than for the World Athletics Championships? "It's a tough question," Watt said. "I love rugby and I watch every Wallaby game very closely. But I never really felt the desire to go on and dedicate all my time to rugby.

"When Will and Quade started turning professional, I was thinking, 'Oh, maybe I should have stuck with it'. But a few years on now I'm doing well in track and field, and the Olympics are coming up next year. I'm very happy doing what I'm doing. I love what I do."

And with good reason. It was only in 2009 that Watt made his international debut as a long jumper. He won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Berlin. Two years on, he is top of the world rankings, ahead of Ngonidzashe Makusha of Zimbabwe and Irving Saladino, the Olympic champion from Panama, who have both jumped 8.40m.

"It's a good time to be jumping personal bests and Australian records, with the Worlds not too far away now," Watt said. "I've got the top four jumps in the world this year [8.54m, 8.45m and 8.44m twice], which is cool. I'm trying to peak in Daegu obviously, but it's definitely a good sign."

It's a good sign not just for Daegu but for London and the 2012 Olympics. Since the Crystal Palace meeting, Watt and several of his fellow Australian athletes have been in Kent, staying at the Tonbridge base that Athletics Australia has hired as its holding camp for next summer's Games.

"We're spending a week here, seeing what it's like," Watt said. "They've relaid the track so that it's the same as in the Olympic Stadium. It's all pretty good. The plan is to stay in Tonbridge next year."

The Aussie HQ is actually Tonbridge School, Alma Mater of the late Colin Cowdrey, who played on a record six Ashes tours for England. E M Forster was also an Old Tonbridgean, so presumably Watt has a room with a view.