Sotherton sees Lewis as a tough act worth following

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The Independent Online

Only two British athletes stand in the top three in the world rankings with the Olympic track-and-field programme just five days away. One is Paula Radcliffe, who carries a national burden of golden expectation with her into the women's marathon a week today. The other is Kelly Sotherton, who competes with Denise Lewis, her training partner, in the heptathlon on Friday and Saturday.

So what about the expectation on her shoulders? They are not golden, silvered or bronzed, according to the man who should know best, her coach, Charles van Commenee. "I've seen people writing about her as if she's a potential medallist," the Dutchman said, with Sotherton and Lewis sitting alongside him, at a British team press conference in Cyprus. "I don't see it that way. She has not shown anything that makes me think that she can medal. I expect her to make the top eight. Denise, I expect to medal."

Having risen from 21st last year to third in the current world rankings - after placing second to world champion Carolina Kluft at the Gotzis multi-events meeting in Austria in May - Sotherton could hardly have endured a more withering public assessment ahead of her Olympic debut. She batted not a single eyelid. She has heard it all before from the granite coach she calls "a dictator".

"No, I wasn't surprised to hear Charles say that," the Birchfield Harrier reflected. "Our aim at the start of the season was to get in the top eight. And, like he says, I've been under-performing right across the range of events.

"There's nothing wrong physically. It's all mentally. I have to be more focused for competition and Charles doesn't think that's going to change next week. I'd like to think I can prove him wrong and I'll be doing my utmost to make that happen. We'll see."

Van Commenee, who guided Lewis to heptathlon gold in Sydney four years ago, denies there is any reverse psychology at play. "You have to know the scoring tables," he said. "Kelly is 200 points behind Denise in the javelin and that is a lot of ground to make up in the other events."

Sotherton, though, has made up a considerable amount of ground since National Lottery funding allowed her to give up her job in the debt collection department of HSBC Bank in Birmingham ("I worked in the office - I wasn't banging on doors and chasing people") to train full-time under Van Commenee, the technical director of combined events and jumps for UK Athletics.

Her score in Gotzis, 6,406 points, was 152 points more than Lewis amassed in fifth place at the World Championships in Paris last year. It included five personal bests in seven events. The 27-year-old native Isle of Wighter - a Hampshire county netball player in her youth - has also taken big-name scalps this summer. In the long jump at the Gateshead Grand Prix meeting in June she defeated two former world champions in their specialist event, Fiona May and Heike Drechsler.

She also beat Lewis that day, though it is the reigning heptathlon champion that she still aspires to emulate. "It's a question of whether I can rise to the challenge and at the moment I'm probably not mentally tough enough to do that, whereas Denise is," Sotherton said. "She's got the mental focus. That's what makes her a great competitor.

"In Sydney, when she was completely injured, she still came out and won. That takes mental toughness, and that's what I don't have. I watch Denise in training and she's injured and hurting and she's still performing. That's hard.

"I am learning. Compared to last year, I'm a lot harder than I was, but I'm not where I should be. I need to be at Denise's level of toughness."

So how does such a patently soft-natured person acquire that steely edge? "By having a really wicked coach," Sotherton replied. "Charles is hard. He really is hard with me. He's a dictator. He had me in tears at the start of the winter, because I didn't know how I could cope. But now I realise he's being harsh on me because I need to learn."