Running mate's parallel world

OLYMPIC GAMES: Jonathan Edwards' training partner seems to be having fun and games but Atlanta is on his mind
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The Independent Online
As John Hedley settled into his starting blocks for the second time on Friday afternoon, the man on the public address system chided: "Come on gentlemen. This is wrestling, not dancing."

It raised a laugh from the few thousand souls attending the annual gathering known as the Langholm Common Riding. Most eyes were trained on the Cumberland and Westmorland wrestlers grappling in their long johns and their sequined codpieces. Others studied the odds on the bookmakers' boards for the next horse race to be run round the track which encloses the central arena at the Castleholm fields. Some were even drawn by the skirl of the bagpipes to the highland dancing competition.

Few watched Hedley as he sped from the back mark to lose by an inch or two in heat eight of the 90m handicap race. It was another day without pay for one of the small band of anachronistically-named professional sprinters who race for pocket money on the summer circuit of traditional sports meetings in the Scottish borders and Cumbria. He had already missed out on the pounds 400 prize that went with the British 90m sprint championship. But the strapping 25-year-old from Bedlington in Northumberland didn't seem concerned as he packed away his blocks and his spikes. In the idyllic Eskdale setting, he was thinking of Georgia.

The commercial production known as the Centennial Olympic Games seemed a million miles removed from Langholm and the events which, since 1759, have become embraced in the annual celebration of the townspeople's granting of common land. But Hedley was in Atlanta in spirit. In addition to his day job, as an attendant at Gateshead Stadium, and his sideline as a pro sprinter, he happens to be Jonathan Edwards' training partner.

Much has been made of Edwards' team of coaches - Peter Stanley, Norman Anderson, Dennis Nobles and Carlton Johnson - since his world record breaking exploits last summer. But the improved speed he has gained on the triple jump runway has been due to the unlikely alliance he has formed with Hedley, who overcame three childhood heart operations to follow his father, Eddie, into the perceived athletic twilight zone of handicap racing.

Linford Christie and Frankie Fredericks apparently struggled to keep up in 60m training bursts with Edwards in Tallahassee last week. Hedley, who accompanied Edwards on his pre-season trip to the Florida training camp, knows how the celebrated sprinters must have felt. "Jon is phenomenally quick," he said. "We follow the professional handicap system in training and I have to keep moving him further back behind me. He's got so much natural speed he could get into the British relay team if he put his mind to it."

Hedley has suffered at the hands of the marksmen himself since he beat the Scottish rugby union winger Michael Dods to win the pounds 2,000 Walkerburn 110m sprint two years ago. A knee injury has also restricted his winnings this season to a modest pounds 150. "I've had a pretty poor year," he said, "but it's been exciting to have been part of Jon's preparations for Atlanta. I'd like to think I've helped him along a bit. I'm getting nervous already thinking about him jumping out there. To go to the Olympics and have everyone in the country saying you're going to win a gold medal must be a phenomenal pressure. But I spoke to Jon during the week and he was pretty relaxed."

That's one thing Hedley won't be next Thursday night when he competes against his training track colleague for the first time. Edwards has agreed to fly home to Tyneside before the end of the Games to take part in an invitation 100m race to mark the opening of a new track in the Northumberland market town of Hexham.

"I know what to expect from Jon," Hedley said, wary at the prospect of stepping out of his chosen athletic world. "I really enjoy just coming to meetings like this," he added. "It's a lovely spectacle: the scenery, the horse racing round the outside and us, the wrestlers and the highland dancers in the middle. It's far removed from a 70,000-seater stadium and the focus of the whole world upon you."

Perhaps so. But Langholm's one and only freeman knows a thing or two about life in the global spotlight. Neil Armstrong's ancestors came from the Scottish town. And even Jonathan Edwards can't match the one small step and giant leap he took 27 years ago.