Seven wonders of Lewis' world

Simon Turnbull talks to the versatile athlete about rivals to her golden vision
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The Independent Online
Denise Lewis laughed. "No," she said. "Britain versus Germany. I hadn't thought about that." It had been suggested to Britain's only female track and field medallist of the Atlanta Olympics that her quest for World Championship gold in Athens, just a fortnight away now, was likely to be a throwback to the great Anglo-German multi-events rivalry of the 1980s. In the absence of Syria's Ghada Shouaa, the injured Olympic and reigning world champion, the leading heptathlon contenders are Germany's Sabine Braun and Britain's Lewis. They head the world rankings for 1997, the German leading the Briton by 51 points.

At 24, Lewis could be excused for not bringing Daley Thompson and Jurgen Hingsen readily to mind. She was, after all, a 13-year-old schoolgirl when they fought their last epic decathlon duel, at the European Championships in Stuttgart in 1986. The great Briton prevailed on that occasion, as he had done at the 1982 European Championships, the 1983 World Championships and the 1984 Olympic Games, each of which his German rival entered as the new world record holder. Thompson, in fact, was never outshone in competition by the great pretender he liked to call "Hollywood" Hingsen. Braun, having made her major championship debut as one of the beaten Hingsen's team-mates in the Los Angeles Olympics, would need no reminding of that.

Before departing for a training camp in Lucerne last week, she acknowledged the looming prospect of another tussle for all-round athletic supremacy between the best of Britain and the greatest of Germany, this time over the seven-discipline programme of the heptathlon: shot, high jump, 100m hurdles, 200m, long jump, javelin and 800m. "I expect Denise Lewis to be my toughest rival," Braun said. "There is not much between us in the world rankings. We have virtually the same points."

Both contenders compiled their scores on the same weekend, 31 May-1 June, Braun's 6,787 in winning the German Championships at Ratingen, Lewis's 6,736 in winning the annual international contest at Gotzis in Austria. In Lewis's case, it was a lifetime best, an improvement of 91 points on her score at Gotzis last year, when she eclipsed the British record held for 10 years by Judy Simpson, "Nightshade" of Gladiators fame. It was also further confirmation that the young woman from Wolverhampton had a rightful place among the world elite of track and field.

Lewis has been the rising star in the heptathlon firmament since she won the Commonwealth title in 1994. She looked to have fallen in Atlanta last summer when a poor showing in her best event - a 6.32m long jump - dropped her to eighth place with just the javelin and 800m to come. It was then, after a heart-to-heart with her coach Darryl Bunn, that the Midlander showed her true competitive mettle. She launched a personal best 54.82m on her third and final javelin throw and clinched the bronze medal with a determined 800m run. It was only the third medal won by a British woman all-rounder, following Mary Rand's pentathlon silver in Tokyo in 1964 and Mary Peters's pentathlon gold in Munich in 1972.

The Birchfield star is still in her ascendancy, judging by her sparkling performance in Gotzis, where she beat Natalya Sazanovich, the Olympic silver medallist from Belarus. "I know there are a lot more points to come," Lewis said, breaking from her World Championship preparations at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham. "I'm always learning new things. I'm like a sponge."

Specialist advice has been gratefully soaked up from the Olympic high jump bronze medallist Steve Smith and from Erich Drechsler, father-in- law and coach of Heike Drechsler, the former world and Olympic long jump champion. "This year has gone better than I had hoped," Lewis added. "It's put me in good stead for the World Championships. With Ghada Shouaa not there, it's going to be closely fought. It'll be a battle of the minds."

"Hollywood" Hingsen was always an Oscar or two behind Daley Thompson in that department but Lewis will encounter a German opponent made of stern mental stuff when she goes for gold in Athens on 3 and 4 August. Braun's best days seemed to be behind her when she finished seventh in Atlanta. Since then, at 32, she has started to rediscover the form that won her the world title in Tokyo six years ago and the European Championship in 1990 and 1994. The transformation has been affected by Hans-Jorg Holzamer, who guided Hans Baumgartner to long jump silver in the 1972 Olympics and who coaches Florian Schwarthoff, the 110m hurdles bronze medallist in Atlanta. His expert help was enlisted by Gertrud Schafer, Braun's long-time coach, last winter.

"Since Atlanta, Sabine has changed in body and in mind," Holzamer said. "I have totally changed her training system. Everything now is built around improving her maximum velocity, her speed over 20 or 30 metres. You cannot be very good as a heptathlete if you are not quick. Sabine has that speed now, and she has the motivation too now."

That much was clear when the new model Braun achieved her world-leading score in Ratingen. It was evident, too, at the German track and field championships in Frankfurt last month when she beat Drechsler to the long jump silver medal with a wind-assisted 6.83m and clocked 13.19sec as runner- up in the 100m hurdles. It augurs well for a classic confrontation in Athens between the personable Lewis, backed by the seven local businessmen she charmed at a Birmingham awards dinner, and the rather dour Frau Braun from Bochum, whose support team includes Borussia Dortmund's medical guru, Klaus Bastians, a former German sprint champion.

"Sabine does not say she is going to win in Athens," Hans-Jorg Holzamer said. "But she says she will give her best performance for four years." Braun's best effort in 1993 earned her the World Championship silver medal behind Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Denise Lewis will be hoping another silver lining awaits her German challenger in Athens.