Sweeney combining the best of both worlds

Mike Rowbottom on the remarkable return of a British long-distance runner
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The Independent Online
Like many another talented junior athlete, Chris Sweeney drifted away from top-level running through a combination of injury and the increasing demands of his job.

Sweeney, however, is an unusual case. At 29, having established himself in a highly successful career with British Gas, this former national junior cross-country champion has returned to international racing with startling effect.

A week after finishing eighth in the BBC-televised event at Durham on 31 December, he took second place behind the top Kenyan, James Kariuki, in the World Cross Challenge race at Mallusk. That kind of form, coming after nearly two years of enforced inactivity because of a foot injury, sends him into Sunday's BAF cross country championships with a real chance of making the world championship team in South Africa.

As Sweeney sets off on the course at Stakeford, Northumberland, he will need to banish from his mind the pressing concerns of his position as commercial manager, and effective troubleshooter, for the UK operation of British Gas's air conditioning business. The new marketing strategy - air conditioning, like athletics, has its busy season, and the cooling starts in earnest in April - will have to be put mentally to one side.

Sweeney is as surprised as anyone to find himself in his current position. After badly injuring his foot on the Durham course in January 1993, he was unable to run properly for 18 months. He finally corrected his problem in November 1994 after being persuaded to consult Dr Ron Holder, the South African whose pioneering work on building up customised insoles has revived the careers of competitors such as Roger Black and Steve Backley.

But it was not until last November that he returned in earnest to competition, announcing his potential by winning the Surrey cross-country championships by a margin of 41 seconds.

"A year ago my attitude was that if I could run a couple of times a week and get fit enough to run one hour socially on Sunday with the lads, I'd be happy," he said. "If you had told me then that I would be having this conversation about my chances of making the world cross-country championships I wouldn't have believed you.''

Although his national title - won 10 years ago tomorrow - indicated the level of his talent, part of the reason for Sweeney's unconventional path in the sport is simply down to his own inclinations.

After studying chemistry at Birmingham University, the offer of a graduate trainee place with his current employer opened up a wider world to him.

"When someone pays you a half-decent salary and you move down to London you realise there is more to life than leading a rather monastic existence," he said. "If you are going to be dedicated in athletics it often requires a severe lifestyle and I didn't think I was ready for that.''

Alan Storey, who oversees Sweeney's current training in a group that includes other leading competitors such as Gary Staines, Jon Solly and Kate McCandless, confirms the impression of a self sufficient, unorthodox character.

"I admire the way Chris manages to combine running and a high-powered job," he said. "He's fairly well-balanced about his life. He likes a pint but he knows when he shouldn't be having one. I give him what help he needs, but he needs a lot less than most other athletes.'' Sweeney has had a close view of the life of a full-time athlete, having shared a house with Staines in South London until recently.

If things go according to plan this Sunday - his 30th birthday incidentally - he will need to make sure he is not working on or around 23 March, the date of the big race in Cape Town.

"I haven't really considered asking for leave," he said, "because that would be tempting fate." In the event of a request, one would hope British Gas, not overly endowed with good publicity in recent months, would embrace the chance of a PR boost.