The Brian Viner Interview Ashia Hansen: Hansen sights triple crown

`When I jump well, I have tunnel vision or am aware of things around me, but only in slow motion'
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The Independent Online
THE SYDNEY Olympics are still a long way off. To paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, we all have a lot of water to pass before then. Especially Ashia Hansen, although we'll come to dope-testing later. The point is that it's far too early to make predictions, yet Hansen has already saddled herself with an unenviable burden, for people are talking about her as Britain's best hope for Olympic gold.

In Valencia last year she established a new indoor world record for the triple jump - an awesome 15.16 metres. And on Sunday, at the Gaz de France meeting, she jumped 14.81m, the best in the world this year, beating her close rival, the Czech Sarka Kasparkova, by four centimetres. On both occasions, she started the competition feebly, saving her best until last, which shows that, when push comes to shove, and when step comes to jump, she responds like a champion. "It's funny," she says. "When I jump well I either have complete tunnel vision or I am aware of things going on around me, but only in slow motion."

We meet at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham. She is an engaging character, open and opinionated and also more than a little dizzy, taking at least two minutes to work out how old she is. Eventually, she decides she must be 27, and in fact can be forgiven some uncertainty, for the details of her birth are slightly hazy. She knows she was born illegitimately in Evansville, Indiana, to a teenage girl and an American footballer. When she retires from athletics, she intends to track them down.

At three months old she was adopted by a white Englishwoman and a black Ghanaian, who had married in Cairo and were studying at the University of Indianapolis. They later moved to Ghana where her father worked for the United Nations as a lecturer in politics. Young Ashia, meanwhile, offered glimpses into the future, persistently beating boys bigger and older than her in races down the hill outside the family bungalow. "If you didn't get the timing right, you'd fall over," she recalls. The same principles still apply.

Mangoes and bananas grew in the garden, and she enjoyed a fairly idyllic childhood blighted only by the occasional theft of her pet rabbits. Hansen lowers her voice, conspiratorially. "My mum will kill me for saying so," she says, "but I think people ate them." She hoots with laughter. She is great fun, and physically striking. Her best-known trademark is her long hair, which flows spectacularly through the hop, step and jump. Up close, I see the occasional flash of another trademark - a silver tongue stud. "I had it done in October," she says. She leans deliberately towards my tape recorder. "I had my belly button pierced in 1994, and so many athletes copied it. Now I want to see how many people do this."

When Hansen was eight - by which time her mother had borne a child naturally, her sister Mamianna - the family moved to Poplar in the East End of London. There she encountered racism for the first time. "I was the only black kid in junior school, with an African accent too, and I had no friends from the first year to the fourth year. It didn't help that I was good at sport, because the girl I took over from as the number one runner didn't like it, and nor did her friends. They didn't pick on me because I was hard, and I would fight boys as well as girls, but they didn't talk to me. Also, there was a 15-year-old boy who lived in the same block of flats as us and he used to call me `coonflakes'. It hardens you up, that sort of thing."

At 15, she had another traumatic yet formative experience. Her father, while working in Tanzania, was hit by a car and killed. "It was terrible, really. He used to travel a lot, but one day he went away to work and didn't come back. Actually, I think I coped well with it. And because he never saw me doing well in athletics it spurred me on, because I would wonder, `what would he think of this?' But that was never my main motivation. I just really enjoyed it."

When Hansen, as a teenager, started smoking and hanging out with dodgy friends, her mother insisted the family should move from Poplar to slightly more genteel surroundings in Essex. There she joined Ilford Athletic Club where she blossomed as a sprinter and long-jumper. Indoors, she has run 100m in 11.7sec and 200m in 24.5. But at 22 she decided to focus on the triple jump, in which her speed is her chief asset. "I don't want to sound big-headed but on the runway I'm faster than anybody," she says. So might she yet broaden her repertoire again, perhaps by competing directly against Denise Lewis in the heptathlon?

"No, I leave the heptathlon to the nutters," she says, studded tongue in cheek. I don't think she means to be disrespectful to Lewis. She cheerfully reckons that the pole vault is for "nutters" too, and adds that the heptathlon is a ferociously tough event, which wouldn't suit her because she's no good at hurdling. But there is clearly no love lost between Lewis, the pin-up girl of British athletics, and Hansen, up-and-coming claimant to the same title. "I've known Denise since junior days," says Hansen. "I used to long-jump against her. But we don't have a great deal to say to each other. We tried to mend fences, but it didn't really work. We just don't hit it off. It happens a lot in athletics."

One of the reasons for this, Hansen reckons, is that most athletes are naturally aggressive. "You have to be if you're going to go into the weights room and lift twice, or even three or four times your body weight." On the track, she admits that this aggression is sometimes turned against officials. "In major competitions you have to wait in a controlled area between warm-up and track. Nobody is allowed in or out while they check your spikes and tape up any illegal advertising and make sure there are no Walkmans, which some people try to take on to the track to keep them focused or even to listen to coaching tapes. But I get angry if the officials keep us there for too long, and I've been known to have a go, because then you have to start warming up all over again."

Hansen insists, however, that she is fully supportive of officialdom in its battle against the use of performance-enhancing drugs. "I've never actually seen anyone taking anything, but then I'm quite naive. And you do see some funny things. You see certain European athletes without spots one year and then caked in spots the next, which is a side-effect of steroid abuse. But we get a lot of out-of-competition testing. Sometimes you're told that you have to be in at a certain time, and if you're not you could get a three-month ban. Or sometimes they come to your door without any warning at all. That happened to me quite a lot last year, and I've had people waiting for hours while I drink bottles of pop, cups of tea, even beer, to try and produce some urine."

The one proscribed substance that does pass Hansen's lips is proscribed only by her coach, Aston Moore. "Curries," she says. "I have a big weakness for Indian food, the hotter the better. The trouble is, I need to lose half a stone. In the triple jump you land with a force equal to eight or 10 times your body weight and that's on a single leg, so the lighter you are, the less likely you are to get injured. You don't want to be bulky. Look at Jonathan Edwards."

Despite her best intentions, however, she remains vulnerable to the call of the vindaloo. Indeed, she shamefacedly admits she frequently has them delivered to her home, and I have an irresistible image of her opening the door expecting a man with a curry, only to find a man in a blazer saying "please pee into this". She laughs. "It hasn't happened yet," she says.

She shares a flat in Birmingham with her best friend, sprinter Katherine Merry, and is presently unattached, having split up with her boyfriend a month ago. Several of her boyfriends have been white, which has led to racist taunts principally, she says, from black men. "It's another reason why I like athletics. Because there's no racism in it," she says. Which athletes, I wonder, does she most admire? "My coach, Aston, and Linford Christie. When you think of what Linford's been through, and still he's come up smelling of roses. I've jumped against him, you know. We were in Lanzarote, training, and he bet me he could do longer bounds. He did beat me a couple of times, but I beat him too."

It is easy to picture Hansen rising to Christie's challenge, for she is a fierce competitor both on the track and off. She even owns up to six penalty points on her driving licence, incurred for racing against other cars on the motorway. Moments later, she offers me a lift back to New St Station in her souped-up Vauxhall Corsa. Against my better judgement, I accept. Like the rest of my encounter with Ashia Hansen, it is an interesting experience.