British sprinter describes the amazing injury-hit story behind his 60m victory at the 2004 World Indoor Champs in Budapest
I was in the best shape of my life coming out of that winter. I was faster and stronger than I had ever been before. I’d always been dominant over the 60 metres anyway, so it was no surprise to come out all guns blazing and the confidence was sky high.
Yet I changed the plan a little bit, which is a bit foolish. I added another race in Karlsruhe. There was the prospect of racing on a really quick track against some good opposition and a good payday.
I equalled my European record, which was 6.46 seconds but 24 hours afterwards I noticed I was really sore in my lower abdomen area, a stabbing pain. I just thought “maybe it’s just because of running so quickly the day before and travelling.” But it got worse.
I went to see the doctor and got a scan straightaway. He realised I needed a double hernia repair. So it’s Olympic year and I had overcooked things, pushing my body to its limits to try and be the best I could be. My first child was due to be born in March so there was all kinds of stress going on.
On top of all that I had a broken wrist and was scheduled to get the operation after the world indoors. I postponed because I didn’t want to be in a cast. Suddenly, I went from being the fastest man in the world to struggling.
Malcolm Arnold, my coach, just being the man that he is, showed me no mercy. The pain got so unbearable, with the wrist and other injuries as well. But then it kind of switched off. I was able to go through the timing gate and I got very close to the performances from before hurting my stomach. The penny dropped that I could still be competitive at world indoors.
But it required a big change in terms of set-up. Every time I was putting these demands on my body, I was in fact making my injury worse. I needed wraparound care from the medical team.
Before we got to Budapest, Shawn Crawford [2004 Olympic 200m champion] was just one hundredth of a second slower than me. In my mind, I was on a gold medal search for Britain, the only one expected to get one on the team. We decided at the final training session, I was going to war. I mentally felt there wasn’t going to be any better time in my career to win the world indoor title.
Malcolm laid it on, saying there was no compromise. I had medals from previous world indoors but our goal was gold. It was mine and I wasn’t going to give it away, so we kept all my issues totally quiet from our wider team. The majority of the British team management didn’t have a clue.
I got through the first round. I needed to step up in the semi-final. Malcolm gave me a good talking to. I was in the first semi and ran 6.49. I waited around to watch Shawn to see what he could do in response to my time. He only ran 6.54. That was the moment where I thought “I’ve got him” because he couldn’t respond.
After the final, Malcolm gave me a big smile. That was when I started to really learn about mental toughness, the realisation that your body is never going to be perfect. Over the years, I got to see the likes of Kelly Holmes, behind the scenes, getting patched up before she went out to run. Everyone’s carrying problems. Once you accept that as an athlete, success can still happen.
In the process of getting that gold, I sustained five complete ruptures in various muscles. And I tore a tendon off the bone as well. When I was rehabbing, I did seriously question whether I would be able to recover in time for the Olympics that summer in Athens.
Because I wasn’t in a team sport, I couldn’t be protected by better players around me or be operating around 80-90 per cent. I had to be 100 per cent without any injuries to be worthy of an Olympic final place.
My team of physios and doctors and coaches were amazing. Without them, there’s no way I would have been able to make that Olympic team. How I won the Olympic trials in Manchester is beyond me. I had developed Achilles problems as well and I had stitches all around my lower stomach area and things taped back on.
I carried the Olympic 4x100m relay gold medal with a broken wrist as well. The management didn’t know about that, either. 2004 was quite a remarkable year.
Jason Gardener was speaking to Mark Woods
» This feature first appeared in the February issue of AW magazine, which is available here