Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Sanders’ Mission Possible: Positively Bouncing Back onto the Radar (written for the IAAF 11/08).

A renowned adage in the sports world explains that the real test of an athlete’s character comes not from the pressure of competition but from how they cope with the rigours of injury and disappointment - and World 400m silver-medallist; Nicola Sanders knows all too well about this harsh side-effect of being a World-Class sprinter.

The 26 year-old quarter-miler is no stranger to being sidelined with biomechanical setbacks, for the Amersham, Buckinghamshire born athlete was forced to switch from her first love – the 400m hurdles – to the flat in 2006 due to a back injury. Fortunately, the transition was a smooth one and the Tony Lester-coached runner achieved a credible sixth-place finish at the European Championships before truly coming into prominence during her 2007 campaign.

Making a breakthrough
Storming to the fastest time in the World of that year; despite more back issues; Sanders elated her home crowd in the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham, as she blasted to a new British record of 50.02, which moved her to fifth on the all-time lists. The following day, the slight and slender Sanders was also part of the 4x400m team, which won a bronze medal in a national record of 3:28.69.

After such a stellar indoor season, the 5ft6 star was tipped to break Kathy Cook’s longstanding British outdoor record but a persistent Achilles injury badly affected the early part of her 2007 summer campaign; forcing her to miss a considerable number of European meetings.

Bouncing back after injury
Despite having only broken the 51-second barrier once prior to the World Championships, Sanders’ early season injury problems proved to be a blessing in disguise, as she peaked to perfection in time for Osaka; pulverising her lifetime best from 50.68 to 49.65 (for fourth on the British all-time lists) and ultimately snatching the silver medal just inches behind GB teammate, Christine Ohuruogu. And just for good measure, the Loughborough University sport and exercise science graduate, sped to a phenomenal 48.76 clocking to anchor the British team to the bronze medal in the 4x400m relay. Taking a step backwards - again

Much was expected of Sanders in 2008 but for the second consecutive year, injuries limited her racing schedule and clearly not fully fit – despite taking the European Cup title - she was eliminated in the semi-final stages (fourth place) of the 400m in Olympic Games in Beijing – missing out on the final by just one place.

“I felt good in the training camp – it was the first time I was able to train quickly, so after what I overcame last year, I thought I could pull it off. I stayed positive but it wasn’t enough to make up (the training time missed after suffering from knee, hamstring and quadriceps injuries). I was really disappointed not to make the final – that was my goal – I knew I had a chance of a medal if I was fully fit. I just wanted to forget and move on – that’s why I was eager to have a break and start again,” reflects Sanders.

Looking positively to the future
Now - with her profile fast-declining on the World scene – as all the attention is laid upon Ohuruogu and Sanya Richards; the USA’s queen of the quarter-milers, with a tendency to dominate the Grand Prix circuit then crash and burn on the big occasion – Sanders is keen to re-establish herself amongst the one-lap elite. Not content with causing mere ripples of excitement, Sanders however, intends to make a big splash in the global athletics pond next year.

Pushed in training by Olympic 200m semi-finalist, Marlon Devonish and European 400m sixth-placer, Tim Benjamin, Sanders reveals, “I’ve been back in training for three weeks now – I had a week off then six weeks of rehabilitation to recover from - and prevent more – injuries, followed by a holiday. I love training with the guys; they help me because they push me so much. Right now, we’re doing base training with lots of weights and circuits. It was nice to have a break but it’s great to be back. Tony’s coaching style suits me and we work well together.”

Currently promoting the Nike “Here I Am” campaign to encourage women to get involved in sport and quoting Dame Kelly Holmes – the 2004 double Olympic middle-distance Champion – as the athlete she most admires due to her perseverance through her many injury setbacks, Sanders main strengths are always maintaining her sense of humor and listening to her body.

When asked if she now feels like the forgotten face of British 400m running, the down-to-Earth and bubbly sprinter responds, “Christine (Ohuruogu) deserves the attention but I don’t feel like I’ve been forgotten after just one bad year. I’ve been improving for years – it’s just a blip – I’m not panicking yet.”

On the woman who she currently plays the bridesmaid role to, Sanders says of Ohuruogu, “We’re friendly rivals. We train at opposite sides of London so we only see each other really at competitions and relay training – we get on fine. Having Christine there is good for me and for us both to have a big domestic rivalry – it means I can’t get complacent.”
Making sacrifices

True to her word, Sanders is focusing solely on next World Championships in Berlin; choosing to bypass the retention of her European Indoor crown as a sacrifice to global success – and revenge. “Berlin’s the focus of my year,” she explains, “it’s nice to have a Champs that’s not on the other side of the World. Hopefully, I’ll get back to my 2007 form – the event hasn’t moved on. Sanya (Richards) is obviously a massive threat but Christine showed she’s not invincible and lots could stand out this year but I’ve got as good a chance as anyone.”

Now, having settled into her new home and training regime, she faces the long, hard winter slog of training; interspersed with a month-long stretch of a warm-weather training and competition stint in the spring. With plans to register a few 200m races in the warmth of the USA – in addition to contesting the British and European circuit this summer – Sanders’ primary aim is merely to do more races than in the last couple of summer seasons.

Having survived another bout of the injury plague and with a renewed enthusiasm for her event, Sanders comments, “It’s been nice to start again after a break and rehab so I’m staying positive and I’m getting excited about next year – I’m hoping it’s going to be different to the last.”

Fingers crossed, if the whippet-like speedster can stay healthy, she’s certainly set to bite back stronger than ever with no reasons to growl anymore.

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