WRITTEN FOR SKYSPORTS
After years in the wilderness, Mark Lewis-Francis has returned to the international sprint scene with renewed vigour, as the 100m man is now a different character and hungry to make up for lost time, writes Nicola Bamford.
The 28-year-old Birchfield Harrier burst into athletics’ consciousness back in 1999 when, at aged 16, he captured the World Youth 100m title before sensationally scorching to a 10.10 clocking the following summer ahead of impressive European and World junior victories.
A British age 14-18 record-holder, many tipped Lewis-Francis to be a future Olympic champion but his form in the past five years has witnessed him fail to live up to expectations.
Coached by 1992 Olympic 100m champion Linford Christie in London, Lewis-Francis took five national titles around the turn of the ‘noughties’ but has not clinched the UK senior crown since his 2002 victory at twenty-years-old.
Nevertheless, ‘MLF’ as he is affectionately known as to fans and the press, has returned from obscurity in 2010 to capture European 100m silver – his first outdoor senior international medal – and is looking forward to a brighter future and to putting the critics straight.
“I don’t do my athletics for anyone else, just myself and my family so if I’m enjoying it that’s all that matters,” Lewis-Francis explained.
“I started as a hobby and was over the moon with all I achieved as a youngster. I wouldn’t be as strong now if I hadn’t gone through all the tough times, both on and off the track.
Athletics has taught me a lot about myself and being a good person and it’s made me who I am today. I’ve still intentions to go out and be the best athlete Britain’s ever produced, I just need to keep my head down.”
With lifetime bests of 6.51 (for 60m indoors in 2001), 10.04 (100m, 2002) and 20.78 (200m, 2005), respectively, Lewis-Francis has unsurprisingly had many years of experience on the global stage.
After a smooth transition to the senior ranks in 2001, the Midlands man stormed to World indoor 60m bronze before reaching the World 100m semi-final stage that summer.
Registering a blistering 9.98 at aged 19, Lewis-Francis does however, still yearn for his initial sub-ten-second clocking in his sporting career - for his would-be World junior record was never ratified on a day which saw a wind-gauge malfunction occur.
Understandably frustrated, Lewis-Francis used his anger for motivation when claiming the runner-up spot at the 2002 European 60m indoor final and in 2003, he overtook Dwain Chambers as the British number-one when taking fourth place in the World indoor championships.
The stagnation began to arise in 2004 however, as Lewis-Francis became no more than a semi-finalist at the subsequent Olympic, European and two World championships but he was part of a successful GB 4x100m relay quartet which took Olympic glory in the Athens Games six years ago before claiming European gold and World bronze on two occasions.
In more recent years, the affable athlete missed the 2007 World final by just one position and has spent the past two years on the sidelines with a troublesome Achilles injury.
Though, following surgery and a diet overhaul courtesy of former Olympic 200m silver-medallist Darren Campbell, Lewis-Francis has this summer showed glimpses of his former self and has comfortably slotted straight back into the union jack vest with ease.
After running 6.59 indoors last winter and taking fourth place in the UK championships, Lewis-Francis began his outdoor campaign with victory at the Bupa Great Manchester CityGames over 100m in respectable 10.21.
One month later, despite finishing only fifth in the UK outdoor championships in 10.42, Lewis-Francis earned a last-gasp spot on the team for the European championships after impressing selectors the following week with a 10.26 clocking.
Regardless of his late selection, ‘MLF’ was confident he had peaked to perfection as he caused the shock of the championships for Team GB out in Barcelona last July when claiming 100m silver in 10.18 – his fastest time for three years.
“Barcelona needed to happen for my confidence and self-belief – it gave me the motivation to carry on with inspiration to train a lot harder in the winter and to stay focused, also for 2011 which won’t be easy,” Lewis-Francis revealed.
“I was quite surprised I got a medal but I trained really hard this winter, I was amazed to run so fast after being out of the big races for two-years.”
Further, to prove his ‘comeback run’ was no fluke, Lewis-Francis went onto represent Europe in the IAAF/VTB Continental Cup in Split earlier this month, storming to 10.16for third place and went on to win the Bupa Great North CityGames 100m a fortnight ago.
“Training’s really hard (with Linford) but that’s what we need,” Lewis-Francis explained of his return to form.
“He doesn’t mess about, he always says ‘when I was training, I trained twice as much and hard’ which inspires us to dig in and do more. He was a great athlete and is a great guy – I owe him my career right now.
Hopefully he can take me all the way, I have faith in him. I really appreciate what he does for us all.”
Now, almost back to the shape of his life, the father of two is relishing the prospect of claiming his second medal of the summer at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next month. After finishing seventh over 100m in the 2002 edition when suffering from injury, Lewis-Francis went onto suffer more disappointment in four years later when being disqualified in both the 100m and the 4x100m relay therefore he is subsequently hoping for ‘third time lucky’ in India.
“I’m over the moon at the moment – my season’s gone particularly well, European silver was amazing so the next stage for me is the Commonwealth Games, it’s all about stepping stones,” Lewis-Francis revealed.
“It’s tough in Team GB – we’ve got 6 or 7 guys who can run 10.1 or below so that’s what it needs to be to raise our game,” Lewis-Francis continued.
“It’s great for relays as well, a spot in 2012 will be hard to get - the guys will want to go out into the Olympic stadium at home. Every year’s a fresh slate for me, I keep telling myself how low I’m ranked in the world so as long as I can perform for the team, I’ll be happy.”
Living in South London away from his young children in Manchester, Lewis-Francis concluded:
“It’s been really hard not to see them as often as I’d like. I’m doing this for them, setting up a future for them. It’s hard but it’s the icing on the cake when I run well as its proof that the sacrifices are paying off in the end.”
And with the fast-approaching Commonwealth’s, World championships next summer and Olympics on home turf in two-years’ time, perhaps the quiet years will turn out to be a blessing in disguise after all for the well-rested ‘MLF’.