Reaching the heights of an Olympic gold medal may be the pinnacle of any athlete’s career, but staying at peak form the following season can prove to be even tougher.
If proof is needed that athletics can be such a fickle business, take the contrasting fortunes of five of the 11 London 2012 Olympic Games champions who will compete at the Sainsbury’s Grand Prix on Sunday, the seventh meeting in the 2013 IAAF Diamond League.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Carmelita Jeter, Sally Pearson, Aries Merritt and Greg Rutherford all experienced the joy of climbing to the top of the Olympic podium in London last summer. But four of them will compete in Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium tomorrow on the comeback trail from injury knowing they face a race against time to be fully fit and ready for the IAAF World Championships in Moscow less than two months away.
Only Fraser-Pryce is close to happy with how her season has gone so far, starting with the 60m personal best she posted indoors here in Birmingham back in February.
Since then, the double Olympic 100m champion has, to use her own word, “dominated” the world of women’s sprinting in 2013.
Injury-free and, for the first time in years, without any college studies to worry about, the Jamaican sits on top of the world list for 200m thanks to her 22.13 victory at her national championships last weekend. She is undefeated so far outdoors this year with three 100m victories and four wins at 200m already under her belt.
The secret, she said, is finally becoming a full-time athlete: the 26-year-old graduated in child psychology last year.
“I’m delighted with my season,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve really dominated a season. I don’t usually win all the time, apart from this year. I usually go into a championships having lost a few times and with something to prove.
“I think it’s because I finished school and, since graduating, I’m now completely an athlete. Before, I was a bit of a student-athlete. It means I’ve been working harder than ever and it’s been paying off.”
She’s been working especially hard at the 200m, the distance Fraser-Pryce will race again on Sunday.
She came close to winning the sprint double in last year; following up her flying 100m victory over Jeter with silver in the longer sprint behind Allyson Felix, with Jeter just one place behind for the latter’s second individual medal
With an eye on Moscow, Fraser-Pryce claimed to have learned a lesson from her “tiring” experience at the Olympics and says she’ll make a serious attempt at the double in August.
“I chose to run the 200 at my national championships to make sure I got into the event in Moscow,” she says. “I’m looking forward to doing both. I did them both in London but it was very tiring.
“After I won the 100, I was so excited I almost forgot about the 200 and it was very difficult to pick myself up. This time I’m looking forward to doing both in Moscow and doing them properly. I’m going to be focused on it.
“I’ve done a lot more 200s this year. I still prefer the 100, but when my coach says do nine 200s and one 100, I do it. And if it makes my 100 better, then that’s great.
“I’m still learning the event too. I’m one of those athletes who goes all out from the start and you have to catch me. Everyone knows my finish isn’t great, so it will help me run a better 100.”
How much better? Fraser-Pryce is in little doubt her best of 10.70 is well within reach, and she’s talked in the past of Jeter’s famous 2009 run of 10.64 as being “where I want to go”.
“You always want to run a fast time, of course,” she said. “I’ve run 10.70 so now I want to run below 10.70. But it’s great execution that brings great times. I’ve got to concentrate on executing what I do in training in my races.”
Execution will be the name of the game tomorrow when Jeter makes her first appearance on a track since straining her thigh while finishing third behind her Jamaican rival in Shanghai six weeks ago.
She admits to being in a tentative frame of mind on the eve of her return.
“The injury was very painful at the time,” said the 2011 World 100m champion, who hobbled over the Shanghai finish line and left the arena on a stretcher. “I am doing a lot better now but the first race back is always a mental race. Once I’m past this it will be a lot better.
“I’m excited to be back and, hopefully, can get back to top form. Tomorrow I have to go out and run my own race, that’s the main thing.
“The big picture is Moscow, and I’ve got a lot of racing to do before then. I’ve got a lot of work to do to put things together.”
Jeter will defend her World 100m title in the Russian capital, but is equally excited about the US women’s prospects of breaking their own world 4x100m Relay record, set when winning Olympic gold last summer.
She famously blazed home with the baton in London, pointing and screaming at the clock in disbelief.
“That was the highlight of the Games for me,” she admitted. “It was an amazing experience, but I think we can run a World record again.
“Our team will be very different but we have the talent. It would be great to run another World record, that would be amazing, but of course we have to get the stick round first.
“We don’t actually practice that much,” she added. “I think it’s the best way. When you do too much people start to get a little nervous and that’s when things go wrong.”
Like Jeter, things went wrong for Merritt in Shanghai too.
After a dream season in 2012, which culminated with Olympic gold and the 110m Hurdles World record, Merritt’s 2013 campaign hit the buffers when he strained a hamstring at the first hurdle in China.
Unlike Jeter, who has a World champion’s wild card, he had to race the US trials last weekend to make the Moscow team, and scraped in despite racing on just one week’s training.
“I had to run on faith, really,” said Merritt, “Thankfully, I made the team. Now I’m confident that I’m on the right track. It’s funny; a lot of Olympic champions have been injured this year.
"In some ways, that’s to be expected. But I’m really confident going forwards that I can race myself to fitness before Moscow.
“I need sharpness at this point. It’s going to be challenging but I’m really strong mentally. Before 2012, I had six years of injuries so I know how to deal with disappointment. It’s second nature to me.
“I have two months now to prepare, and I only had one week before the trials. It’s amazing what you can do with a little muscle memory.”
Unsurprisingly, Merritt – who clocked 12.80 to break Dayron Robles’ world record last year – claims to be not flustered about his times at this stage, and is concentrating on racing.
Tomorrow he will face Robles’ fellow-Cuban Orlando Ortega, who sits second on the 2013 world list and who is regarded by Merritt as one of his chief rivals for the World title.
“So many are running great,” he said. “But we’re all around 13-zero and it will take 12-something to win. If I’m healthy from now on, I’ll be running that for sure. I hope I can pull it off.”
There’s an element of hope in fellow sprint hurdler Sally Pearson’s build-up too. The Australian World and Olympic champion tore her hamstring back in February and missed three months of her domestic season.
She started serious training just three weeks ago and returned to action for the first time in Ostrava on Thursday night with an encouraging victory in 12.64.
“It showed I still have the strength, speed and fitness to run like that and still go under 13 seconds. I knew I could run faster in the final.
“It was my fastest opening time ever, and I had a PB with my reaction time. I’m still a little bit rusty but when I get race fit I’ll be able to use that. Now I’ve just got to put it all together.”
Tomorrow will be her first real test when she faces the two Americans who picked up silver and bronze behind her in London: Dawn Harper-Nelson and Kellie Wells.
“It’s been really hard not to be able to race,” admitted Pearson. “But now I’m back and everyone’s running really fast. I just have to catch up.
“Brianna’s time is bloody fast (world leader Brianna Rollins ran 12.26 to win the US title a week ago). I think it shows one of us can break the world record. I hope I’m the one to do it but I think we can step up.
“It’s an exciting time in the women’s event, but I don’t feel I’m that far behind them. I think it takes the pressure off me a little bit and puts it on someone else.
“It will be exciting tomorrow too, and tough,” she added. “I hope it’s warm and the wind’s in the right direction. I’m surprisingly calm and confident. I haven’t really raced at all so I feel I’m going in fresh, and I’m hungry to go out and race. I’m just happy to be back on the track.
“I have seven races to the World Championships final. It’s not ideal, but it is what it is.”
Greg Rutherford’s preparations haven’t been ideal either.
Great Britain’s Olympic Long Jump champion hasn’t missed great chunks of competition or training like the others, but his form has been hampered by a persistent knee niggle cause by fluid on two tendons, a condition, he says, that he’s been struggling to shift.
“I’ve not been 100 per cent all year,” says Rutherford. “I picked up this strange knee injury when I was in Australia and it’s causing a bit of pain on the last step before my take-off.”
Despite injections and treatment in Canada, the Briton admits he’s had so far only had “a half decent season” after enjoying his most consistent form ever in 2012, culminating with the Olympic Games win on 4 August, known in the UK ever since as ‘Super Saturday’.
In Birmingham, he’ll face Russia’s European Indoor champion Aleksandr Menkov, the man he regards as favourite for Moscow gold.
“I’m here, I’m jumping and I’ll be as competitive as possible,” said Rutherford. “Tomorrow is a great chance to have a decent competition. I hope I can find my groove because I have not been jumping massively far yet.
“But I’m not overly concerned, my speed is better than ever, I’m just doing some funny things before I take-off and that’s the injury.
“But I still want to achieve a lot more, I want to jump a lot further and I want to go out and win the World Championships.”
Rutherford admits it will be tough, especially taking on the consistent Menkov on his own turf.
“I jumped against him four or five times last year and I beat him every time, but this year he’s been putting 8.30s back-to-back for fun.
“He’s so consistent and no-one’s really challenging him; and he’ll be in Russia with home crowd support. I know myself how important that can be.
“But I’m confident too,” added Rutherford. “Most championships I’ve done I had to get ready at very short notice. It doesn’t take a lot for me to get things back together. I’m quicker than most other jumpers and I know I’m running fast, I’ve just got to get the technical aspects right.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF