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Denise Lewis

Denise Lewis

Date of Birth: 1972

Born: West Bromwich

Club: Birchfield Harriers

Coach(s): Darrell Bunn, Charles van Commenee, Dr Ekkart Arbeit

 

Following Mary

Every aspect of Denise Lewis’ career was a path towards a glorious Sunday night in Sydney on September 24, 2000, when she won Olympic heptathlon gold. Not since Dame Mary Peters won the Olympic pentathlon title in Munich in 1972 had a British woman landed a multi-events title on the global stage. Lewis had become her natural successor, winning the Commonwealth Games in Victoria in 1994 and then earning her Olympic spurs in Atlanta in 1996 when she was third.

She was the No 1 British athlete during the late 1990s and into the new Millennium, establishing the British record of 6831 in 2000, before her retirement in 2005. 

 

Early Days

Lewis first competed at the heptathlon in 1989, and achieved a best of 5277, two years before finishing fifth at the European Juniors in Thessaloniki. It was her first taste of Championship action and within five years she was the Commonwealth champion. It was her great breakthrough. In 1994 she improved her pre-season best of 5812 to 5937 and 6069 before a superb 6325 at the Commonwealths gave her gold by just eight points from Australia Jane Fleming. It was a tremendous competition and in the end Lewis’ capacity to deliver critical performances when it mattered most proved the key.

In Victoria, she improved her javelin by 5.1m and took two seconds off her 800m best to win the gold medal. In 1996, she was the only British woman to win a medal from athletics at the Olympic Games in Atlanta and it proved to be superb grounding as she scored 6489 points as Ghada Shouaa, of Syria, won with 6780 with Bulgarian Natalya Sazanovich second in 6563.

She was crowned the British Female athlete of the year after a summer where she set British records at Götzis with 6645 before increasing that to 6736 (also a Commonwealth record) in 1997, a year where she was second at the World Championships in Athens with 6654 as Germany’s Sabine Braun won with 6739. 

 

Domestic Duty

Brought up her mother in Wolverhampton, Lewis had long been a member of Birchfield Harriers in Birmingham. She was very much a club girl at heart, she would be there to offer encouragement and she never forgot her roots on her way to her crowning glory in Sydney. In 1998, she missed weeks of the summer with injury, but was fit in time for the major events and achieved an impressive double with gold at the European Championships in Budapest and Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. But in 1999, she could not take that one step up from Athens, though remained upbeat after winning her second successive World Championship silver, this time behind French star Eunice Barber, following another difficult year with injuries.

 Her performance in Seville was impressive enough, where she achieved 6724, just 12 points short of her Commonwealth record, including personal bests in the high jump (1.87m) and three times in the shot (15.41m, 15.95m and 16.12m). But Barber had just too much and won with 6861.

 Once the championships were over, she wanted to ensure she would be totally ready for the Olympics in 13 months time and she had an operation on her right calf. Yet though she then had a re-occurrence of a long-term shoulder injury in the build up to the Games, she overcame any pain on a superb weekend in Talence, France, where she added 95 points to her British and Commonwealth mark. Her total of 6831 was from: 100mh 13.13 (pb by 0.05), HJ 1.84 (season’s best), SP 15.07, 200m 24.01w (pb), LJ 6.69 (pb), JT 49.42 (pb) and 800m 2:12.20 (pb). It was perfect preparation to Sydney, though he body did its best to hinder that. 

 

Hobbling Heroine

With a bandage at the bottom of her left leg to keep at bay an Achilles and calf injury, Lewis hobbled her way to Olympic Games gold. When her Achilles injury returned, there remained a doubt whether she would even finish the Heptathlon, but here the sport realised what she was made of. The pain was physically etched across her face and there remains no greater picture from that weekend of the moment she had crossed the line in the 800m. Had she won gold? As the news slowly filtered through on the giant scoreboard that she had, she just stood still, almost unable to move, and just waved her arms in the air in total delight. Her body could take no more.

She had scored 6584, beating Russian Yelena Prokhorova by 53 points with Sazanovich, who was second in Atlanta, third with 6527. It was stirring stuff. She eventually made her way to the stands where she celebrated in the arms of her mother after a series of outstanding performances. Inspired by her Dutch coach Charles Van Commenee, her individual marks of 13.23 (100mh), 1.75 (HJ), 15.55 (shot), 24.34 (200m), 6.48 (LJ), 50.19 (JT), 2:16.83 (800m) propelled to celebrity status. She appeared everywhere, including being a guest on Parkinson.

 Awarded the MBE in 1999, it was advanced to an OBE in 2001 where she pulled out of the World Championships in Edmonton just days before the event began. It later emerged she was pregnant and her daughter Lauryn, to her and partner Patrick Stevens, a Belgian sprinter, was born in April 2002. Lewis and Van Commenee split in July 2002 and it sparked the most controversial period of her career.

 She teamed up with Frank Dick, the former head coach of British athletics, who brought in Dr Ekkart Arbeit, the East German technical coach who was linked to the systematic doping of athletes in the 1970s. It turned Denise Lewis into a media circus, never more so than in July 2003 when she competed in the European Cup’s Combined Events in Tallin, Estonia. Arbeit was there, as Lewis tackled her first heptathlon since winning Olympic gold. She scored an excellent 6282 points for second place, but virtually her every move - and his - was caught on camera. She progressed to finish fifth at the World Championships in Paris but the defence of her Olympic title ended in disappointment when she dropped out after a long jump of 5.89m.

She retired in June 2005, and in 2006, gave birth to her second child, Ryan. Lewis works regularly for local television in her native Midlands, along with other television roles such as the BBC’s reality show Strictly Come Dancing, remaining one of the most popular names British athletics has ever had.

 

International Championships

1991: 5th heptathlon European Juniors

1994: dnq (19) LJ Europeans, 1st heptathlon, 8th LJ Commonwealth Games

1995: 7th heptathlon Worlds

1996: 8th LJ European Indoors, 3rd heptathlon, dnq (24) LJ Olympics

1997: 2nd heptathlon Worlds

1998: 1st heptathlon Europeans, 1st heptathlon Commonwealth Games

1999: 2nd heptathlon Worlds

2000: 1st heptathlon Olympics

2003: 5th heptathlon Worlds

2004: dnf heptathlon Olympics

European Cup: LJ: 1994- 5, 1995- 8, 1996- 4, 1997- 4; Heptathlon: 1994- 12, 1995- 1, 2003- 2F

 

UK Internationals: 33 (1992-2004)

 

National Championships

Won AAA LJ 1996, 1998; Indoor LJ 1994-5, 1998; 60mh 1997; Inters Hep 1988, U20 LJ 1989

 

Personal bests

Heptathlon 6831 (2000), LJ 6.69 (2000), 6.77w (1997)

200m 24.10 (1997), 24.01w (2000); 800m 2:12.20 (2000), 100mh 13.13 (2000), HJ 1.87 (1999), SP 16.12 (1999), JT 56.50 (1996), new JT 51.48 (2004)

Indoors: 60mh 8.30/8.2i(1997), LJ 6.49 (1996), SP 14.59 (2004)