Article by Matt Dickinson, Chief Sports Correspondent, extracted from The Times, February 10th 2015
When philanthropist Barrie Wells supports underfunded British athletes, he always asks for something back. It might be time for his Box 4 Kids charity, which fills corporate seats with terminally ill kids. It could be school visits. But he had a different brainwave when Goldie Sayers, ten-times national javelin champion, was cut adrift by UK Athletics and rang asking for financial backing. Wells would oblige, he said, but on the condition that Sayers helped to turn Katarina Johnson-Thompson into the most dominant heptathlete in the world.
"A stroke of genius,” Johnson-Thompson says of the unique collaboration that, on Saturday, took Sayers from Newmarket to Liverpool to give Britain’s heptathlon star a second masterclass in javelin throwing. "To have a world-class athlete like Goldie trying to pass on her wisdom, it’s so simple but we’d never thought of it before.”
It is a simple idea but its brilliance cannot be overstated if it helps to put Johnson-Thompson on top of world and Olympic podiums over the next 18 months.
You do not have to dig deep into the numbers to understand the potential. At 22, Johnson-Thompson has already been ranked the world’s No 1 heptathlete but there is an obvious weakness in her formidable athletic armour. Across her favoured five events, her best results yield an average 1,096 points; in the two throwing disciplines, javelin and shot putt, that figure drops to 694.
When you consider that her personal best in javelin is 41.44 metres — Jessica Ennis-Hill threw 47.49 in her golden performance at London 2012 and Denise Lewis 50.19 on the way to gold in Sydney in 2000 — you can see the margin for improvement.
Adding five metres to Johnson-Thompson’s personal best would yield another 100 points at, say, the Rio Olympics but this is also about psychology, especially with javelin being the penultimate event of seven.
"I go into the javelin and everyone catches up, gains points or goes ahead of me and then I have to run my heart out in the 800 metres,” Johnson-Thompson says. "You can’t help but have it in the back of your head that you are going to lose points.”
She imagines the effect that it will have on her rivals if she can emerge this year with a new, improved distance. "Then it’ll be like, ‘God, she knows how to throw, let’s be scared,’” she says.
The goal is clear: making those gains is not so easy in an event that has little to do with brute force. Sayers says that throwing a javelin takes a combination of golfer’s swing and fast bowler’s acceleration, all about timing and rhythm.
"Like trying to hit the perfect golf drive off a 25 metres run up,” she says, "try too hard and you’re screwed.” A blend of aggression and relaxation is required.
At the first of their monthly sessions — with further help over telephone and video — Sayers was surprised given Johnson-Thompson’s obvious athleticism. "First time I saw her, it baffled me a little bit, ‘Why aren’t you throwing further?,’ ” she says. "Kat has got a good arm but there’s a lot of timing involved creating the bow for an arrow.”
One challenge is to use Johnson-Thompson’s prodigious leg strength, which makes her so exceptional in the high jump and long jump, but can bring its complications in the javelin run-up. "My natural inclination is to go up, my legs straightening — a jumpy motion,” she says.
"With Kat, it’s almost slowing the legs down because she applies so much force she can easily overstride for javelin,” Sayers says. "Her leg strength is ridiculous.”
Then there is the application of power through the 600 gram javelin so that it flies at the right trajectory. "You have to throw through the point of the javelin so it does not tail and drag,” Sayers says.
"It’s just about finding the right words to make it click. Mick Hill and Steve Backley [former national javelin champions] used to say that you should see a bum-hole in the sky.”
To make gains in throwing events could be crucial as competition intensifies towards the world championships in Beijing in August and next year’s Olympic Games. Ennis-Hill is returning to the sport after a break to have a child. Dafne Schippers will be back after a spell in sprints.
Forced out of the Commonwealth Games and European Championships by injury last year, Johnson-Thompson will hope to show that she is revitalised when she competes at the British Indoor Championships in Sheffield this weekend, trying to beat her own national high jump record as well as racing in the 60 metres hurdles. "I am in a really good place,” she says. "It’s going to be a really good year in heptathlon.” She welcomes the return of Ennis-Hill and the chance to compete against the Olympic champion.
Meanwhile, Sayers, 32, will be pursuing her own podium dreams thanks to this new arrangement. Fourth in Beijing in 2008, she had realistic hopes of a medal in London until injury struck as she threw a British record just before the Games.
Three operations later, with her elbow rebuilt with a graft taken from her wrist, she is convinced that she can be back as good as new but, to her dismay, UK Athletics stopped all funding during her time-out. Sayers was forced to dig into savings to pay her coach to help her out in his lunch hours.
Eventually, she put in that call to Wells, whose organisation unearthed Johnson-Thompson as an unknown 15-year-old and supported Ennis-Hill.
"That cold call was the most painful experience of my life,” Sayers recalls. "You think, ‘Why should anyone give you money, especially when you’ve never met them?’ But I got on well with Barrie and then he came up with the idea of me helping Kat.”
She likens the arrangement to Pay It Forward, the feelgood film starring Kevin Spacey, in which one good turn begets another and another — and an Olympic gold medal in this case if it all goes right.
Throwing down the gauntlet
Johnson-Thompson’s best throw of 41.44 metres in the javelin is a clear weakness. Her personal bests in the seven heptathlon disciplines are:
100m hurdles 13.41sec (1,063pts)
High jump 1.96m (1,184)
Shot put 12.49m (694)
200m 22.89sec (1,090)
Long jump 6.92m (1,145)
Javelin 41.44m (695)
800m 2min, 7.64sec (999)
That would yield a total of 6,870 points, though her best performance at any one event is 6,682 in Gotzis, Austria, in June 2014.
Ennis-Hill amassed a British record of 6,955 at London 2012, throwing 47.49 metres in the javelin.
Three women have broken the 7,000 barrier: Jackie Joyner-Kersee (world record of 7,291, with javelin of 45.66m), Carolina Kluft, of Sweden, (7,032, javelin 47.98m) and Larisa Turchinskaya, of Russia, (7,007, javelin unknown).