GREG RUTHERFORD went into the 2011 Athletics World Championships in the best shape of his life – now he’s fighting to get back to it in the biggest year of his life.
Plagued by injury for the majority of his career, the long-jumper from Bletchley was set to fulfil his years of promise when he took to the Daegu Stadium in South Korea last August.
But instead his pursuit of Worlds gold ended in a familiar tale of woe, and another ‘what might have been’ Championships had passed him by.
Laying stricken in the sand pit with the eyes of the world watching, it was the blinding agony of disappointment that hurt Rutherford even more than the torn hamstring he’d just suffered.
The realisation that a whole year’s effort has been undone in the blink of an eye is a pain only a top athlete can relate to. But now that he has almost fought his way back to the perfection he so badly craves, Rutherford insists that he will come good again, and do it in the same year that the Olympics turns up on his doorstep.
“I get goosebumps thinking about it,” said the 25-year-old who first made a name for himself by winning silver at the European Championships in Gothenburg in 2006 at the age of 19.
“The excitement levels go through the roof. I genuinely can’t wait to get out there – it’s going to be incredible.
“We know the crowd is going to be behind is. We’re going out there to a huge roar and for once we know that it’s going to be for us. I think about it every day.”
Rutherford is part of a generation of elite British athletes whose whole careers have seemingly been shaped in preparation for London 2012. But of course this summer’s Games won’t be his first.
Rutherford’s 2008 Beijing Olympics epitomised his bad luck with the big competitions – lots of early promise and a great start followed by terrible misfortune and ultimate despair.
He was the third best qualifier for the long-jump final in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, but severe kidney and lung infections soon saw his dream end in a 10th place finish, and with a trip to a Beijing hospital.
That came after he had produced a quite remarkable effort just to qualify for the Games after learning that his grandfather had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a week before the UK Trials.
Further misfortune followed ahead of the 2009 World Championships as he suffered a torn hamstring a few weeks prior to the competition, which again prevented him from being able to turn his undoubted potential into a medal when he finished fifth in Berlin.
However, the one consolation was that he managed to break the British record in qualifying with a huge leap of 8.30m – a distance that would have won him a silver medal in Beijing.
Breaking Chris Tomlinson’s record by 1cm, that jump sparked a fierce rivalry between the pair, while also underlining Rutherford’s ability to perform on the big stage – provided his body lets him.
And for a while it did as Rutherford recovered from missing the European Championships in Barcelona with a foot injury by claiming silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
His season’s best leap of 8.22m came during 12 months of injury-free bliss for Rutherford who would go into his ill-fated World Championships a year later in the best conditions of his life.
Now, after a few months recovering from the torn hamstring he suffered in Daegu, Rutherford says he’s close to getting back to his best shape, but he can’t push himself too hard.
He’s one of only a handful of British athletes who can actually say their place at London 2012 is guaranteed, as long as he remains injury-free.
“I can’t push my body as hard as we’d like to simply because the knock-on affect will be an injury,” he said.
“I haven’t had as many injuries over the last three years, but sadly it popped up at the worst possible time last year during the World Championships.
“I’m very much on top of the issues I was having previously, but it’s still always there that if we take it that little bit too far there’s a chance something can go wrong.
“I have the qualification ‘half done’ as I have the distance I need to jump. I just need to show I’m fit and strong this year.
“I think we’ve built towards the perfect training model for me. Testament to that is that I’ve just come out the back of four months of training, which is the biggest block of training without injury I’ve ever had in my life.”
If Olympic medals were won for mental toughness then Rutherford would already be a world champion. He demonstrates an image of focus and determination, even in the face of adversity. And it’s because he’s suffered the lows that Rutherford believes he’s due a few more highs.
“I see it as a huge challenge,” he said. “Some people talk about the pressure of a home Olympics, but I look at it from an extremely positive point of view.
“This is a once in a lifetime chance and there won’t be another British athlete in probably the next 100 years who has the opportunity that I’ve got.
“The mental pressure that comes with that is purely what I put on myself. For me the Olympic Games is the biggest event of my life. I’ve got to go in there with the plan that I go into every competition with, and once I’m there I could win the Olympics.”
Sacrifice is part of the course for any athlete with ambitions of being the best, and Rutherford is no exception. Breaking into the top 10 in the world rankings is an incredible achievement in itself, but now that he’s reaching the peak of his career, Rutherford is desperate not to have any regrets.
Now he’s become a man of extremes, both on and off the track. His usual daily diet consists of just two food replacement shakes and an evening meal of meat and vegetables. But he’s incredibly focused on his objectives and is adamant that all his hard work and determination will be worth it in the long run.
“I’m definitely in the best shape of my life both physically and mentally – that’s where I have to be,” he said. “That come from me having to accept that this is what I do, this is what makes me, and hopefully this is what I’ll be known for – for the rest of my life.
“I leave home at 8.30am and get home at about 4.30pm, that is basically my day every day. For the rest of the day you’re not meant to do anything. The big thing about training is that you’re breaking down your body a lot, so the rest then becomes part of training – it’s the most underestimated part of an athlete’s life.
“Some people might say that athletes are lazy because all they do is go down to the track for a few hours and then sit on the sofa for the rest of the day. But if they did what had to be done then they would want nothing more than to sit on the sofa for the rest of the day. To be able to get up the next day and do that again is not easy.
“People like to go out at the weekend and have drinks with their mates, but you can remove that from your life. And every time you see a carbohydrate-based food you can forget about it.
“I’m lucky that I live with my girlfriend and two dogs and I’m able to relax with them and cut myself off from athletics for a while, but there is never a moment that goes by that I don’t consider what I’m doing, what I’m putting into my body, and what the knock-on affect could be for the rest of the year.
“I do switch off sometimes, I’ll eat bad food for example, but it’s such a rarity. It could be a couple of sweets when I’m out having coffee – that will be my one treat for a week.
“I’m only at the track five or six hours a day, but the rest of the time all I have in the back of my head is... the track.”
Rutherford’s motivation is also partly fuelled by his determination to reclaim the British record he held for two years, but lost to Tomlinson who jumped 8.35m at a Diamond League meeting in Paris in July last year. It was at that same meeting that Rutherford recorded his second best ever legal leap of 8.27.
Rutherford is determined to beat that distance and fulfil his potential, and if it means getting one over on the man from Middlesbrough, then even better.
“We don’t have a bad relationship particularly,” said Rutherford. “We’re competitors at the end of the day. And I think you’re always that little bit more competitive with someone from your own country because there’s that battle for being top dog in the country.
“Going into Paris I’d jumped 8.32m in Oregon – albeit windy – and it was the longest jump ever by a Brit. Chris then jumped a windy 8.28, so I knew he was also in good shape.
“I remember warming up and felt in good shape, thinking I could do well. And I remember seeing Chris who was really quiet in himself, which you don’t normally see with him. And he went out there and catches a jump – and I’ve just gone ‘oh you are kidding me’ because I could see from his reaction that he thought he’d jumped incredibly far. I realised at that moment that I’d lost the British record.
“I’d lost a bit of identity, because for two years I was Greg Rutherford, British record holder, but now it’s just... Greg Rutherford again.
“But after that I thought, well, I have to jump further then. No disrespect to Chris or any other jumper, but there is no other jumper in the world that I look at and believe they are better than me.
“They might have jumped further than me as it stands, but I really don’t believe they are a better athlete than I am. I just believe, as it stands, that I haven’t jumped anywhere near the potential that I’ve got.”
Now all that remains is for Rutherford to get himself into the best shape of his life before the biggest days of his life in the Olympic Stadium on August 3 and 4.
“If you win an Olympic medal things are going to change,” he said. “I hope that everyone in the team does well. I hope we can make the British team something to be proud of.”