• Rewind to 2004

Sotherton's magnificent seven in Athens

Jo Carter March 29, 2012
Kelly Sotherton describes an unfortunate moment during the 2004 Olympic heptathlon

Jessica Ennis may be the poster girl of this summer's Games and the favourite to win heptathlon gold, but at the age of 35, Kelly Sotherton is bidding to qualify for London 2012.

We Rewind to 2004, when only a year after giving up her job to become a full-time athlete, Sotherton upstaged reigning Olympic champion and training partner Denise Lewis to win a surprise bronze medal in Athens.

Having only secured lottery funding the previous year, Sotherton was lying in seventh place after the hurdles. But it was in the high jump that Sotherton's medal challenge burst into life.

"I went into the high jump in Athens with a PB of 1.78m but I was feeling quite confident - I had done a lot of mental training with a psychologist and my coach so I came in quite high at 1.70 - I had never done that before," Sotherton told ESPN.

"I just cleared everything first time - 1.70, 1.73, 1.76...Then 1.79m - a new PB first time - 1.82 first time, 1.85 first time - I had never even attempted those heights - it was amazing. I was in the zone. It was one of those things where you can't truly remember how it happened."

Having been catapulted up to second after a blistering high-jump performance, Sotherton slipped to fifth after throwing a disappointing 13.29m in the shot put.

The final event of the first day was the 200m, and after being drawn in the outside lane for the first heat she finished fifth - her time of 23.57 seconds enough to put her back into second behind overwhelming favourite Carolina Kluft. In the silver medal position in her first major competition, Sotherton was in unknown territory. Fortunately for her, she didn't have much time to dwell on the situation she found herself in.

"We didn't get back until really late, it must have been about 10:30, 11pm to eat, have treatment and I remember having an ice bath at midnight," Sotherton said. "We had to leave our accommodation at 7am so I had about five hours' sleep. I don't think I had time to think - I just got on with it. I had never been in that position before but I wasn't thinking where I had been or how I was doing and that was good."

With three events remaining - including the long jump - Sotherton's strongest event, things were looking good. But disaster nearly struck.

"I can probably call myself a world class long jumper - in 2004 I had jumped 6.68m and the long jump was an opportunity to open up a gap between myself and the people below me," Sotherton said.

"But my first and second jumps were no jumps. The fact that I was in second place but faced with going out, I was nearly in tears and my coach was also having kittens because Denise hadn't jumped very well - his eyes were red - I think he was thinking, 'this could be disaster'.

There were mixed emotions for Sotherton on winning bronze © PA Photos

"So I put my run-up back a metre and I was still only a tiny bit behind the board and jumped 6.51m, which was a pretty reasonable jump considering the pressure I was under. That taught me something, I know I can cope with pressure. I think I cried after that jump because I had saved my skin - that long jump took a lot out of me."

Next came the javelin. Sotherton had made a breakthrough that season, throwing 40 metres, but the ordeal of the long jump had left her drained.

"In my warm-up I don't think I threw 30m, I was really dead, I had nothing left," Sotherton recalls. "I managed to get a 37 out there; I don't think I could have thrown any further because I was emotionally drained by then from the long jump. I don't remember much of the javelin just that my warm-up didn't really go past 25-30m, so I think I did pretty well to throw 37m!"

Lithuanian Austra Skujyte had leapfrogged Sotherton into the silver medal position after throwing 49.58m. But with the 800m to come, she was all but guaranteed a medal. "When the result of the javelin came out, I was still in third place and I knew I was one of the, if not the strongest, 800m runner there, so I knew I was not going to lose the bronze medal unless I fell over," Sotherton said.

"My coach said you can get second, But as soon as I stepped on the track I was so drained and tired, I'd never been in this position before, knowing I was going to win a medal of some colour, whether it was bronze or silver. I tried to run my hardest, but I really couldn't. The overwhelming experience of the morning just wiped me clean, and I don't think my coach had really factored that in. I had to run a second quicker to get that silver and I probably could have done that easily if I hadn't had the emotion of the long jump.

"It was still a PB, but it wasn't good enough. I didn't need to look at her; I knew what kind of 800m runner she was. I knew she was a 2:16 runner at best, and she ran a PB so she excelled herself by a second and I only excelled myself by two hundredths but I think I let the pressure of the situation get to me."

A bronze medal on her Olympic debut, but it was mixed emotions for Sotherton: "Even though I was overwhelmed I didn't really have a chance to celebrate my bronze medal because my coach called me a wimp in the middle of the media room, and he still hasn't apologised!"

She came away from Athens with an Olympic medal, and all the richer for the experience.

"If I had that situation again, I would win the silver medal," she says. "I know how to deal with that pressure, how to overcome it and park it. If I could rewind I definitely would, but you learn from these things - I have never made that mistake again, I have always run my heart out in the 800m whatever I feel like."

What happened next?
Sotherton won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne ahead of home favourite Kylie Wheeler, with a 20-year-old Ennis winning bronze. The following year, she won bronze at the World Championships. After Kluft's retirement from heptathlon in 2008, Sotherton was one of the favourites to win gold at the Beijing Olympics, but missed out on a medal in finishing. Having struggled with injuries Kelly was advised to quit the heptathlon and she subsequently turned her attention onto the 400m for the 2011 season. Following positive medical advice, Kelly was given the all clear to return to the heptathlon in a bid to qualify for London 2012.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jo Carter Close
Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk