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'I wish I was ten years younger'

Jo Carter December 1, 2011
Iwan Thomas won European and Commonwealth gold in 1998 © Getty Images
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If the race to the Olympics were a 400 metres race, the British athletes would have just burst out of the blocks. Winter training has begun in earnest, and there's no stopping until they cross the line in London next summer.

Go out too slowly, and you risk getting left behind. Start too quickly, and you'll run out of gas. One man who knows the dangers of both is Iwan Thomas, an Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth medal-winning athlete.

A prodigious talent and a natural athlete, Thomas was a late starter in the world of athletics. A talented BMX rider, he only discovered the sport at the age of 16, but it didn't take long for him to catch up.

"I was really, really competitive from a young age," Thomas told ESPN. "I was one of those kids who loved sport. My first real love was BMX racing; I didn't get into athletics until I was about 16 or 17.

"I moved schools for my A Levels and I really wanted to impress my new school mates at sports day, so I entered five events. I won all five and set five school records. My teacher made me join a club, I finished second at the English Schools and I was chosen to go to the World Junior Championships that summer."

In 1994, while Thomas was at university in London, he represented Wales at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada. He failed to reach the final, but set a new Welsh record of 45.90 seconds.

"I was still at university and I wasn't really training, and like most students I was going out all the time," Thomas admitted. "I thought if I could run a Welsh record, what could I do if I actually knuckled down?

"So when I finished university, I moved down south to be with a coach. In those days there was no funding so my parents agreed to pay my rent for a year. I got a part-time job in Next, working on the shop floor, trained really hard, and within a year I had an Olympic silver medal."

After winning Olympic silver in the 4x400m alongside Roger Black, Jamie Baulch and Mark Richardson in Atlanta, the quartet joined forces the following year at the 1997 World Championships in Athens.

Thomas remains involved in athletics since his retirement © Getty Images
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Once again they finished behind the Americans, but that was later upgraded to gold after Antonio Pettigrew returned his medal after admitting to taking performance-enhancing drugs. Thomas received his gold medal in May 2010.

"It is hard for me looking back," he said. "So many of the guys I used to race against - Alvin and Calvin Harrison, Jerome Young and Antonio Pettigrew were all found to have used banned substances

"Jerome Young and Antonio Pettigrew were both nice guys. Some guys you'd look at and you might think they had a slightly suspicious body shape, but Pettigrew in particular was a little skinny whippet - I'd never have suspected anything.

"It doesn't really feel like we won. We didn't win the race on the night, but it's obviously nice to have the recognition."

Thomas left Athens with another medal, but he was hoping for two. Despite being ranked second in the world over one lap and being one of the favourites to win a medal, Thomas finished sixth in the 400m final.

"Tactically I raced completely wrong," he admitted. "I was too fired up. It was the only time I ever false started in my life. My best split over the first 200m was 21.1 seconds and I ran 20.8. I was ahead of Michael Johnson, but I had gone off so quickly - with 80m to go the wheels fell off.

"I regret the way I ran that race, but if I hadn't have done that I wouldn't have won the medals I did the following year."

From the disappointment, came success. 1998 was Thomas' most successful year as an athlete, winning gold at the European, World Cup and Commonwealth Games.

You would never suspect anyone of cheating, otherwise you wouldn't want to run against them. You have to believe in the system.

"If I had to pick my best moment it would be the Europeans," Thomas said. "My gold was the first individual gold for Britain. Mark Richardson had beaten me five or six times going into that race and so on paper, he was the favourite. The Europeans only happen every four years and Britain had won my event the previous 12 years, so Mark and I were really feeling the pressure.

"In Budapest I was in lane three and Richardson in lane six and he went out hard. But I didn't chase him; I believed in my tactics and ran my own race. So I learnt a lot from my mistake in Athens. So my greatest regret was perhaps the making of my career. Winning meant so much to me. I've run faster than that, but that was definitely the race that meant the most."

It would prove to be one of the last major medals Thomas would win. A stress fracture to his ankle required telescopic surgery, and when he returned in 2000, but was never able to recapture the form he showed before with a series of injury setbacks blighting his career. After winning silver at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Thomas wanted to go out on a high in Melbourne four years later.

"I got myself into pretty good shape in 2006," Thomas recalls. "I wanted to go to the Commonwealths and end on a high, but I was really unlucky and two weeks before I tore my hamstring - I was totally distraught.

"I regret not listening to my body more. If I felt a tweak and the physio recommended taking 10 days' rest, I'd normally be back training after two, only to do more damage and be out for a few months.

Thomas is a Gatorade ambassador © Gatorade
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"What was frustrating for me was that I had so many years of injuries - I only had three seasons that I was in really good shape. All my injuries were caused by me pushing myself too hard in training trying to be the best I possibly could be.

"The Americans all seemed to have ten years at the top. But you would never suspect anyone of cheating, otherwise you wouldn't want to run against them. You have to believe in the system."

Since hanging up his spikes, Thomas has been a regular on television, appearing on a wide range of shows including Celebrity Masterchef, Through the Keyhole, Egg Heads and Total Wipeout, as well as presenting That Paralympic Show on Channel 4 and appearing on Freddie Flintoff Versus the World.

"Towards the end of my career, my body could only cope with two or three training sessions a week, realised I couldn't be an athlete forever, started to do a few bits here and there," Thomas said.

"That Paralympic Show has given me a whole new respect for Paralympians. I did a half marathon in a wheel chair. I was out in New Zealand presenting from the Paralympic World Championships in Christchurch, and I had to do opening link from a bungee jump. I was petrified - I absolutely hate heights!"

As well working for the Aviva Academy, helping nurture the next generation of Olympic athletes, Thomas is an ambassador for Gatorade.

"It's ironic really, I never had a drinks sponsor during my career - I used to drink water," Thomas said. "Most of the guys Gatorade sponsor are still competing, but I still try to keep fit, doing triathlons and I am thinking about running the London Marathon for the fourth time next year."

He may still be in pretty good shape, but a comeback was never on the cards. Thomas admits he is envious of the British athletes competing on home soil next summer, and urges those selected to make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Back at my first Olympics in 1996, I was straight out of university didn't really expect to do that well," he said. "I was young then, I thought my career would last forever, and really I was just going to Atlanta for the experience.

"But by 2000, I'd had real injury problems. It just goes to show you have to take every opportunity. That's why I am so envious of everybody next year - a home Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's going to be amazing - I wish I was ten years younger."

Iwan Thomas was speaking at the launch of the Gatorade G Series Pro range, a new series of sports performance products that fuel athletes before (Gatorade Prime 01), during (Gatorade Perform 02) and after (Gatorade Recover 03) workout, practice or competition. www.gatorade.co.uk

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk