Sweeney prepares to step back into the circle


ONE of the lost stories of the Olympic Games. Three weeks before the great, five-ringed hoopla began, Nick Sweeney was in Athens, Georgia, at camp with the other behemoths of the throwing circle. Every morning the whales would rise with the sun and shake out their jaded muscles. At nine o'clock they would stage mock qualification competitions, adjusting their circadian rhythms to the looming demands of competition.

One morning, with the sun in absentia and the rain teeming down, Nick Sweeney threw the discus 211 ft, hurled the damn thing right out there through the 64-metre mark, the sort of exertion that clears the head and fills the heart. In the rain at nine in the morning Sweeney permitted himself a little jig.

"I just thought, this is it. I'm back in shape. I'm ready to go."

At last. The road to Atlanta had been long and winding. Sweeney suffered the relentless bump and grind more than most. Yet spring had yielded up some signs of hope. The maturing of the year had brought him to training camps all over America. Pushing himself and his body to the limits. Olympic year is a time to explore those limits. Either that, or spend the rest of the century wondering about what might have been.

Even with a troublesome tendon growling all the while, Nick Sweeney had found his throwing improving slowly, the old form coming back.

"It was strange. The best year ever and worst year ever. In the spring I was throwing well, 65 metres, 66 metres. out near 67 metres. I came back and won some meets in Europe throwing 64 metres, straight off the plane almost.

"Everything was going to plan, just a bit of a twinge in my back here and there. Some problems with my knee, but I didn't think it was bad. I threw 211 feet that morning and after that I just watched it all spiral down.

Within a week or so his tendon was playing up bad. At least he thought it was his tendon. A thrower's life, like a golfer's, is the search for the perfect action, the perfect smooth sequence of movements which release all that stored and coiled power. Not having been reared to throwing, Sweeney is still learning, still looking. Through the constant monitoring of the movement little glitches and little pains can frequently be detected.

In the spring he'd noticed a small technical problem during his throws, he was lifting his left foot a little too early. Looking back now he reckons it was perhaps an involuntary avoidance of pain. In Olympic year, if pain can be stowed away conveniently, you don't want to go asking too many questions.

Two weeks before the Games, Sweeney was on an emotional roller coaster. His throwing was improving, his condition worsening. The pain in his left leg was getting bad. A week before the Games it took a turn for the worst. His condition declined to the extent that the final days before competition were just pure stress.

F.or a thrower the last session before competition is usually very important. If you throw well then, if you have your action working well, then you'll throw well in competition usually. Throwers invest a lot in that last session.

"The last couple of sessions for Atlanta I just couldn't do it."

He looked for rationalisations, mulling through the precedents of previous years.

"There is only so much adrenalin in your body, only so much you can do. You realise that. Last year (1995)I was in my best shape in the spring. I thought when I tapered I would be throwing further. It's important to take it easy. Work hard, but not too hard or else you run into a deficit later on.

He sweated and fretted until competition day, increasingly aware that whatever happened bar him winning a medal would probably be lost somewhere in the media din surrounding Michelle Smith and Sonia O'Sullivan.

"It was a bad time. Having had such a great build-up to it before the leg went, I'd been growing in confidence. I worked very hard during the spring.

"Then, in Atlanta, on the morning of the qualifications I threw 62.04, just let it out. 62.04 metres is a distance which made the finals of just about every championships ever. People throw longer when they come back for the final session, but I came out of the ring knowing I'd qualified.

"Next thing is they re-admitted an American to the competition and his re-admission bumped me out of the final. We lodged a protest. He'd fouled out and then he was readmitted on video evidence.

"You can't understand how very frustrating that was. I thought they should have taken 13 to the final instead of 12, that's been done before. I'd left the stadium in sixth place in my pool. That usually guarantees a final place. I looked up on the screen an hour later and I was in seventh place in that pool.

"The whole thing left a very bad taste. There had been eight of us on 62 metres. Lars Riedel threw 64 and he went on to throw 69 in the final. We'd all been bunched together. Usually in the final you jump several metres. I had been throwing about 64.5 during the year, some 65s and 66s. If that form had come back I could have got into the medals, who knows?"

His Olympics ended in pain and rancour and, as he'd suspected, his story got lost somewhere between Michelle's medals and Sonia's urinary tract.

He went to the stadium to watch the final "just to punish myself. Anyway it was the Olympics." What might have been?

Friends of his wandered up and asked what had happened. Nick Sweeney, one of the great hopes, hadn't made the final. What injury? What American? So much for higher, faster, stronger and the greatest show on earth.

"That was another problem," he says, "I just wasn't able to get my story out. Nobody knew. I came home and a lot of friends didn't know what had happened to me. The whole period was a very emotional roller coaster."

It's coming up to two months pow since his operation and things are moving along nicely. He bandies the terms about with some satisfaction. "Clinical neuroma MRIs showed a tendonopathy but the tendon was in good shape after all Nerve causing atrophy in left leg and loss of power function Piece of nerve removed Minimum trauma..."

"It was straightforward enough. My difficulty is that all my injuries have come at the worst times possible. I've talked to Roger Black and Steve Backley since about injury and recovery. If I had known it was a nerve instead of a tendon I could have got it done beforehand. That's frustrating."

Hue's back now and training well. Still training well. Swimming and biking and developing upper body strength and drumming his fingers until after Christmas when heavy training starts again. That's not so bad, he thinks. He's 28. As a thrower he has good years ahead of him yet. The world didn't end with Atlanta 1996.

"I'm not in any rush," says Nick Sweeney. "Maybe I've learnt something by standing back a bit. It's in the past now, but it's frustrating not to know how I would have gone if I hadn't been injured."

In the meantime he's training up in Westwood and enjoying the longest spell he's had at home in quite some time. Athens beckons next year. He feels the old appetite coming back. Nick Sweeney is no longer unwell.