Time ticking for Steff

Clock’s ticking for off-pace Steffensen

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Jenny McAsey | June 14, 2008

TWO months from the Beijing Olympics, the form of Australia’s top 400m runner John Steffensen is giving selectors cause for concern.

In his latest race at the IAAF Grand Prix in Ostrava yesterday, Steffensen finished sixth in a slow time of 46.83sec. That performance comes after two previous competitions where he was well shy of his best, clocking 46.99sec in New York at the start of June and 46.19sec in Oslo last week.

Steffensen is Australia’s top contender for the 400m in Beijing, and at his peak - he set a personal best of 44.73sec to win the 400m at the 2006 Commonwealth Games - is capable of at least making the final in a highly competitive event.

However, his build-up to the Games has been chequered and he may be suffering the effects of an appendix operation last month.

Steffensen suffered ongoing hamstring problems earlier in the year and finished second behind Joel Milburn at the national championships in March. He then shifted to his base in California and split with controversial US coach Larry Wade, a former hurdler who served a two-year drugs ban, and switched to the camp of coach Bobby Kersee three months out from the Games.

National performance manager for Athletics Australia, Max Binnington, said yesterday he was keen to speak to Steffensen and find out what is behind his below-par times.

“I wasn’t concerned with his first two runs in that they were showing an improvement, and given he had an appendix operation, that was reasonable. But his run overnight was ordinary,” Binnington said.

“I don’t know whether there is some temporary issue or whether there is a longer-term issue.”

Steffensen needs to run the Olympic B qualifying time of 45.95sec or under in the next month to confirm his selection for Beijing, but Binnington is confident that will come.

“Last year going into the world championships in Osaka I wasn’t sure where John was at and then he ran under 45 seconds on two occasions,” Binnington said. "He is the sort of guy who has the capability to come up to speed fairly quickly.

“I am not doing any wrist-slashing over it at the moment.”

Distance runner Benita Johnson ran bravely over 10,000m in Ostrava but it was not enough to earn her selection for that event in Beijing.

Johnson is already on the Olympic team as a marathon runner but was hoping to switch to the 10km track event, partly because of the hot, humid weather expected at the Olympics.

Johnson came 17th in 33min 08.59sec, well outside the Olympic A qualifying time of 31min45sec.

Johnson’s quest was a courageous one, given that her father Tony died two weeks ago. She made a dash to Australia last week for his funeral and then returned to Europe to race.

By yesterday, she was emotionally and physically spent, which cruelled her last chance to qualify for the 10,000m before the selectors sit down for their final meeting on June 23.

Johnson’s training partner Craig Mottram is enjoying a low-key build-up to Beijing, a contrast to last year when he was hyped as the “great white hope” of distance running.

Mottram placed fifth in a two mile event at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene last weekend, an event he won in 2007, but believes his Olympic campaign is on target.

His coach, Nic Bideau, said they had tried to ease the pressure on Mottram this year.

“We worked out a few things on the mental side and I think he will be better prepared for championship runs than he was before,” Bideau said.

Mottram completed a heavy training block at altitude in the US before his race in Eugene, and has now moved to his London training base.

“We have a lot of training to get through but he is in a good frame of mind,” Bideau said.