The world heptathlon champion reflects on her early days through to her global senior success
As I chat with Katarina Johnson-Thompson at Wavertree Stadium in Liverpool on a chilly winter morning on Merseyside, she recalls the fun she experienced here as a child.
At that time it involved rolling down the grass banking that surrounds the first bend of the track. But this morning, as she is here to promote England Athletics’ new Funetics project, the focus is still on fun and involves introducing children from as young as four to the joys of running, jumping and throwing.
“I wish I’d had something like this when I first started,” the world heptathlon champion tells me. “It might have saved me a lot of trouble if I’d learned how to throw a little sooner.”
As a child her mother was keen for her daughter to have various interests and hobbies. “I was a bit of a tomboy, always running around, so my mum wanted me to burn up some of that energy,” she says.
“I enjoyed dancing but after being picked out to do the high jump in a school competition, simply because I was the tallest in the class, I quickly took an interest in athletics.
“We sought out the local club and after learning that a running group followed the high jump session, I just went from one to the other, my mother just being happy I was taking a keen interest in another activity.”
As she took part in the young athletes’ league competitions, she displayed a clear talent for multiple events and recalls long days out, taking part in the high jump, hurdles, long jump and the relay to close the day of intense activity.
Success came along but Johnson-Thompson remembers one competition which was something of a wake-up call that things could get more serious. “I was taking part in an English Schools competition and remember thinking I’d done rather well and won, only to discover another girl was yet to come in at her opening height!”
She adds: “After that, winning the World Youth Championships (heptathlon) in 2009, it gave me the focus I needed with the next big challenge being the 2012 Olympics in London.”
It was after the now customary final victory lap that all the combined event athletes share in, that Johnson-Thompson made the decision to quit university and focus her attention full-time on athletics.
“Even after several major championships, it was only during that victory lap in London that I knew I really wanted to focus on my athletics full-time,” she remembers.
Between the London and Rio Olympics, some may have begun to doubt her ability to win a major medal, but after deciding to move her training base to Montpellier in France and join a coaching team led by Betrand Valcin the medals have begun to materialise.
Commonwealth heptathlon gold in 2018 was followed by world and European indoor pentathlon titles in 2018-19 and, most recently, a British record of 6981 points and world heptathlon gold in Doha.
Johnson-Thompson returns to Montpellier the day after we speak to start her third winter in France. “Before moving to France, I was training maybe on four days a week,” she says, “but now its six days a week with double sessions on a couple of the days.”
As we chat, the high jump is still her first love and favourite event, but when I ask her what the least favourite discipline is she replies “none now” with what seems like a newfound confidence that has come from her training set up.
“Fartlek is probably my least favourite session.” She tells me, “I much prefer a full recovery before I go again, but event wise, now they are all my favourite.”
It is this confidence and focus that has no doubt helped propel her to become Britain and the world’s best female combined eventer and she’s clearly enjoying life and her success, which recently saw her nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
While there was no mention of a medal from Tokyo next year being on her Christmas list, it surely must be set now firmly within her sights.
“For Christmas I just want my mum to stop feeding my dogs too much – they are getting a little too fat while I’m away in France!” she tells me, before leaving to take them for a last walk before she heads back to Montpellier to begin the hard work in preparation for Tokyo.
Funetics for ‘pre-club’ kids
Katarina Johnson-Thompson was speaking with AW at the launch of Funetics – England Athletics’ latest initiative which is aimed at introducing four to 11-year-olds to athletics a little earlier than the traditional club route.
The Funetics sessions will be delivered in schools and in local community sports and athletics clubs and will include physical conditioning, running, jumping and throwing. The activities are divided into three stages: developing, practising and emerging (levels 1 to 9).
Each stage aims to provide children with new and progressively more difficult challenges appropriate to their stage of development and encourages them to learn all the skills and events of athletics, reinforcing the importance of a good, all-round skill base.
There is a free licence to affiliated clubs but with a percentage of income taken to cover central operating and digital costs. The school licence is £5100+ VAT to providers looking to deliver activity within schools. These providers could be charitable trusts, coaching operators or school sport partnerships.
A school provider will get access to a territory to deliver Funetics to school children within curriculum and after school settings and all providers receive training and support including attendance at a one-day coaching course, plus equipment packs, kit and access to digital tools.
» See more at funetics.co.uk