As Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill prepares for her comeback, Alex Mills looks at the growing wave of athletes who will be in her way
On August 22, 2015, more than three years after one of the most famous moments in British athletics history, Jessica Ennis-Hill will enter the Bird’s Nest stadium, Beijing, for the IAAF World Championships.
It will be her first major competition since the glorious scenes of London 2012 where she so brilliantly blew away the field and public expectation to take Denise Lewis’s British record and claim Olympic gold. While she says there are no targets for the competition, Ennis-Hill will know its importance ahead of Rio 2016.
“The most important thing for me coming back is to do a heptathlon and to qualify for Rio – everything I am doing is gearing up to get back to my best. We are not making Beijing a milestone – it will be part of the journey,” she says. “I am really enjoying being back in training and now I am looking forward to getting into competition shape.”
A lot has changed since London, not only for Ennis-Hill but for the heptathlon. While the Olympic champion has since celebrated her marriage to husband Andy, and the birth of a baby boy Reggie, her event has also undergone something of a renaissance during that period.
“We are not making Beijing a milestone – it will be part of the journey” – Ennis-Hill
An improvement in both the depth and standard of her competition will make her challenge far greater than ever. Where previously the Brit could have expected to have contested top points in each event with one or two other athletes, there are now three or four, while the aim of those previously targeting bronze is now gold.
Should she make it on to the start-line for the 100m hurdles for the first of seven events, the Olympic champion ought to meet at least five other genuine gold medal contenders, including the new British star and world No.1 Katarina Johnson-Thompson. Facing her will be some of the most exciting young talents in athletics as well as a number of athletes nearing the peak of their powers.
Such has been the progression in standards since Ganna Melnichenko achieved a lifetime goal to win world gold in 2013, the Ukrainian is now considered only an outsider to regain her title, especially after a very quiet season in 2014.
Now 31, Melnichenko, will be one the most mature athletes in the field in Beijing as well as the only contender to have previously competed in the stadium. Although she says she is happy with the progress of her opponents and the increased competition, she believes her experience could be key in holding on to the title she holds so dearly.
“I am 31 now and in heptathlon right now experience helps a lot because not many athletes have it,” she says. “It was a huge barrier to step through when I took my title aged 30, but I’m not finished here. That was only the start, the best is still to come.”
Former Olympic bronze medalist Kelly Sotherton believes anyone could win the world title in nine months’ time. “For me, there’s no clear favourite; I think that’s why it’s going to be quite exciting next year,” she says.
“It was a huge barrier to step through when I took my title aged 30, but I’m not finished here. That was only the start, the best is still to come” – Melnichenko
The improvement of many of those youngsters who were making their Olympic or senior debuts in London has been instrumental in the increased competitiveness. Their performances since 2012 are indicative of the increased confidence and impetus that often comes after competing at such a huge event, and their advancement is something that has impressed Ennis-Hill. “I have enjoyed watching their progress and am really looking forward to competing against them again,” she says.
Two of the biggest examples of this advancement are Brianne Theison-Eaton and Dafne Schippers, who have gone from placing 11th and 12th in 2012 to winning world heptathlon silver and bronze in 2013 and then becoming Commonwealth and European Champions respectively a year later. Both are now set to make a serious challenge to finish top of the rostrum in Beijing.
Victory at the Commonwealths this summer for Theisen-Eaton, arguably the most consistent performer in the event, was a fine reward for her huge progress in 24 months. Having been unlucky to finish runner-up at both the world indoor and outdoor championships, the Canadian was due a bit of good fortune and that came when her biggest rival Johnson-Thompson was forced to miss the competition through injury, leaving her as easily the best athlete in Glasgow.
Although it may have hollowed her victory, the Canadian says she will take a lot from the win. “Even though Katarina wasn’t there to go into a major championship like the Commonwealth Games as a contender, knowing that there was that pressure on me was great,” she says.
With her focus now back on turning world silver into gold, Theisen-Eaton admits she is going to have to work hard to reach her goal. “I’d have to work my butt off in order to get it because there are a lot of good athletes; the heptathlon is really strong,” she admits. “I think everyone has a chance of a gold medal, the heptathlon is unique in that you have seven events to screw up or you have seven events to do really well. You have to be on top of your game.”
“The heptathlon is unique in that you have seven events to screw up or you have seven events to do really well. You have to be on top of your game” – Theisen-Eaton
On the Canadian’s chances of gold, Sotherton, who won world bronze in 2007, says: “I think she’s always going to be a contender, but I don’t necessarily think she’s always going to be a gold medal favourite.
“She’s a fantastic athlete, she’s done so well and you look at her and she’s so consistent, she’s really consistent and that’s what is always going to get her the silvers and bronzes.”
As for Schippers, her European golds poignantly came in the 100m and 200m rather than in the heptathlon, proving that she is more than a mere multi- eventer. By winning the 200m in 22.03, Schippers became the fastest European for 19 years as well as ending up the second quickest runner in the world in 2014.
At 22 years old the Dutch athlete has the world at her feet and with it the national record, not only in the 200m but also the 100m and the heptathlon.
Interestingly, despite her success in the speed events, Schippers’ training is geared towards multi-events with her increase in speed coming with a decrease in the intensity of her running session. “I had a really good training camp in April where I realised that I can take the volumes of training much easier and I realised a lot of the runs I did were much faster than they used to be and everything was much easier,” she points out.
While many have suggested that she could go even quicker by concentrating solely on sprint work, Sotherton, isn’t so sure, saying: “Schippers in her interviews this summer has said that her training was all for multi-events and so her sprinting came from that. If she trains specifically for sprinting she might not be any faster.
“When you are a multi-eventer and you do single events on the side it’s because you have no pressure that you can perform better in those single events, so it’s more fun and enjoyable.”
Schippers is not alone in her prowess at more than one event. Aside from maybe Theisen-Eaton, who is a consistent all-rounder, most of the other top competitors have at least one trump event with which they could pull out of their sleeve 1000 plus points when most needed.
“There’s a whole thing about multi-eventers at the moment that they seem to be world class at one or two events,” Sotherton says. “Kat Johnson-Thompson is an example, as are Schippers, and even Nadine Broeson in the jumps, Nafissatou Thiam obviously, and Ennis in the hurdles,” Sotherton says. “It is fascinating to see all the different events have such high standards. If everybody was good at high jump it would make it a bit boring!”
“It is fascinating to see all the different events have such high standards. If everybody was good at high jump it would make it a bit boring!” – Sotherton
The range of individual strengths and weaknesses could make for an exciting competition in Beijing, filled with a constant re-ordering in the standings ahead of the epic final event of the 800m.
Although it may make the final outcome hard to predict, Johnson-Thompson believes that the athletes will know exactly what to expect from their opponents. “I think being a heptathlete, you know what your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses are,” she says. “I’m sure they know that my weaknesses are shot and javelin. So they sort of think, ‘Well, okay, she’s done well in the long jump and then the high jump, but I know the shot put and javelin are next so that’s where I’m going to gain points back, and vice versa I can say ‘I know my weakness is shot put, so I’m going to get a load of points in this high jump.’”
One of the latest stars to have come out of what seems like an endless conveyor belt of British heptathlon talent, Johnson-Thompson has, similarly to Theisen-Eaton and Schippers, surpassed expectations following her appearance in London two years ago. Having begun her senior international career playing Ennis-Hill’s understudy in front of 60,000 home fans, ‘KJT’ is now the British No.1.
After a morale-boosting fifth place at the 2014 world championships, Johnson-Thompson flew to the top of the world rankings in 2014 after a brilliant performance at the prestigious heptathlon Hypo-Meeting in Götzis, Austria, where she scored 6682 points. However, it wasn’t all good news this year as a stress injury in her foot just days before she was due to compete at the Commonwealth Games denied her the chance to take gold in Glasgow and later at the European Championships.
Although she admits it was a big disappointment to miss out, Johnson-Thompson says she is fully recovered and ready to move on: “The time I had to sit out was unfortunately the most important time of the year for me, but I’ve got over that bit of disappointment and other than that I’m back in training feeling happy.”
Speaking about the confidence she has gained from both her world-leading performance in Austria and her general progression, Johnson-Thompson adds: “It’s given me huge confidence because I didn’t think I was going to win. Last year in the world championship I came fifth and I was ranked seventh at the end of the year, so it was huge for me to come away from Gotzis ranked first in the world and then still to be so at the end of the season.
“I never thought I would progress this fast looking back two years ago to 2012, coming 15th in the Olympics and then to come away from Gotzis in 2014 as world No.1 has given me huge confidence for next year.”
“I don’t really get pressure, for some reason. I just don’t feel it. I feel like I set my own standards, so it’s pressure against myself if I don’t achieve them” – Johnson-Thompson
Such a mesmeric rise has amazingly come all before the age of 22, leading to comparisons, of course, with her famous compatriots as well as landing her the tag of potential favourite for world championships, all of which amounts to a lot of pressure for someone just out of university, but Johnson-Thompson does not seem fazed, saying: “I don’t really get pressure, for some reason. I just don’t feel it. I feel like I set my own standards, so it’s pressure against myself if I don’t achieve them.”
As for the return of Ennis-Hill, she added: “It’s going to be great. In 2012 she was literally the poster girl for the Olympics so that helped me. She was so lovely which helped me to compete against all these other athletes from different countries, which could have been quite daunting for me. It’s very exciting to have her back in the heptathlon as the Olympic champ.
“All this pressure that everyone’s saying I’ve got, she can have it all back.”
The Olympic champion won’t need her young heir to give her the pressure for it to head her way as she returns to competition. The main question for many is whether she can cope with the pressure of parenthood and being a multi-eventer, and while Ennis-Hill says her newfound priorities have changed her outlook on athletics, it is not necessarily in a bad way.
“Reggie is now my No.1 concern, but what it has done is to reduce the time I have to think about things,” she says. “I don’t dwell on how a session went when I have a little person to turn my attention to – I think that is a good thing.”
On her juggle between her home life and the track she adds: “It is a challenge but I have a great family and fantastic husband helping me. I am very lucky.”
“I don’t dwell on how a session went when I have a little person to turn my attention to – I think that is a good thing” – Ennis-Hill
Despite this, Sotherton believes her former rival may struggle to return to her best in multi-events. “You just have to ask Denise Lewis how hard it is to have two years off after being an Olympic champion and then come and do a heptathlon,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how good your support network is, it’s hard to be a mother and a world class athlete in the heptathlon. So I don’t know if I envisage Ennis-Hill coming back into the fray.
“I’d like to see Jess do hurdles to be honest. I think she’s proved her point in the heptathlon. She doesn’t have anything left to prove. I think she can still be truly world-class in the hurdles. I always said that to her!”
In reality, neither Sotherton nor Ennis-Hill can predict how she or her rivals will fare either in 2015 or beyond but one’s things for sure: the latest chapter of their heptathlon journey promises to be arguably the most exciting.