The British heptathlete has enjoyed her best-ever preparation for a major champs as she prepares to take on world No.1 Nafi Thiam
Nafissatou Thiam and Katarina Johnson-Thompson are separated by just five points on this season’s rankings and their heptathlon battle in Doha could be just as close.
Johnson-Thompson scored a PB of 6813 to win at the prestigious Gotzis event in May but one month later Thiam notched up 6819 in Talence, setting the scene perfectly for one of the most anticipated head-to-heads of the IAAF World Championships.
Johnson-Thompson could hardly be coming into the event in better shape either. She has enjoyed a succession of victories at the World Indoor Championships and Commonwealth Games last year followed by the European Indoor Championships this year.
Thiam came out top in their European Championships clash last year but it was a hard-fought contest and the Belgian athlete also holds the Olympic and world titles after victories in Rio 2016 and London 2017.
But Johnson-Thompson is on a roll and says her preparation has never gone better, as she hopes to keep her momentum going in Qatar in the coming days.
“Training has been going well and competitions have been going well too,” the 26-year-old says. “I’ve had the best run-in I’ve ever had and I’m just looking forward to getting out there now.”
In the past, Johnson-Thompson’s competitive mettle has been tested but she believes she has overcome those issues.
“I’m not putting pressure on myself to win but I’m applying the pressure to do what I know I’m capable of,” she says.
“When training and competitions have gone so well, I need to show that with my performance. There’s pressure to win and there’s pressure to do well out there and compete to my best.”
She continues: “I’ve had good momentum going into each of my big competitions lately. The last two have been good, with decent scores so I think I’m once again coming into shape at the right time.”
The heptathlon schedule in Doha is unusual compared to most championships. The first event, the 100m hurdles, kicks off at 5.05pm local time (3.05pm in the UK) on Wednesday October 3 with the final event of the first day, the 200m, at 10.35pm. Then, the second day kicks off at 6.15pm with the long jump and finishes shortly after midnight with the climactic 800m.
“I’m going to enjoy every second of it,” says Johnson-Thompson, “especially the lie-in at the start of the second day!”
But she adds: “The main thing with the timetable is making sure I’ll have time with my coach. The heptathlon and decathlon are at the same time and he’ll have 17 events over two days to keep an eye on and manage. That’s the main challenge for me. I’m not fussed about anything else because we’re all in the same boat when it comes to the heat and the late evening sessions.”
As for the heat, Johnson-Thompson says that being based in France means she is more acclimatised to it. This is especially the case after this recent summer where parts of France hit record temperatures of 46C. “It was unbearable,” she remembers, “and we were saying that’s what it’s going to be like in Doha although there’s going to be air-con in the stadium.”
A prodigious young athlete, Johnson-Thompson experienced the Olympics in 2012 when she was 15th in the heptathlon in London. In 2014 she became world No.1 in the heptathlon with a score of 6682 and she began 2015 with a European indoor title setting a British pentathlon record. But the World Championships in Beijing in 2015 turned into a disaster when she fouled her long jump attempts.
Long jump has usually been a great event for her – she is a former UK record-holder and won world indoor long jump silver in 2014. Further disappointment followed at the Rio Olympics when she was sixth in the heptathlon after underpar throws and she made the tough decision to leave long-time coach Mike Holmes and her home in Liverpool to move to Montpellier in France.
On her move to France to be coached by Bertrand Valcin in a group that contains world decathlon record-holder Kevin Mayer, her recent results show it was a good decision.
“At the last Worlds it was only one summer into my move,” she says, after finishing fifth in the heptathlon and high jump in London 2017. “But I knew it was the right decision for me at the time.
“My training was going well but I hadn’t changed many of my techniques and I didn’t have as much belief in myself.
“It feels like a lifetime ago now. I feel so much better now in myself. We’re coming into the World Championships and Olympics and I’m happy with the place I’m in right now.”
Confidence is at an all-time high.
“As long as I’m still making progress in each of my events, it gives me confidence,” she says. But she also knows there is always the chance for something to go wrong in the heptathlon.
“You never know with heptathlon as there are so many opportunities to have slip-ups. In the heptathlon you do get good performances and bad ones and unfortunately the level heptathlon is, at the moment, if you have a bad performance – even a small one – it will cost you medals.
“I’m just trying to make sure I’m consistent every time I come out on to the track. That’s all I can do, really – look for consistency through all my events and hope for a big performance here and there.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that one heptathlon where it’s all come together for me and that’s what I’m working toward and what Nafi is working toward as well.”
If it comes down to the wire in Doha, will she try to get into the head of Thiam? Johnson-Thompson says no.
“I prefer to focus on myself and trying to make myself the best heptathlete I can be rather than trying to play mind games with someone and attempting to win that way,” she says.
Seven things you didn’t know about KJT
1 Striving to improve her mental game, Katarina Johnson-Thompson has called upon the services of Steve Peters. Peters is a world-beating masters sprinter who appeared on a recent cover of AW but has also worked as a sports psychiatrist with England footballers, British cyclists and snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan.
2 Few athletes have won as many national titles as Johnson-Thompson and she has taken them in events as varied as long and high jump to sprint hurdles and 300m indoors.
3 If she wasn’t an elite athlete, Johnson-Thompson has said in the past that she would like to have been an interior designer
4 KJT went to the same school in Liverpool as Jodie Comer – the actress who stars in TV series Killing Eve – and they have remained friends ever since.
5 World indoor sprint hurdles champion Andy Pozzi is Johnson-Thompson’s boyfriend but in the past she has dated DJ Nick Bright.
6 In the past KJT has admitted to being addicted to Candy Crush and also watching too much daytime television, although that was before she moved to live and train in France.
7 The athlete has two pet dachshunds, Chorizo and Bronx, who are back home in Liverpool.
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