FS meets Jessica Ennis-Hill, one of the greatest athletes Britain has ever produced, as she charts her next mission and tries to come to terms with what she has achieved in the past
Jessica Ennis-Hill could have retired after giving birth to her son in 2014, and she would have spent the next few decades as a national hero preserved in golden memories. The poster girl of London 2012; the star of Super Saturday; a shining example of what we Brits can be but often aren’t: industrious, impressive, happy, nice.
Her competitive instinct, though, had other plans. She took the first tentative steps towards regaining fitness on an exercise bike, then rapidly regained the shape of an elite all-around athlete. Ennis-Hill won the 2015 world heptathlon title, the first woman to do so a year after becoming a mum.
This year, aged 30, Ennis-Hill went to Rio 2016 to defend her Olympic title, and once again returned a hero. Beaten to gold by two seconds, Ennis-Hill took silver after the extraordinary exploits of long-limbed Belgian phenom, Nafi Thiam. Such is the mind-blowing physicality and skill required in heptathlon, getting on the podium is a serious result. And to do it more than once is pretty rare.
Only the great world record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee has ever managed to win two Olympic titles. Ennis-Hill now has the next-best record, the first to win Olympic heptathlon gold and silver.
Now, surely, Ennis-Hill can have a break? Not quite. The athletics superstar announced her retirement last month, but she’s already keeping busy, planning a mass participation race with the help of Vitality and Trevor Nelson. We sat down with Jess to find out more.
We have amazing memories of watching you at London 2012. And for Rio, we stayed up late, and it was emotional…
Oh gosh, it was so emotional! For all the heptathletes, it was two long days, from the time we left the hotel to our final events. Physically, it was two really tough days. It was an amazing feeling just to actually be on the start line, to have got to that point, and then getting through everything with no major disasters really, and then coming away with another medal… When I crossed that line, I was just really relieved and happy. There was that emotion of, ‘I won’t be on the Olympic stage again. This is the last time.’ It was a unique, incredible, feeling: it was just really overwhelming.
How much of you felt ‘this is absolutely amazing’ and how much felt ‘I’m really ready for this to be the last one’?
Before it all started, I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?’ It’s so nerve-racking and tiring and stressful. And then after you think, ‘That was amazing, that was so much fun.’ When you’re in it, it’s hard and intense. But that feeling of adrenaline and relief is just a really amazing feeling.
You know more than most about motivating yourself through a hard slog – what advice would you give to people who can’t get themselves going?
Everyone, even elite sportsmen and women, have gone through that feeling of thinking they can’t do this, it’s too hard, and really waver in motivation. You’ve got
to have something within you that wants to push you on. You’ve gotto take as much help as you can from things around you. Things like music, the people who support you, having a goal: something to focus on and work towards. For me, having a programme, something to tick off and say ‘I’ve done that, I’m actually improving and making progress’. All of these little things help motivate you a little more.
Do you have any specific tracks or artists that help get you going?
Have you heard of Chance The Rapper? I quite like Angels. That’s one of my favourites at the moment because it’s just quite fun and puts you in a happy mood. I listen to all sorts really. Just loads of random stuff. I love Jay-Z, and I also like Stormzy, Arctic Monkeys…
Do you have a favourite picture of you competing?
The obvious one is crossing the line after the 800m in London. I’d never even really thought about celebrating or what I’d do, but in that moment I was just like ‘ahahaharghghghgh’ [makes a noise like a strangled scream]. That was just amazing. But also, after the long jump in London, there’s a picture of me going ‘YEAHHHHHH!’ I was just so happy because long jump had been such a troubled event all year. Before I got to London, I was thinking long jump could ruin everything. And then I managed to get it right and I was like, ‘YES I’M SO HAPPY!’.
How different were your two Olympic experiences?
They were really, really different. London was my first Olympics, and I’d never experienced anything like that. I was very much the favourite – I had all that pressure and expectation.
Like the giant posters of you near Heathrow welcoming people to England…
Yeah! Things that I have kind of forgotten about. But when I actually think about all these different things, it was just crazy. In Rio, I wasn’t the favourite going in, it didn’t feel as stressful. It was important, and obviously I wanted to do as well as I could, but now I have my son to think of as well. And life is just different when you are a parent. They were two very, very different lead-ups to Olympics, but they were equally amazing.
What was the atmosphere like in Rio?
I was on first thing in the morning of the first day, so it was quite quiet. But as momentum carried through the days, and when Bolt was in there, and everyone was getting excited about the medals, it changed. Everyone [in Team GB] was winning so many medals, so the atmosphere at Team GB house was brilliant. There was such a buzz.
Do you think that Team GB momentum, as a concept, exists?
100%. You feel that success of other people. You see how they are, and what they’ve achieved. Just watching them do what they do is so inspiring. You watch them and it makes you think, ‘I want to do well, I want a bit of that’. Success helps with momentum, too. I think that the first major championship I won – the worlds in 2009 – lets you ride a wave of success, because you feel it, and you can kind of keep that momentum going. There’s something very special in that
kind of momentum.
Given the ban on Russian track athletes this year, does it make the Chernova thing even more annoying?
[Tatyana Chernova beat Ennis to the heptathlon world title on 30 August 2011, but her results from 15 August 2009 to 14 August 2011 have now been annulled due to a doping violation. Chernova was banned for a further two years between 2013-2015, and now all Russian track and field athletes are banned due to systemic faults in their anti-doping set-up.]
Errmm… I mean, part of me just thinks I hope that medal comes back to me eventually. I don’t know when that will be, but I hope that, you know, the world is right and that does happen. It’s quite a depressing time to be an athlete with everything that’s been going on. And I know things are making a little bit more progress now and sport is getting cleaner – with Russia not being in the Olympics – but still, it’s just… you can’t really understand how it can happen on that level.
[Ennis has since been awarded Gold the medal]
There are positive stories about athletes, too. Like Aries Merritt, who turned down taking a PED despite having 15 per cent kidney function.
Yeah, exactly, and a lot of the time people like that are forgotten. To see him [Merritt] on the start line, and to see what he went through and what he achieved: it’s just incredible. I didn’t know that he’d turned that down, but that’s even more inspiring. It’s people like him that we need to celebrate.
If you had given up on heptathlon early on, and wanted to get really good at running one distance, what would that be?
I’ve never really run much further than 800m. So me doing a mile for VitalityMove is gonna be really hard!
When was the last time you ran a mile?
The last time I did any kind of distance was when I ran a 5k, but that was about seven years ago. So I’ve never really done that kind of thing. Now I’ve retired, I’ll enjoy having a new focus and a new challenge doing something like that. Whether I’m any good at it, I have no idea!
Is there anything else that you want to do away from sport?
Skiing. I’d like to go skiing. That’s one thing I’ve always looked forward to. My coach is always like, ‘Don’t dare do anything that risks breaking bones or injuring yourself’. So now that I’ve finally retired, I’d love to go on a skiing holiday. Or do something dangerous!
Jessica Ennis-Hill launched VitalityMove, a project she has developed with Vitality. Two events taking place at Chatsworth and Windsor Great Park in 2017 will combine music and running to get people active. For more information and to sign up for tickets, visit www.vitalitymove.co.uk