Of all the mountain peaks that overlook the frayed six-lane running track in the Austrian town of Götzis, none is as steep as the challenge Jessica Ennis-Hill has set herself in the next 15 months: to return from giving birth and retain her Olympic heptathlon title.
As she says, she is entering unknown territory. However, as she makes the final preparations for her first heptathlon since London 2012, she is on familiar ground.
It was in Götzis in 2012 that Ennis-Hill broke Denise Lewis’s British record by scoring 6,906 points, and showed she was ready to face the physical and psychological pressures of a home Games. This weekend, however, the sights are set far lower. Her first target is to score the 6,200 points required to make the qualifying standard for the Rio Olympics. The next is to convince herself that aiming for a medal at the World Championships in Beijing in August has any basis in reality.
“If I’m going to the World Championships I want to be competitive and I want to medal,” she said. “Just seeing how I put a heptathlon together will give me an idea of whether I can go away, put in some more training and come back stronger, or whether I’m struggling.”
Ennis-Hill has the same uncompromising approach when it comes to next year’s Olympics. “When I think about Rio I don’t want to go to be fourth or fifth,” she said. “I want a medal. It’s such a big ask to win back-to-back Olympic golds. It would be hard to top London but back-to-back golds would.”
There have been limited, but encouraging, signs that she is heading in the right direction. Three weeks ago she ran 13.14sec for the 100m hurdles in the Manchester City Games, more than half a second down on her personal best, but still better than almost every other heptathlete she will face in Götzis. Then, a fortnight ago, she jumped 6.16m in the long jump and threw 43.88m in the javelin at a meeting in Loughborough – again, far from her best, but enough to hint of better things to come.
However, there are still many unanswerables. Ennis-Hill has not done the high jump, shot put or run 800m since 2012. It remains to be seen how her body, which returned to training after the birth of her son, Reggie, in November, will react to two days of intense competition. The possibility of rain on Saturday could also put a dampener on her ambitions.
Ennis-Hill insists that her training is “not a million miles” away from where it was in London 2012, although she did have to back off this year because of an achilles injury. That seems to have settled down and a physiotherapist and massage therapist are on hand to make sure it behaves itself this weekend.
“I’m a slightly older athlete now and I’m not going to be able to train in the way I did what I was 25,” she said. “I can’t just absolutely hammer my body all the time because it probably will break down. I’m going to have to train a bit more sensibly.”
Unfortunately, Ennis-Hill’s long-anticipated clash with Katarina Johnson-Thompson has been postponed as the latter is recovering from a knee injury. But the prestigious Hypo meeting contains its usual stellar field, including the 2013 world championship silver medallist, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, and two athletes from the low countries – Dafne Schippers and Nafissatou Thiam – with high ambitions.
Morgan Lake, Britain’s 18-year-old wunderkind, is also here despite being in the middle of her A-levels. “It’s been hard doing training and studying,” Lake said, “but my aim is to get a personal best and the Olympic standard. This year I’ve stepped up a level.”
Ennis-Hill, meanwhile, said that having Reggie sleeping through the night has made a big difference to her training because she is not so tired – and her son surprised her further recently by starting to walk. “When he was about nine months he took some wobbly steps but we had to trick him to do it, but the other week he took some little steps to me and he kept on going.”
Ennis-Hill believes she is ready to take her own wobbly step back into elite level. “I definitely think I can still be competitive,” she said. “I am looking forward to it and I still feel I’ve got it within me.” We will have a much better idea if she is right on Sunday evening.
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