Even now, after so many gold-plated triumphs, Jessica Ennis-Hill retains the capacity to surprise.
The Olympic champion has not competed in a heptathlon since London 2012 and spent much of the last three years nursing an achilles injury and then her 10-month-old son, Reggie. Yet, on friendly and familiar ground at the Hypo Meeting in Götzis, she faced down most of the world’s top multi-eventers to end day one in third place.
As she stood in a green wheelie bin, which served as a temporary ice bath at the end of a hard day’s work, she admitted she was not entirely satisfied. “Because I’m really competitive, I’m always measuring myself against previous performances so it’s hard to come out here and not be right in the mix,” she said. “But if I look at where I was a few weeks ago, to be third overall I can’t be too disappointed, so I’m happy.”
She should be. After four events she has 3,928 points and, assuming her body does not stage a rebellion overnight, she will soar over her target of 6,200, the qualifying standard for next year’s Rio Olympics. Indeed a tally closer to 6,500 appears likely. That would be a staggering achievement given she missed winter training, has had continuing achilles niggles and does not expect to be near her best for another 12 months.
Only Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who has 4,031 points, and Dafne Schippers, with 3,995, are ahead of her. They were the silver and bronze medallists at the 2013 world championships. They are serious athletes in serious shape. For Ennis-Hill to be behind them is no disgrace.
There was bound to be some ring rust after so long away from the heptathlon and it showed in her first and favourite event, the 100m hurdles. Her start was a touch twitchy, her legs did not turn over as quickly as she would have liked and by the seventh hurdle she was straining. But while she finished fourth in 13.24sec – 0.7sec behind her personal best and her slowest 100m hurdles performance in a heptathlon since 2008 – it was still good enough for 1,089 points.
Next was the high jump, the event she was more pensive about having had only four practice sessions this year. Her coach, Toni Minichiello, admitted he had no idea what she might do and, after wobbling early, failing first time at 1.77m, 18cm below her personal best, she soon found her groove. A first-time clearance at 1.80m was marked with a high-five from Minichiello, another first-timer at 1.83m by a double fist pump. When she flew over 1.86m - the same height that she had cleared at London 2012 – she lit up Götzis with her smile.
That performance scored her 1,054 points, putting her second overall behind Theisen-Eaton, but it was still early days in the competition and there remained fears that the lack of practice might affect her in the shot put. They soon proved misplaced.
While she rotated too wildly in her first attempt, fouling by stepping out of the circle, she quietly made the necessary adjustments. First came a safe throw of 13.37m, then 13.93m – over 40cm better than her camp were expecting – and worth a score of 791.
In the 200m, the final event of the day, Schippers, the 100m and 200m European champion last year, burst to the line in a stunning 22.39sec while Ennis was left frustrated after finishing fourth in 23.86 for 994 points. Even so, it still left her third overall going into day two.
“I had a terrible hurdles,” admitted Ennis-Hill, when asked to assess her day. “It was ironic because I felt my hurdles would improve a bit and I was really worried about high jump because I’ve just not done it, yet it was the other way round. I was really happy with my shot put too. It’s just hard in the sprinting events to be at the back.”
But there was not such good news for Britain’s Morgan Lake, who is taking a short break from her A-Level exams to compete in this Austrian event. After finishing the first day with 3,634 points the 18-year-old admitted Olympic qualification would not be achieved here.
“It wasn’t the day I’d planned for,” she said. “I’m happy that the 200m was all right at the end but all the other events leading up to it haven’t been. I felt in the best form I’ve been in beforehand so it’s a bit weird. The Olympic standard is now definitely out of reach for this weekend.”
Ennis is hoping she will now be able to maintain her form and possibly cling on to third. “I’ll need things to go my way,” she said.
“The long jump is a bit of a shaky one for me, javelin has been going pretty well and in the 800m I’ve just got to give whatever I’ve got left in the tank. I haven’t had that nervous feeling before the 800m for such a long time, so it’s going to be quite scary.”
Scary, yes. But at least now, after coming through her first heptathlon after so long away, she can have no more fear of the unknown. Make no mistake, Jessica Ennis-Hill is back.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010