Usually the last thing any heptathlete feels like doing at the end of an 800m, when their lungs and limbs are waving a white flag, is muster a smile.
But even though her body was slumped on the track and a wave of photographers were invading her personal space, Jessica Ennis-Hill was happy to make an exception.
During this year there have been many sporting performances that have made the jaw drop and the heart sing. Nothing, though, has come close to rocket-launching the soul quite as much as watching Ennis-Hill claim the heptathlon world title only 13 months after giving birth to her son Reggie. It deserves to go down as one of the great comebacks in sport.
Only a handful of women have celebrated a world title after giving birth, and the majority of those have come in endurance races, where pregnancy may confer some benefits. But in the heptathlon? Never. In fact many sport scientists I spoke to after Ennis-Hill announced she was pregnant last year privately doubted that it could be done. To them the 2010 Commonwealth Games heptathlon champion Louise Hazel was only stating the obvious when she said Ennis-Hill’s pregnancy threw “a huge question over the continuation of a career as a heptathlete”.
Understandably so, given the heptathlon is the international baccalaureate of track and field events. Its seven disciplines test not only speed, strength and endurance but the ability to twist, turn, throw and jump. It doesn’t only demand enormous power – but even greater willpower too. That is not easy during and after pregnancy, when the hormones that create the laxity in the tendons and ligaments are sloshing around.
When Ennis-Hill started her comeback on a stationary bike in November, she managed only 15 minutes of peddling before it felt uncomfortable. And it was only in February that she began anything resembling normal heptathlon training. Her rivals, who started their winter training last October, had a six-month head start.
Then there were the injuries, particularly to her achilles, which cleared up only in May. As her coach Toni Minichiello admitted recently: “We had days during the winter where I thought: can I see this girl coming back, I’m not 100% certain. In February if people had said that Jess would be in Beijing I would have raised an eyebrow.”
Even as close as three weeks ago she didn’t expect to win in Beijing. Indeed, she was not even sure if she was going to compete.
Then again, we have always known that Ennis-Hill is the biggest of big stage performers. During her career she has competed in nine major championships, from the world youths in 2003 to this year’s world championships. And in eight of them – eight! – she has delivered her best heptathlon score of the year. Not only has she climbed the highest mountains, with two world championships and an Olympic gold to her name, but she knows how to hit the peaks.
Of course, she was nowhere near her best in Beijing. Her score of 6,669 was more than 250 points below her London 2012 gold medal winning triumph. Judged by her extraordinary high standards, there was not one outstanding performance. Instead her strength was her solidity. Consistently she pushed herself close to her season’s best, and in the crucial moment when her closest challenger, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, had failed her first long jump she produced her season’s best leap of 6.42m to turn the screws.
Being the poster girl for a home Olympics surely battle-tested the Sheffield-born Ennis’s ability to cope with extreme pressure, and gave her added steel. She knew she could score somewhere around 6,700 points. She also knew that others could go higher. But by coming out quickly and taking the lead after the second event, the high jump, she asked her young and talented rivals: can you cope when the heat is on you?
They couldn’t. And Minichiello too deserves plenty of praise for his coaching performance. As he frankly admits: “It has been a tough learning curve for me. If she gets pregnant again I know what I am doing … not that I am encouraging that.”
But he rightly took a back seat as Ennis-Hill revelled in her gloriously unexpected gold with a smile you felt could have lit up the Bird’s Nest. Afterwards she talked about having a small glass of bubbly to celebrate but this triumph will not go to her head. She knows that in Rio the likes of Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Johnson-Thompson and Nadine Visser will become even more dangerous. But she will be better too.
The question now is what she can do next year? We know from history that having a baby and retaining an Olympic title over the space of a four-year cycle is incredibly tough. In fact the list of athletes who have achieved it runs to only two. The Australian Shirley Strickland, who won 80m hurdles gold in 1952 and 1956, had a baby boy, Philip, in 1953. And the French-Cameroon Françoise Mbango Etone, who won triple jump gold in Athens 2004, had a baby boy, Niels, in 2006, then retained gold in Beijing two years later.
Achieving the double gold in the heptathlon will surely be harder still. But after this dogged yet exhilarating performance in Beijing are you going to try telling Ennis-Hill that it cannot be done?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010