No sooner had Jessica Ennis-Hill celebrated her world heptathlon triumph with a small beer than she set her mind on what she hopes will be the crowning glory of her career: becoming only the third track and field athlete to retain an Olympic title after giving birth.
Only the Australian hurdler, Shirley Strickland, and the French-Cameroon triple jumper, Françoise Mbango Etone, have ever won Olympic gold, had a child, and then returned to the highest step of the podium at the following games. But Ennis-Hill, who won her second world title in Beijing on Sunday just 13 months after her son Reggie was born, says emulating their efforts in the 2016 Rio Olympics would make her so happy she might retire on the spot.
“It think it would be my greatest achievement of all, without a doubt,” she said. “To come back after winning gold at London 2012 and having a baby to win again in Rio would be unbelievable. But it is going to be a really big challenge, even more of a challenge than this year. To achieve that would be pretty special and I would probably find it hard to carry on after that.”
Ennis-Hill also said she was so shocked at winning gold in Beijing just 10 months after returning to training, that it had not yet sunk in. “I will definitely be celebrating properly when I get home,” she insisted. “I am just looking forward to seeing my family. We will get everyone round and have a couple of glasses of champagne.”
Few experts gave Ennis-Hill a chance of capturing her former glories so quickly when she returned to training last November by slowly peddling on an indoor bicycle for 15 minutes. Not only does the heptathlon test excellence across seven events, and require extraordinary levels of speed, power, agility and strength, but there was little in the scientific literature to guide Ennis-Hill or her coach, Toni Minichiello, during her comeback.
Because of the effect of the hormones released in pregnancy it was difficult for Ennis-Hill to return to full training until February this year. And she also had to cope with plenty of sleepless nights and a few injuries along the way. Yet she said that becoming a mum has benefited her life hugely – both on and off the track: “Motherhood has changed me as a person. I’m much happier and very content with life. That can only transfer positively to the track. It will make me a better athlete.”
But she admits it has been difficult at times. “The biggest challenge is how to fit different elements of training into a week,” she said. “Before I had the opportunity to train in the morning and afternoon, and the flexibility of a nice nap in between. This year things were very different.”
However, Ennis-Hill found a routine that helped return her champion physique while also giving her as much time with Reggie as possible. Usually in the mornings she trained while her son was looked after by grandparents. Afternoons and early evenings were devoted to childcare. She then did weights sessions in her home gym in the evenings. Sometimes, though, Reggie is brought in the morning to watch her work out at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.
Initially, Ennis-Hill could not lift heavy weights or do any twisting or turning because her abdominals were not fully knitted together. She had to wait three months before she could even lift over her head and, when she first picked up a 20kg weightlifting bar, she was shocked by how heavy it felt.
But she said she was driven on by the performances of other sporting mums, including Jo Pavey, who won European 10,000m gold last year just 10 months after the birth of her son Jacob, and the skeleton bobsleigh racer Shelley Rudman, who also returned to a high level after the birth of her daughter Ella.
“I took inspiration from what Shelley achieved when she came back, and when I was pregnant, Jo in the European Championships was incredible. When I saw performances like that it is very inspiring.”
Ennis-Hill revealed that many had doubted her, both when she was at the beginning of her career and during her comeback. “I have always been small and one of the smallest heptathletes out there,” she said. “And earlier in my career I was faced with coaches and athletes who felt I was too small to be a multi-eventer. It gives you a push to show you can do it.
“When I had Reggie I always knew I wanted to come back at world level. Some people thought that I’d done the Olympics and was ready to retire. But I wanted to show I could come back from a period of time away from my sport and perform at that level.
“Of course in the world we live in now with social media, you also see little comments from people which make you want come back even stronger.”
Even a month ago, Ennis-Hill was undecided about whether to compete in Beijing because she wasn’t sure whether she could win a medal. But while she leaves China this week with gold in her luggage, she is under no illusions about how tough it will be at next year’s Olympics, especially with her compatriot Katarina Johnson-Thompson likely to come back stronger after fouling out in the long jump in Beijing.
“It’s going to be really rough next year,” warned Ennis, whose score of 6,669 points was good enough for gold in Beijing despite being more than 250 points below her personal best set at London 2012. “The event is moving on and getting stronger and stronger. To score 6,600 or 6,700 points will hopefully get a medal but I don’t know what it will take to win a gold. My aim is to get as close as possible back to my 2012 form.”
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