Jessica Ennis-Hill is everywhere.
Just before speaking to her, I notice she is front page news because of the row over world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury’s hopelessly sexist put-down: “She looks good in a dress.” And just after our conversation, I turn on the radio and she is being feted on Woman’s Hour, where everyone is in awe of what she has achieved and where there is much gunning for her to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
When we speak, I manage to refrain from telling Jess she looks fantastic in a flag, but no one who saw the world heptathlon champion win a gold medal 13 months after giving birth and after the setback of an earlier injury, will forget the blissful relief on her face as she flung a triumphal union jack around her shoulders at the World Championships in Beijing in August. As to Fury and his comment: “To be honest, silence is the best response.” But shouldn’t he at least apologise? She changes the subject: “I’m very much looking forward to the Sports Personality evening – it is celebrating sporting achievement that is important.”
For Ennis-Hill, 2015 has been phenomenal: “It was a big year coming back into athletics, but it began as unknown territory. I thought I’d gently get back into the swing of things,” she says. I exclaim at the “gently”. Wasn’t it unbelievably tough to square the demands of being a mother (putting yourself second) with being an athlete (needing to put yourself first)?
“Before I had Reggie, I was selfish. As soon as I had a child, he became the priority. Now, I fit my training around him. I’ve changed as an athlete. It worked out well this year but…”
And has Reggie himself shown any early signs of athleticism? She admits to being biased, then giggles and reveals he was walking at 10 months.
Ennis-Hill is easy to talk to – lovely and with a ready laugh – but I detect the steel in there, too (just right, as she was born and bred in Sheffield). How much does she think personality actually matters in sport?
“The BBC Sports Personality is special because it is awarded by the public. But what you achieve on the track is the most important thing.” She is genuinely patriotic: “It is such a lovely feeling to compete for your country.” And it doesn’t stop on the track – she admits to having no shortage of union jack-covered cushions at home.
She has a degree in psychology from Sheffield University. What is needed, psychically, to be a winner? “It is who I am, it is innate. There is a need to be the best you can be. You can’t panic, you concentrate. When I run up to the hurdles, I’m very nervous, but I’ll tend to think about technical things to keep my mind focused.”
Winning is “an amazing feeling. With athletics, you put all that training in for only two major championships a year and the Olympics every four years. So when you get on top of the podium, it is relief and excitement and… Oh! it has all been worthwhile… the hard work, the sacrifices.”
She is looking forward to Christmas at home. Reggie, at 16 months, does not know what is cooking. But he is “already excited seeing the Christmas tree going up and has a little advent calendar”. In a different way, she is looking forward to 2016, too: “It will definitely be my last Olympics. I’ve been in athletics since I was 11 – a long time [she turns 30 in January]. I’ve achieved so much in my career, but I’m looking forward to next year. An Olympic year is always huge and it would be nice to end on a high.”
And after that? “I want to stay involved in the sport. I’m passionate about people being active and running and keeping fit. And I want to have more children.” But she does not even try to pretend that it will be easy for her to stop: “The closer I get to retirement, the more I feel it will be a huge change, a shock because athletics has been the core of my whole life. I know I’ll miss the feeling of running fast, the adrenaline rush and hearing the crowd cheering me on.”
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