Whatever has just passed when, later this summer, Jessica Ennis‑Hill sits back and decides whether a remarkable career should continue for another 12 months, she will never have had a period like this.
It has been a year for doing things her way, for ensuring that the demands of motherhood square as perfectly as possible with an injury‑affected buildup to Rio 2016, and there is a sense that her bid to be the first British woman to retain a track and field title is more firmly on track than ever.
Ennis-Hill’s resounding victory in Ratingen last month, which included a personal best of 6.63m in the long jump, sent out positive signals and they were matched by the vibes she took from the rest of the field. “All the girls were really lovely and saying things like, ‘You’re my favourite, we want to you win’, and that was really nice, they were a nice set of girls,” she says. “But I’ve not read anything like that.”
If she took a look at the odds for next month’s heptathlon, she soon would. Ennis-Hill is now clear favourite for gold after that performance, which also demanded a strong tolerance of inclement weather, and she is certainly ahead of schedule. Unable to build on her success in last year’s world championships in Beijing because of an achilles injury that ruled her out of the indoor season, she has had to work her way slowly back into competition and anything at this stage feels like a bonus.
“Going to Ratingen and posting that score [6,733 points] in those conditions, and coming away with a PB in the long jump, was something that at this stage I’d not really expected,” she says. “I just wanted to get back to where I was, or close to where I was, in 2012 and equal some personal bests, that kind of thing. This year I’d just love to get to Rio in one piece and better what I did last year.”
Achieving that will take careful balancing of priorities and some sacrifices, too. Ennis-Hill would love to be a greater part of Team GB’s preparations for Rio, steeping herself in the steadily infused excitement that builds up in the approach to an Olympics, but it is a more solo pursuit this year and she will prepare away from the British training camp, partly in order to spend time with her son Reggie, who turns two on Sunday.
“This is a very different year to any other,” she says. “I’m in a totally different phase of my career – I have Reggie, I’m a mum and my priorities are totally different now. Where in previous years I’d always go to the training camp and be with the team, this year it’s not going to work quite as well for me. It’s about me being happy, comfortable and confident going out there and performing, and [that means] I need to be with my son for as much as possible. Then I know I’m happy, he’s happy and I can go out there and put all my energy into performing when I get to Rio.”
The buildup is far removed from 2012, when the attention on Ennis-Hill before her home Games was unrelenting; the feeling is, too, and she believes that a calmer competitor will take to the track in Rio.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to completely relax, and I can feel the nerves building already – excitement as well but kind of anxious and nervous – but it does feel completely different. I don’t feel the kind of stress and pressure I had in 2012, and last year as well when I decided I was going to Beijing.
“I felt more stressed in 2012 than in any year I’ve ever experienced. Last year was just a really unknown kind of year; I didn’t plan to go to Beijing and it was a last-minute thing. I always just wanted to get back and get back to my best, and I thought that would be this year rather than last. I don’t feel less anxious now, but I’m slightly less stressed than I have been in previous years going into a major championships.”
Memories of 4 August 2012 – “Super Saturday” – when Ennis-Hill crossed the 800m finish line at 9.02pm to win one of three British gold medals on the night will never fade and will be ample motivation in Rio, which may seem a world away from the feverish atmosphere of that night in the Olympic Stadium.
“When I think in detail about it there were so many highs, nervous energy, adrenaline pumping. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. All those memories are really fresh in my mind – the feelings of jumping well in the long jump, crossing the line in the 800m, seeing my family, the kind of disbelief that I’d come on such a long journey from starting in athletics at nine or 10 years old, and ended up on top of the podium at a home Olympics. It was something I just couldn’t believe really – incredible.”
Ennis-Hill will return to London next week, competing in strong 100m hurdles and long jump fields at the Anniversary Games. It is “a great opportunity this close to the Olympics to have a really good quality race, put myself in that environment and really test myself”, she says, and those odds on a second Olympic title could shorten further.
“I don’t feel that I’m a strong favourite,” she says. “Most of the girls have been competing well. I’m feeling good and the training’s going well, so I’m feeling positive and doing what I need to make sure I’m as ready as I can possibly be.”
Tickets for the Müller Anniversary Games on 22 and 23 July are available from £20. Visit www.britishathletics.org.uk
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