The honours just keep rolling along for Jessica Ennis – Dr Jessica Ennis, that is. Three weeks into the new year and the Sheffield athlete who struck heptathlon gold at the World Championships in Berlin last August has added the titles of North of England indoor 60 metres, high jump and shot-put champion to her expanding collection of achievements. She has also been made an Honorary Doctor of Literature by her alma mater, the University of Sheffield.
At the same ceremony the week before last, Barry Hines was also bestowed with an honorary doctorate. He is the Barnsley schoolteacher-turned-author who gave the world the inimitable Mr Sugden, the PE master played by Brian Glover in Kes – part bully, part romantic – who pulls on his pristine Manchester United No 9 shirt and tells his class: "I'm Bobby Charlton today, boys. Denis Law is in the wash."
Perhaps on the school playing fields of South Yorkshire there is a matronly PE mistress somewhere pulling on a red-white-and-blue singlet, rumbling towards a shot-put circle and telling her shivering pupils: "Right, I'm Jessica Ennis today, girls. The Carolina Kluft vest is in the wash."
There was a time when Kluft was the imperious ruler of the women's multi-events world, utterly invincible in her yellow Swedish top. But then, with the defence of her Olympic crown looming in the spring of 2008, the three-time world champion – unbeaten since her junior days – made the stunning decision to walk away from the heptathlon and its indoor equivalent, the pentathlon, to concentrate her efforts on the long jump instead.
Two years down the line, Kluft is on the rehabilitation trail following hamstring surgery. She will be a notable absentee from the Swedish team who compete in the Aviva International at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on Saturday.
Ennis has been picked as the Great Britain captain for the opening international event of the indoor season. She competes as the GB representative in the high jump, and also as a guest in the 60m hurdles. At 23, going on 24 – a figure she hits on Thursday – the pride and joy of the City of Sheffield Athletics Club has claimed the global crown left vacant by Kluft and is getting better by the week. The upward curve which took her from the depths of the triple ankle fracture that shattered her Olympic hopes in 2008 to World Championship gold by the emphatic margin of 258 points in 2009 has continued in the opening weeks of the indoor season.
At the Loughborough University Open Meeting a fortnight ago, Ennis set indoor bests in the long jump (6.39m), 60m hurdles (8.12sec) and shot-put (13.67m). At the Northern Championships in Sheffield last week, she set three more: two in the 60m sprint (first 7.45sec in the heats, then 7.36sec in the final) and another one in the shot (13.83m). She also registered a narrow failure at a British record height of 1.96m in the high jump.
Having entered the championships with a lifetime best 60m time of 7.47sec, Ennis has got significantly quicker this winter under the guidance of her coach of 12 years, Toni Minichiello. An improvement of 0.11sec over that short a distance is a considerable advance. All of which points towards not just another golden year for Ennis but a record-breaking one too.
Her first major target is the pentathlon at the World Indoor Champion- ships in Doha in March. Judging by the sparkling form she has shown thus far, the new, improved Ennis can be expected to revise Kelly Sotherton's British record of 4,926 points for the five-pronged event (60m hurdles, high jump, shot, long jump, 800m). She may even threaten the world record held by Russia's Irina Belova (4,991 points).
And when she turns her attention to the outdoor season, and the European Championships in Barcelona in July, it is a fair bet that the world champion will be challenging the British record for the heptathlon, the two-day event that comprises the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot, 200m, long jump, javelin and 800m. That mark has stood at 6,831 points to Denise Lewis since her Olympic-winning year of 2000. Ennis was 100 points short when she won her world title in Berlin.
"Yeah, it's something I'm starting to think about now," she confides. "Before, it just seemed like quite a way off. But not now, after Berlin. I was made up with my overall performance at the World Championships but things didn't go brilliantly for me in every event. I could push myself a little bit farther. I'd really like to get close to it.
"I hope there's a lot more to come. I've sat down with my coach and we've addressed some areas that we want to improve, particularly the second day in the heptathlon. In the javelin I'm going to extend my run-up and try to make some improvements there. And one thing that I really want to do in 2010 is make consistent improvements in the long jump. That's a key thing for me this year.
"Having changed my take-off leg last year [to avoid putting undue stress on the right foot that was fractured in 2008], it's something that we still need to work on. There are changes that we need to make. I think that will make a massive difference. If I can really get that right and produce it on the second day of a heptathlon, then I think that can make a big, big change in my score."
Big enough to contemplate breaking through the 7,000-point barrier, a feat achieved only by Kluft in the past 18 years? Ennis laughs at the prospect. For all that the golden girl of British athletics has achieved, she remains an endearingly self-effacing soul.
"To me, 7,000 points still seems very far off," Ennis says. "I think you have to be really special to break that and at the moment I've still got some areas to address. I'm trying to break that 6,800 mark first. I'm so happy with what I've achieved – with what I have done having come back from injury – but I would never compare myself to Carolina Kluft, because that's just a completely different league at the moment. Until I've got close to what she's achieved, I can't see myself in that light."
It was while Ennis was making her one previous appearance in the Kelvin Hall indoor international meeting, two years ago, that news first emerged of Kluft's plan to move on from the heptathlon. Ennis could not quite bring herself to believe it. The Swede – who is only 26 – has insisted that she will continue purely as a long jumper, before hanging up her spikes after the 2012 Olympics. But would Kluft's British successor not like to see her return to the heptathlon, so that she could challenge her unbeaten record in the senior ranks?
"Yeah, if she came back and I was guaranteed to score 7,000 points and to beat her," Ennis replies, laughing. "Yeah, I'd love that. But she is just a lovely person. It would be great if in a couple of years I could keep progressing and do what I need to do and she came back. I'd be in a much better position to push myself and contend with her.
"She's one of those all-time greats. I think she's achieved so much in the heptathlon that she doesn't want to come back to it... I hope. If it was me, I'd want to keep going in the heptathlon and keep pushing myself and achieving things. But I can kind of see it from her point of view. The heptathlon is a tough event. It's really stressful on the body and she dominated for so long, achieved everything she wanted to, so why not walk away from it when you're not having to be wheeled off the track, and then go and try another event ?"
Ennis was not quite wheeled off the track at the Mosle Stadium in Gotzis in May 2008, but after she had limped out of the heptathlon in the annual Hypo multi-events meeting in the Austrian town, a scan revealed the triple fracture of the right ankle that ruled her out of the Beijing Olympics – and, according to one specialist, might have ended her athletics career.
It says much for the steely resolve of the Sheffield woman that she has since rebuilt herself to world-beating level, and is planning to return to the scene of her Olympic-year nightmare. Gotzis, where Daley Thompson set world decathlon records in 1980 and 1982, will be the setting for Ennis's first heptathlon of 2010.
"I can't keep avoiding it because of what happened in 2008," she says. "I think I will be a bit apprehensive, to be honest, but I need to go back and just get on with it. It is a brilliant event. It's the kind of event that brings out the best in you."
And, as we have seen already in 2010, the good Dr Ennis just keeps getting better and better and better.
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