Jessica Ennis: Modest, but with little to be modest about

The new golden girl of British athletics hates having her photo taken and hides her medal collection in a drawer. Emily Dugan meets Jessica Ennis
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At just after 8pm last night, Jessica Ennis hurtled across the finish line, strides ahead of her competitors. The 800-metre race in the warm Barcelona evening was her final event in the European Athletic Championships – and secured the heptathlete both the gold medal and a championship record. Ennis consistently led the scoreboard over the seven events, beating Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska by 45 points, with a score of 6,823.

Speaking with typical humility after the race, she said: "It's been nerve-wracking having all the athletes on my heels. It feels so good to win again. I had to raise my game to come out on top, I'm so proud to come out on top again. Before the 800m I just wanted to win and I have! I'm so made up."

The 24-year-old, who has been captaining the Great Britain squad in Barcelona, is – despite some strong rivals – the best female heptathlete in the world. Not that you would know it to talk to her. "I still go out there nervous and worried. I don't go out there thinking I've got it in the bag because that's never the case," she said, speaking at Newcastle stadium ahead of the championships.

Even before she had racked up the thousands of points that were behind her on the scoreboard as she went into the final event last night, the bookmakers had been making her the favourite for gold – but that did not stop her keeping expectations low. "Well, it'd be good to get a medal, but I don't want to say...," she hedged.

It would be understandable if Ennis was cocky: she has taken home gold medals two years running – first in the 2009 World Championships for the heptathlon and then in the 2010 World Indoor Championships for the pentathlon. She has also long been tipped as a golden girl for London's Olympic Games in 2012 – now less than two years away. But bragging just isn't Ennis's style.

"I hate it when people are like, 'Oh, I'm so brilliant at this'," she said, matter-of-factly. "I do understand that sometimes in athletics you have to big yourself up – especially the sprinters, where it's all about macho and being the best – but, for me, it's about being realistic."

Born in Sheffield, where she still lives with her boyfriend, Andy Hill, a construction worker, she has mostly shunned the trappings of the celebrity athlete. She remains close to her mother, a social worker from Derbyshire, and her father, a painter and decorator originally from Jamaica.

Ennis's parents first introduced her and her sister, Carmel, to athletics in the hope that it might stop them getting bored in the summer holidays. "They took me and Carmel down to this athletics summer camp to keep us entertained and tire us out. I'd be running round doing everything, and she'd be sat down in the corner just chatting and would say, 'I can't be bothered to run'. I think she preferred the social aspect. I don't think they had any idea I'd turn out to be any good."

And she didn't just turn out "good". Despite being no more than 5ft 5in tall, she has jumped higher than any British woman before her (1.95 metres).

For most people, accolades of that magnitude could only result in a similarly sized ego, but the closest she comes to gloating is a fervent peek at her silverware. "I always have a sneaky look at my gold medal every now and again because it was such

a big moment for me." But before anyone could accuse her of bragging, she added: "I don't really put any of my medals and stuff up, though. They're in a drawer. I've got quite a few at my parents' house, which my dad displays everywhere, and I'm just like, 'Take them down'."

With all that modesty, when she does brush against the showbiz world that comes from being one of Britain's best-known sportswomen, she finds it just as nerve-racking as stepping onto the track. "When I compete, I'm really nervous and my heart is pounding. But then doing other things, like presenting awards at the Mobos, that was just so nerve-racking, too. Having to walk out on that stage with massive heels on and read off an autocue, I was thinking, 'Oh God, what if I say something wrong or fall over', and all those things that you panic about. But it was great fun."

Despite admitting to being star-struck by all the big names backstage, she acknowledges that some were starry-eyed at seeing her. "Lamar came up and said, 'I watched you – well done', and I thought, that's really weird. And then JLS came up to me and said, 'You did really well', and one of them said, 'My mum loves you. Come and meet my mum', and I just thought, this is all really, really odd."

The contrast between Ennis and some of her more posturing contemporaries in athletics is stark. In the gym at Newcastle stadium, she shifted from one baggy-tracksuited leg to the other while her picture was taken. "I'm not a big fan of getting photos done," she admitted. In training next to her was the triple jumper Phillips Idowu, dressed head to toe in shiny Lycra and stretching flamboyantly while music pumped into his ears from oversized headphones.

It is perhaps this insistence on being down-to-earth that is Ennis's secret weapon. When she had a virus last month, which almost threatened her chances of entering the European Championships, it was her boyfriend who nursed her back to health and kept her calm. "He came home from work early and looked after me. I was quite demanding. I'd shout down to him for water and paracetamol and he'd bring them up. I'm sure I'd do the same for him, too."

Ennis's normalcy also came in handy in 2008 when she was ruled out of the Beijing Olympics at the last minute because of a fracture to her right ankle. The disappointment and pressure to recover from an injury that could have put her out of the sport for ever was immense, but Ennis approached the task with a typical lack of fuss. "It was a real blow because it was an Olympic year ... I watched loads of DVDs and my boyfriend bought me Smallville, so I watched season one to seven. That kept me entertained."

But having recovered from the injury, she inevitably feels even more pressure to succeed when the Games come to London in two years' time. "I hoped Beijing would be my first opportunity to experience the Olympics and be a part of it, so it makes it so much more important this time round.

"I really want to be ready for it and in great shape. Because I missed out on that opportunity two years ago, it definitely makes it more important for me personally. "

But Ennis wouldn't be Ennis if she didn't have a level-headed way of coping. "I'm not letting it get to me. There's a lot going on between now and then. There's more training and things I want to achieve, so that keeps me distracted for now. Though I do think about 2012, I try not to worry about it – it's something that I want to enjoy and make the most of, not something I'm dreading."

When her car arrived for the three-hour drive back to Sheffield, one of the public relations team offered her a bottle of water for the journey. "Er, no thanks, I'll only need a pee if I do that," she confessed, adding: "I don't drink all that much actually, but I probably shouldn't admit that should I?" It may not sound like the strict regimen of an athlete who has just taken European gold – and on whom Britain has pinned its hopes for 2012. But, as she proved last night, the grounded Ennis seems a more sensible pair of shoulders to pin them on than most.

Jessica Ennis is an ambassador for Aviva, the sponsors of the GB team since 1999