Jessica Ennis: Olympic hope faces new hurdles
Despite her great form Britain's heptathlon star tells Simon Turnbull there are many rivals who might 'get it right on the night' in London
Thursday 24 May 2012
Jessica Ennis is sitting at a table next to a deserted dance floor in the Olympian Suite at the Dorothy Hyman Sports Centre. She is happily chewing the cud in Cudworth, the mining village on the outskirts of Barnsley that gave the world both the king of the chat show, Michael Parkinson, and Hyman, who took 100-metre Olympic silver behind America's Wilma Rudolph in Rome in 1960.
Through the windows, beyond the windswept track, you can see down the hill to Grimethorpe, home of the colliery band of Brassed Off fame. On the other side of town is the school field where Brian Glover played the bullying PE master Mr Sugden in Kes.
Toni Minichiello, Ennis's coach of 15 years, prefers rather subtler methods. "Read that top one there," the big bear of a man says, sliding his iPhone across the table to the athlete he has guided to world and European heptathlon gold.
"I've already read it," Ennis says. "Lilli Schwarzkopf ran 13.79 in the hurdles, 1.80 in the high jump and 14.43 in the shot... I think 1.80's a bit low for her."
"I thought you didn't pay any attention to the opposition," The Independent feels compelled to remark.
"That was on Twitter," Ennis says. "I don't go Googling for information but I am on Twitter, so I get these results from all around the world. People send them to me. It doesn't really change anything – how I train or anything like that. Of course, the other heptathletes are going to compete and prepare for the Olympics, so that they're in the best shape for it. It's just like any other year. I can't do anything about how they're performing."
Minichiello interjects: "What it does show is that there's another competitor creeping around who will be a top-eight contender. It's an incredibly competitive event. Too often it's built up as 'Jess and Dobrynska' or 'Jess and Chernova.' And I'm like, 'Well, there's three names, including Jess, but there's another five who might be in the reckoning.'"
Ennis nods. "They could easily get it right on the night," she says.
It is not just on the nights but also on the mornings of 3 and 4 August that Ennis needs to get it right in 2012. That is when the heptathlon medals will be on the line in London's Olympic Stadium. If the 26-year-old Sheffield woman gets everything right – in the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot, 200m, long jump, javelin and 800m – then perhaps some sporting centre will come to bear her name. Instead of the Don Valley Stadium, the Jessica Ennis Stadium?
Ennis's prospects will become a little clearer on Saturday and Sunday in the picture-postcard Alpine setting of the Mösle Stadion in Götzis.
Since 1975 the tiny town in the west of Austria has played host to the Hypo-Meeting, an annual gathering of the world's best multi-event athletes. It was in Götzis that Daley Thompson broke the world decathlon record before the Moscow Olympics in 1980. It was there that he broke the record again in 1982.
Denise Lewis won the heptathlon in Götzis in 1997 and Ennis did so in 2010 and 2011. If she wins this weekend she will become the first Briton to complete a hat-trick at the spiritual home of multi-events. She will also strike a timely psychological blow over her rivals, just two months out from the London Games.
The stellar field includes Nataliya Dobrynska, the reigning Olympic heptathlon champion from Ukraine who relieved Ennis of her world indoor pentathlon crown with a world record score in Istanbul in March. It also features Tatyana Chernova, the towering Russian who succeeded Ennis as world outdoor heptathlon champion in Daegu, South Korea, last summer.
Schwarzkopf, the German who finished sixth in Daegu, will also be in Götzis. The only notable absentee is Hyleas Fountain, the 2008 Olympic silver medallist. She is saving herself for the US Olympic trials next month.
"I am looking forward to it," Ennis says. "It'll be good to compete against everyone, to see how they're all doing and see how things pan out. I think it will give a good indication of what shape everyone's in. It's a really strong field. The names that are doing well this year are those I expected.
"I'll just have to see what happens on the two days. We've only got a few more weeks and then it's the Olympics, so I don't think too much is going to change. Well, it could do, I suppose – with injuries and stuff. But I am looking forward to it.
"More than anything, I just want solid performances, not for one event to really let me down. I would love to do some personal bests as well. I know I'm in good shape and capable of running good times."
That much was clear in Manchester last Sunday. The absence of a 10th flight of barriers might have rendered Ennis's 100m hurdles winning time of 12.75sec invalid at the Great City Games but she still beat the specialists who took World Championship silver and bronze in Daegu last year, the Americans Danielle Carruthers and Dawn Harper.
As Minichiello urges: "Think of the positives. You took two quality scalps."
The 100m hurdles was one event that let Ennis down in Daegu. She did not get off to her customary flying start in the opening event. In Götzis – and, more importantly, in London – it is likely to be a different story.
It should be different in the javelin too. Ennis messed up big time in the penultimate event in Daegu, managing only 39.95m. A slippy runway did not help. But in south Yorkshire this winter, with help from Mick Hill, the 1993 javelin world bronze medallist, Ennis and Minichiello have ironed out the kinks. At RAF Cosford last month Ennis threw 45.60m. Even with a troublesome Cudworth crosswind, she threw 44.13m at the Yorkshire Championships.
In Daegu and Istanbul, Ennis was beaten by two formidable rivals but she knows that Chernova and Dobrynska profited from her costly lapses. She has room for significant improvement in Götzis and London.
"I've got areas in which I can really make a difference," Ennis says. "I would just love to be perfect across all seven events on 3 and 4 August but it does help knowing that I've got a lot more to give in certain events.
"I wasn't eyeballs out and setting PBs in everything in Daegu and Istanbul. If I'd done that and still finished second it would have been quite difficult. I wouldn't know where the improvements would be coming from. But I've been working quite hard on a couple of events to try to get them back to where they need to be. I just hope I can do that in Götzis. I am getting nervous.
"The thought of the whole heptathlon makes me nervous. It's all right when you start. Everything kind of rolls when you get going, but beforehand it's just the not knowing how it's all going to pan out. The unknown always makes me a little bit nervous."
The nerves will doubtless be eased by the setting. The Mösle Stadion has just the one small stand and grass banking on which the locals and the coaches, supporters and multi-events aficionados spread out to see the 10 events of the decathlon and the seven of the heptathlon unfold. You can hear the tinkle of cowbells and the huge tree-lined peak of the Hohe Kugel mountain towers over the arena.
Imagine Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Tyson Gay running in the 100m at Grasmere Sports and you have something of the picture. It says much for Götzis that it holds a magic for Ennis even though it was the scene of the nightmare triple stress fracture that ruled her out of the Beijing Olympics four years ago.
"It's like a festival," she says. "it's quite relaxed but also really competitive, because everyone's there. It's very different to a major championship. In Götzis the crowd are really knowledgeable. They know the points system and they know all your PBs, so they know what to cheer. It's a good atmosphere."
It will not be quite the cauldron of London but the competition will be vital preparation for what is to come on home ground.
"Win us that gold," someone urges as the pride of South Yorkshire stops to sign yet another autograph in the biting Cudworth wind.
"I'll try my best," Ennis replies, with a winning smile.
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