Dominant Ennis all smiles as she sets out on path to Olympic glory
Relaxed British captain is well equipped to carry a nation's burgeoning expectations
No British athlete has more on their plate than the diminutive Jessica Ennis.
The Great Britain team have piled up a heap of medals over the six days of the European Championships but in global terms the captain's gold stands out at the very top. Ennis's heptathlon performance has been the only one by a member of the 71-strong British team good enough to make the No 1 spot in the world rankings. Two years out from the London Olympics, and counting down, the 5ft 4in slip of a Sheffield lass has the burden of the host nation's expectations on her slender shoulders. She is bearing it with a lightness of manner that augurs well for 2012.
At breakfast at the British team hotel the other day Ennis bumped into Carolina Kluft, the Swede who reigned supreme as the queen of the heptathlon for six years before deciding to concentrate on the singular challenge of the long jump in 2008. "I congratulated her on qualifying for the long jump final," Ennis said. "She's really lovely. She was walking to the stadium the other day and cheering us all on. I think she's glad she's not doing the heptathlon any more, though."
Not least with Ennis hungrily devouring her old accomplishments in the seven-event contest of all-round athletic ability. In Doha in March the burgeoning Briton broke Kluft's World Indoor Championship pentathlon record by four points. Over the course of Friday and Saturday she eclipsed Kluft's European Championship heptathlon record by 83 points. "That's a really nice bonus," Ennis said yesterday, reflecting at the team hotel on her golden performance . "Carolina is amazing, so to take any record that she had is really great."
Since returning to competition last year, after missing the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with a triple stress fracture of the foot, Ennis has won a world outdoor title, a world indoor title and now a European crown. Does she feel she now has the aura Kluft enjoyed as the queen of the heptathlon?
The South Yorkshirewoman laughed at the suggestion. "It's nice to have won the last few championships, but Carolina won championships for five or six years," she said. "You can't really make the comparison just yet. It's such a long time to do it. I'd love to keep performing the way I am and winning at major championships, but in the back of my mind I am expecting to be challenged. Things don't always go your way, so I am fully prepared for that."
Which was just as well here. Ennis went into final event on Saturday, the 800m, with a lead of only 18 points. At the World Championships in Berlin last August she won with 258 points to spare. At the World Indoor Championships in Doha five months ago she prevailed by 86 points. A first defeat in a multi-events competition since the 2007 World Championships in Osaka was a possibility for the British favourite.
Natalya Dobrynska needed to finish ahead of her by 1.25sec to snatch the gold, and the Ukrainian's lifetime best for the two-lap distance was some three seconds slower than that of the British captain. Having failed to mount a serious challenge to Ennis in either Berlin or Doha, Dobrynska had suddenly rediscovered the form that took her to Olympic gold in Beijing. Halfway down the back-straight on the final lap, she swept into the lead – only for Ennis to respond with a burst of speed that took her clear to victory.
She claimed the title by a margin of 45 points, with a lifetime-best tally of 6,823, just eight points short of Denise Lewis's decade-old British record. "It was a tight competition," Ennis reflected. "I felt at any moment it could flip around and change completely. It was really nerve-wracking the whole way through.
"I think it's going to be tight next year at the World Championships, and the year after at the Olympic Games everyone's going to want it so badly and be really up for it. Everyone's going to keep improving and pushing, so it's nice to experience this kind of championship and be pushed the whole way."
Under the direction of her long-time coach, Toni Minichiello, Ennis has raised her personal best every year and, at 24, she still has a good deal of room for improvement. "I still feel there is more to come," she said. "I feel I had a great championships and I'm really pleased to keep improving year on year, because I think that's important. I do feel there is more to come. The wind didn't help in the hurdles here. I feel I can get a bit more from the high jump as well, and a bit more overall on the first day."
The double Olympic champion and world-record holder Michael Johnson sounded a cautionary note for Ennis ahead of her London 2012 campaign
"What she'll have to do is take it one step at a time and now focus on next year's World Championships, not get too ahead of herself and have those goals in between now and 2012."
Golden girl: Ennis's seven steps to glory
1st overall: 1,132 points
2nd: Oeser (Ger) 1,069 points
1st overall: 2,225
2nd: Dobrynska (Ukr) 2,091
1st overall: 3,022
2nd: Dobrynska 3,011
1st (23.21sec) season's best
1st overall: 4,080
2nd: Dobrynska 3,970
1st overall: 5,065
2nd: Dobrynska 4,997
8th (46.71m) personal best
1st overall: 5,861
2nd: Dobrynska 5,843
3rd (2m 10.18sec) season's best
1st overall: 6,823
2nd: Dobrynska 6,778
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