Ennis earns opportunity to erase last year's pain

Kept out of the Beijing Olympics by a serious foot injury, the Sheffield heptathlete has fought back to be favourite for gold in the world championships this weekend, writes Simon Turnbull in Berlin
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The Independent Online

Two years on from the last world championships, in the heat and humidity of Osaka, one memory lingers above all others.

It was approaching 1.30am and looking up from the lap-top, as the last man still remaining in Nagai Stadium, a familiar figure in a yellow and blue vest could be seen strolling down the home straight, accompanied by a young Japanese official. It was Carolina Kluft, easing the lactic acid out of her system, having completed her victory in the heptathlon some four hours earlier, and evidently working up the will to oblige a doping control officer with a urine sample.

As she crossed the finish line, unaware of her one-man audience, the Swede raised both hands in mock celebration, then launched into a series of somersaults and cartwheels before lying spreadeagled on her back in the centre of the infield. The Japanese official joined her and the pair lay chatting for a minute or two. "I told her, 'Wow, look at those stars,'" Kluft subsequently confided.

Back then the young woman from Vaxjo was the most stellar property in the track and field firmament. Unbeaten in six years, stretching back to her days as a junior athlete, at 24 she had bagged a third successive world championship title. Two years on, though, she has gone from the heptathlon scene. There is a vacancy for a new queen of the two-day, seven-event test of all-round athletic excellence, an opening Jess Ennis has very much in mind.

The pride of the City of Sheffield Athletics Club was sitting on the seventh floor of the Radisson Hotel in Alexanderplatz yesterday, in the shadow of the giant Fernsehturm, the Berlin television tower that was intended as a symbol of the permanence of the German Democratic Republic. Not so long ago Kluft looked a fixture at the top of the heptathlon but last year she moved on to the "new challenge" of individual event competition, contesting the long jump and triple jump at the Beijing Olympics last summer, and this year she is on the injured list. It is Ennis who heads the new world order on the eve of the first Kluft-free world championship heptathlon since 2001, which will be contested on the opening two days of action in the Olympiastadion here tomorrow and Sunday.

The 23-year-old Briton stands on top of the world rankings this year with 6,587 points, the score she amassed in winning the Multistars event at Desenzano in Italy in May. She leads by 19 points from Nataliya Dobrynska, the Ukrainian who succeeded Kluft as Olympic champion in Beijing. Ennis was a notable absentee from the Chinese capital 12 months ago. She was sitting at home recovering from a triple stress fracture of the right foot. This weekend in Berlin will be her first opportunity to grasp Kluft's mantle.

"It will be really weird not having Carolina competing here," Ennis reflects. "She dominated the heptathlon for so long. You'd go into every championship pretty much knowing that that she was going to go out and win. The gold medal was always tucked away for her. Now I think it's pretty open to anyone. There are a lot of girls around on similar sorts of scores."

In Osaka two years ago, Ennis missed out on a world championship medal by 41 points. Lyudmila Blonska took silver and Kelly Sotherton the bronze but, like Kluft, neither the Ukrainian nor the Briton will be back in the medal hunt in Berlin. Blonska was banned for life after testing positive for methyltestosterone in Beijing last year (her second doping violation), while Sotherton is out with a foot problem. For Ennis, it is not so much the foot as the hand of opportunity that is beckoning in Berlin.

As the only British athlete occupying a top-three placing in the world rankings, there will be great expectations on the shoulders of the 5ft 4in Sheffielder when she gets to her marks for the opening event tomorrow morning, the 100m hurdles. "Obviously I'm feeling the pressure a bit," Ennis says. "I know that people are expecting me to do well. I'm expecting myself to do well. It's just nice to be in this position after what happened last year. It makes me appreciate it more."

With the guidance of her coach of 11 years, Toni Minichiello, Ennis has shown a steely determination befitting her home city in not just recovering from the shattering blow of the triple stress fracture that left her Olympic dream in pieces last summer but in returning as an even better all-round athlete than she was before. Her winning score in Desenzano was a lifetime best and in the rain at Loughborough University two weeks ago she set personal bests in the shot, 13.96m, and the long jump, 6.43m – no mean achievement, after she had had to learn to take off with her left foot this year, to avoid putting too much stress on the right one.

"It is quite surreal to be here at the world championships ranked No 1 after what happened last summer," Ennis muses. "When the doctor showed me the scans of my foot last June he said it could be career-threatening. He said there was a chance that it might not fully heal because of where the fractures were. I had to take a slow, cautious approach to get myself back to where I am now.

"I remember everyone saying, 'The experience will make you stronger'. At the time you don't want to listen – you can't take it in – but it does make you stronger. I feel a lot different this year. I feel like I'm much better prepared now. I feel in the best shape of my life and I feel ready. This is a big opportunity for me. I just want to make sure I grab it with both hands."

Jessica Ennis is supporting the adidas Women's 5km Challenge, which she will start in Hyde Park on 6 September. For more information, visit www.womenschallenge.co.uk

Seventh wonder: Ennis the heptathlete

*Born: 28 January, 1986, Sheffield

*Height: 5ft 4in Weight 8st 10lb

*Awards 2005: Summer Universiade bronze; European Athletics Junior Championships gold; 2006: Commonwealth Games bronze; 2007: European Athletics Rising Star of the Year award.

*Ennis's 1.91m high jump at the 2006 Commonwealth Games would have won gold in the individual event.

*Ennis's mother stands 5ft 9in, while her father is over 6ft tall.