Driving up the Don valley yesterday morning, past the Sheffield Forgemasters works, the grass verges were dusted with frost. The temperature gauge registered -3 but it felt twice as cold getting out in the car park next to the English Institute of Sport.
Inside, in the warmth, track-suited athletes were queuing up to collect their numbers for the opening day of the Northern Indoor Track and Field Championships. On the wall in front of them were two giant images of Sheffield's finest – in high-jumping and sprinting mode. Few seemed to notice but just then Jessica Ennis herself came strolling along to join the queue. The now former world heptathlon champion had already paid her £6 to enter event number one on the programme, due to start at 10.30am. "I'm just doing the shot," Ennis said. "After this I'm going off to do a bit of yoga with a friend, then back home to a lovely warm house.
"I got back from a long day's training yesterday and the boiler had packed in. I had a cold night but it's fixed now. The man came out this morning, thankfully."
While Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe are toiling in the heat of Kenya, and Dai Greene and Christine Ohuruogu are sweating away in sunny Stellenbosch, Ennis has forsaken the national squad warm weather training camps, preferring to stick to her tried and trusted formula in home Olympic year.
If the 25-year-old Sheffielder ends up on top of the heptathlon podiumin London this summer, her reward will have been forged in her home city – just like the gold medals she won at the World Championships in 2009 and at the World Indoor Championships and European Championships in 2010, and the silver she took behind Tatyana Chernova of Russia at the World Championships in Daegu last August.
"I'm more than happy to stay and do my training here, because this is what I've always done," said Ennis. "It works for me. I've got people around me who are helping me to get where I need to be. I wouldn't want to change things just because it's Olympic year. That would be stupid."
A member of the City of Sheffield Athletics Club and a graduate (in psychology) from the University of Sheffield, Ennis is a thoroughly grounded individual. She might feature on the front cover of the February edition of Marie Claire and she might have been down to the Palace in November to pick up an MBE from Prince Charles – oh, yes, and there might be a waxwork image of her at Madame Tussauds – but the high-profile pin-up girl remains at home in the grass roots environment that has nurtured her.
You could hardly have got much more grass roots, metaphorically at least, than her first competition of London Olympic year. The hardboard shot put circle was tucked away behind the seats circling the EIS track – in an alcove beyond the warm-up strip. Come 10.30am, there were precisely 32 souls leaning on a barrier watching Ennis enter the circle for the first of her six attempts. Many were young club athletes, clicking the camera buttons on their mobile phones. Others were parents. In the middle was Toni Minichiello, the big bear of a coach who has guided Ennis since she was 11, and whose philosophy includes putting the building blocks in place with outings in low-profile competitions.
With a nimble shuffle and a forceful put, Ennis pinged her opening effort out to 13.46m. The small gathering broke into spontaneous applause. She gave a wry smile, but nothing like as crestfallen as the one glimpsed when she was last seen in action: crossing the line first in the 800m in Daegu but with the towering Chernova behind her, with her arms raised in celebration of overall victory.
Ennis' sixth-round throw, her best of the day – 13.95m – was good enough for victory and her first medal in Olympic year. "I wanted to throw 14m, but I'm reasonably happy," she reflected. "I'm still in the middle of heavy training. I don't start my indoor season properly until next month, at the Indoor City Challenge here on 4 February. This was just a little extra."
Before yoga, Sheffield's great all-rounder had a presentation date. Let us hope that it proves to be a sign of things to come in 2012: Ennis on top of a podium on home ground, with a gold medal around her neck.