The People of 2009:
Jessica Ennis: 'After I'd won, I sat back and watched Bolt run 100m in 9.58sec'
Continuing a series of interviews with the year's pace-setters, Simon Turnbull speaks to Jessica Ennis about swapping Olympic heartbreak for World Championship gold – and a new life on the red carpet
Tuesday 22 December 2009
A twinkle appears in Jessica Ennis's eyes as she recalls how she came to have the best seat in the house for the headline event in track and field in 2009.
It just so happened that the lap of honour for achieving the highlight of her sporting life thus far – a runaway heptathlon victory at the World Championships at Berlin's Olympiastadion in August – coincided with the start of the men's 100 metres final. Ennis and her fellow heptathletes were only halfway round the sea-blue track, acknowledging the appreciation of their two-day efforts, when Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay and Co were asked to get to their marks at the head of the home straight.
"By the time we got that far, I was absolutely knackered," Ennis recalls, chuckling at the memory. "There were some seats next to the steeplechase water jump, so it was just nice to sit down and get my breath back – and then sit back and watch Usain Bolt break the 100m world record again. It was difficult to see the time on the trackside clock because everyone was going absolutely mental ,but I did see it eventually: 9.58sec.
"It was nice for me because I remembered the year before, sitting at home watching the Olympic 100m final on television, seeing him break the record and thinking, 'Ah, I would have been there, on the track after the final event of the heptathlon, the 800m.' I was gutted that I missed out on that, but then he did it again in Berlin. It was great to be there and be part of it this time. Our paths crossed when we were going to and from press conferences afterwards. Usain said, 'Congratulations,' and I congratulated him. We had a picture taken together."
It would have made quite a picture, too: the steely 5ft 4in Sheffield heptathlete and the 6ft 5in Lightning Bolt, the Little and Large of track and field, world-beaters both.
Inevitably, her world crown has brought with it increased recognition: invites to the Mobos, the Cosmo awards and 10 Downing Street; third place in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award; requests to scrawl her name on receipts at the checkout at her local supermarket in Sheffield.
To reach the global peak in her chosen career at the still tender age of 23, Ennis has been obliged to overcome a good deal more than the diminutive stature that prompted her British team-mate and rival, Kelly Sotherton, to burden her with the nickname that makes her cringe every time she hears it: Tadpole. But it says a lot about the wherewithal of the South Yorkshire woman that she can soar to the height of the world's fastest man.
Ennis's personal best in the high jump is 1.95m, which is precisely 6ft 5in. No British woman has ever jumped higher, although Diana Elliott, Debbie Marti and Susan Moncrieff – with whom she holds the British record in the event – have all cleared it too.
It says even more about Ennis that she has managed to build herself up to world title-winning heights in 2009 from the wreckage of her Olympic dream in 2008. When she suffered a triple stress fracture in her right ankle in June last year she was told that she might miss not just the Beijing Games but every other championship ahead of her. Instead of hanging up her running spikes, though, the pride of the City of Sheffield Athletics Club has come back stronger than ever.
In Berlin she led from the first event, the 100m hurdles, to the last and emerged victorious by 238 points – as emphatic a margin as that enjoyed by the Lightning Bolt in the 100m and 200m. That bore testament to the mettle of Ennis and also to the nous of Toni Minichiello, her coach of 11 years. It was Minichiello who rebuilt her long-jumping technique. No longer able to take off with her right foot, because of the stress it would apply to her repaired ankle, Ennis had to learn how to set off down the runway and launch herself into the sand pit with her left foot instead.
With Minichiello's astute guidance, she managed to do so to such good effect she jumped further in 2009 than she had ever done before. It all came together, the new technique and the latent talent, in one giant-leap moment at a minor meeting at Loughborough University in late July. Competing in monsoon conditions in front of a handful of spectators, Ennis leapt 6.43m – a lifetime best and a giant confidence boost a fortnight ahead of the World Championships.
"That was such a wet and horrible day but it was a really big turning point for me," Ennis says. "I'd put in so much work in training on the long jump and every time I competed things just went wrong. But that day at Loughborough I just felt completely different. Even though it was cold and wet, I got the run-up right and got the take-off and everything nailed on.
"That gave me the confidence I needed because I had been doubting myself a bit. I was thinking, 'Maybe I just can't jump as far on this leg and it's something I've just got to deal with.' But then it all came together and I knew that I could do it OK."
As it happened, Ennis did not jump quite as far on the big stage in Berlin as she had in Loughborough, managing a best effort of 6.29m. Still, she knows now she is capable of pushing beyond 6.50m and making the kind of gain in the points table that could take her past Denise Lewis's British record tally in 2010. She finished only 100 points down on that in Berlin with her winning haul of 6,731.
The main focus for Ennis in 2010 will be the European Championships in Barcelona in July; she has decided to bypass the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October because she intends to be back in winter training by then. She also plans to go for gold at the World Indoor Championships in Doha in March, but she will next be back in a Great Britain vest on 30 January captaining her country in the indoor international at Kelvin Hall, which is why she is at Hampden Park, sitting next to the big silver cup that will be collected by the winning nation at the Aviva International match. She is in Glasgow to help put bums on seats for the curtain-raiser to next year's top-class indoor season.
Ennis is the golden girl of British athletics, the one to draw outsiders in. Small in one sense but now a big name. She has had parents thanking her for being a standard-bearer for the smaller fry of track and field.
"I think there has been quite a bit of stereotyping about size in athletics," Ennis reflects, "but I think that's changed quite a lot. If you look at myself in the heptathlon and the high jump and at Usain Bolt in the 100m and 200m, there are different types doing well right across a range of events now."
Tickets for the 2010 UK Athletics Indoor and Outdoor events can be bought online now at www.uka.org.uk or by phone on 0800 055 60 56.
Bouncing back: Jessica Ennis's year
Returns to the sport after a 12-month injury lay-off with a stress fracture to her ankle that forced her to miss the Beijing Olympics and threatened her career. Displayed no signs of rustiness at the Multistars event in Desenzano, Italy, winning the competition with 6,587 points.
Won both the high jump, with 1.91m, and 100m hurdles, at 12.87sec, at the National Championships in Birmingham. Goes on to set a lifetime best of 6.43m in the long jump, after working on her left-foot take-off, and another personal best in the shot put at a rainy Loughborough meeting.
Entered the 2009 World Championships in Berlin as the only British athlete ranked No 1 in the world. Performs brilliantly, leading from first event to last, to win Great Britain's first heptathlon gold at the event. Victory in the final event, the 800m, helped her to finish on 6,731 points, 238 clear of Germany's Jennifer Oeser. The amount was also her personal best points total and only 100 behind Olympian Denise Lewis's British record. Endorses Sheffield's ultimately successful campaign to be one of the cities included in England's 2018 World Cup bid. Finishes fifth in 100m hurdles at a rain-hit British Grand Prix in Gateshead.
*SEPTEMBER Presents the best album award at the Mobo ceremony.
Named female athlete of the year by the British Athletics Writers' Association, and also awarded "Best Performance in a British Vest". Attends a Downing Street lunch after being named Cosmopolitan magazine's sportswoman of the year.
Announces she is likely to miss the 2010 Commonwealth Games to prepare for the 2011 World Championships. Came third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year poll.
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