The golden girl is back – and in some style. Jessica Ennis-Hill produced one of the great sporting comebacks to be crowned heptathlon world champion here in a stadium that had previously made her question whether her career was over at the age of 22.
But seven years on from the Beijing Olympics, which she watched injured from home, and 13 months on from giving birth to her son, Ennis-Hill was back on top of the world once again. It was the ultimate rebirth.
In the build-up to the event, she had said victory would be a match for Super Saturday at London 2012. There is an argument that it might be better in the manner of the road back: learning to rebuild her body after the birth of son Reggie and missing much of the winter with Achilles injuries.
Comparing this and Super Saturday, she said they were too hard to separate. “It’s definitely one of he greatest moments of my career,” she said. “I still can’t believe it.
“Me and Toni [Minichiello, her coach] only wanted to come here if I was ready to contend for a medal. We spoke about a bronze medal – that would be amazing – and a silver medal, but we never spoke about a gold medal. I just thought it was a little beyond me this year. It’s just so unexpected.”
A month ago, Ennis-Hill was still no more than 50-50 on whether to compete, her displays in the 100m hurdles, javelin and long jump at the Anniversary Games – at the scene of her 2012 triumph – enough for her to finally make the decision to attend the holding camp in Japan and spend two weeks away from her son. By her own admission, there was not the same pressure as in London, where she was the poster girl, to the extent that she had merely brushed off the championships as an added bonus to a comeback year in which her goals were twofold: a first heptathlon back and the qualifying score for next year’s Olympic Games, both of which were achieved in Gotzis in May.
The tears flowed and understandably so, tears she said that “reflected the whole year”, and a result which saw her odds to be named BBC Sports Personality of the Year before the event drop from 22-1 to 2-1. As for the celebration, it was muted – a glass of champagne and a good night’s sleep before flying home today.
The journey had begun with gentle pedalling on a Wattbike at home a few weeks after Reggie’s birth last July; the next step an attempt to lift a 20kg bar, which was almost too heavy, before spending her evenings locked in a makeshift gym at home, where she went through her regime after her son’s bedtime. “It’s not very glamorous,” she said at the time.
Should her remarkable trajectory from Gotzis, where she scored 6,520 to finish fourth earlier this summer, continue to victory in Rio, surely the debate of the greatest triumph with what has preceded it would be over once and for all.
Minichiello had talked of 6,800 points being a target score for gold. Instead, 6,669 was all that was required – nearly 300 points off her total in London – to give her a 115-point winning margin over pre-event favourite Brianne Theisen-Eaton, with Latvia’s Laura Ikauniece-Admidina third.
The hope had been of a British one-two, but Katarina Johnson-Thompson agonisingly failed to register a legal mark in the long jump and with it, her championship hopes instantly disappeared.
To further compound that agony, her final jump had been over the board by a mere millimetre for what would have been a jump of around 6.90m. Had it been legal, it would have arguably set up gold for the younger of the two British heptathletes. In a moving moment of compassion, Ennis-Hill put an arm around her and afterwards admitted: “When she did that, my heart sank for her and I felt really emotional.”
That millimetre highlighted the tiny margins which decide these multi-events and, to make matters worse, Johnson-Thompson was forced to continue in her final two events, the javelin and 800m. Athletes can only pull out of a heptathlon with a medical condition and, with Johnson-Thompson due to compete in the individual long jump later in the week, no medical excuse could be cited.
She has a chance of redemption in that event as a possible medallist but there were surely times when she had rather not had that opportunity as she laboured through the last two events, the emotional and physical pain of it etched on her face. Understandly tearful afterwards, she said: “I hate getting no jumps on the first jump because that puts you on the back foot. The second one was meant to be a safe one but unfortunately that was a no jump as well. That meant it was all or nothing for me and I gave it my all. It was just a very slight margin.”
British Athletics appealed the decision, hoping her measured jump could be reinstated, but it was all rather more in hope than expectation and, after seeing the evidence themselves, they withdrew the appeal.
The day began with Ennis-Hill and Johnson-Thompson in first and second places respectively. Ennis-Hill’s 6.43m leap in the long jump, a season’s best, kept her in the lead, with Theisen-Eaton marginally cutting the deficit. Another steady javelin competition, where Ennis-Hill threw 42.51m meant she went into the final event with 5,706 points, with Nadine Broersen second with 5,620 and Theisen-Eaton on 5,612.
While Johnson-Thompson cut a forlorn figure in her 800m, pacing her two laps of the track well behind the rest of the field, Ennis-Hill tucked in behind heat leader Theisen-Eaton knowing that the Canadian needed to finish more than six seconds clear of her to snatch away gold.
For a time, her rival got away before Ennis-Hill reeled her in and passed her for a comfortable win in a time of 2min 10.13sec. The British winner collapsed on her back, head in hands, and was immediately congratulated by the silver medallist, the Briton emotionally and physically exhausted.
What had begun barely weeks ago as a mission impossible turned into one of the more remarkable sporting returns with a second world title. What price now an Olympic double?Reuse content