Jessica Ennis: 'There will be pressure next year...but I'll just block it out'

Jessica Ennis will have the weight of Britain on her shoulders in 2012 but heptathlete's Sheffield roots and down-to-earth family will help her cope, she tells Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

Standing leafing through the British papers at a news-stand at Barcelona Airport the day after the European Championships closed last August the sound of South Yorkshire accents soon became apparent..."Look, she's on the front page of this one."..."She's all across the back page in this one."

It didn't require a Kurt Wallander diploma in detection to work out who the excited neighbours were. "Excuse me, you must be Jess's family?" I ventured to enquire. "Yes, I'm her mum," came the reply from the nearest member of the group.

Having spent much of the previous morning chewing the fat over coffee with a thoroughly chilled-out, totally grounded Jessica Ennis, in the aftermath of her latest heptathlon success, it seemed only polite to relay the fact and to observe: "You must be very proud of your daughter?"

"Oh, I certainly am proud of my daughter," Jessica's mother, Alison Powell, replied. "Would you like to meet her?" And there, stepping forward and extending a hand of greeting, was a beaming Carmel Ennis.

Ten months on, sitting in the dining area of a studio in the north-west suburbs of London, Jessica Ennis laughs heartily at the story, the little snapshot into the family background of the Sheffield girl who has been the world's predominant all-round female athlete for three summers now. "Yeah, Carmel, my little sister," she says, still chuckling. "Well, she's actually bigger than me. I'm older. She's 22 now. I'm 25.

"We started doing athletics together but she just wasn't into it. Yeah, she's a lovely girl. We didn't get on too well when we were younger – you know, it's tough for two girls together – but we get on really well now.

"I think that's a big part of why I've done so well – because I've got such a great family. We're really close. I've had loads of support from them. My mum, Alison, and my dad, Vinnie, were never pushy. I think they find it really strange because they took me down to the track when I was 10 and I don't think for one minute they expected me to go on and achieve what I have. Oh, they're so proud, though. It's lovely..."

It's lovely to see Carmel Ennis's big sister – her elder sister – sitting so comfortably at the top of the world heptathlon rankings, established as the clear No 1 in her multi-tasking field, 14 months out from the London Olympics.

One thing Jessica Ennis is going to need between now and 10.07pm on Saturday 4 August next year, when the first runners should be crossing the line in the 800m, the seventh and final event of the two-day Olympic heptathlon competition, is the kind of uncluttered, cheerily pragmatic, down-to-earth perspective on life that she has clearly gleaned from her family – and from her coach of 12 years, Toni Minichiello.

No British athlete is heading towards 2012 bearing the kind of expectation on their shoulders, in the showpiece sport on the Olympic programme, than the young woman Minichiello has been steadily moulding into a world-beater, bit by bit, day by day, on the track and in the field at the Don Valley Stadium and in the gym at the English Institute of Sport. Given the proximity of Sheffield Forgemasters, the clichés about the mettle of the woman from the Steel City are inevitable but they have more than a ring of truth to them.

"The 2012 Olympics!" Minichiello exclaims, with not a little exasperation. "Every time people say that to me I think of a little girl in the back of a car, asking, 'Are we nearly there yet? Are we nearly there yet?' We've got the 2011 World Outdoor Championships in Daegu first, and the 2012 World Indoors in Istanbul."

When you're a Sheffielder, you don't go getting ahead of yourself. Today Minichiello's charge, fresh from her resounding victory a fortnight ago against most of her global heptathlon rivals at the annual Hypo Multi-Events meeting at Götzis in Austria, is in New York, competing in the 100m hurdles and long jump as one of the star attractions at the Adidas Grand Prix, the IAAF Diamond League meeting at the Icahn Stadium on Randall's Island. Next weekend she will be long jumping and throwing the javelin at the Northern Athletics Championships in Manchester ("Entry fee: all age groups £8," it says on the prospectus).

Since 2004, under Minichiello's guidance, Ennis has registered a personal best score in the heptathlon every year bar one. In 2008, she only managed to complete half a heptathlon. The triple stress fracture of the foot that she suffered on the opening day in Götzis that year ruled her out of the Olympics and left her family with £18,000 worth of unwanted flights, tickets and accommodation for Beijing.

There was to be no browsing for victory snaps in the British papers at Beijing Airport for Alison, Carmel and Vinnie. Perhaps it will be different at Toddington Services on the way back up to Sheffield on the morning of 5 August next year.

It says much for Ennis' character that she recovered from that career-threatening injury to win the World Championship title in Berlin in 2009 – and that her upward curve continued in 2010 with victories at the World Indoor Championships in Doha and at those European Championships in Barcelona, in both instances eclipsing championship records that had belonged to Carolina Kluft, the Swede who reigned supreme as the queen of the heptathlon from 2002 to 2007.

It says a good deal too that Ennis managed to emerge a clear winner in Götzis a fortnight ago – against a field that included Nataliya Dobrynska, the Olympic champion from the Ukraine, and Tatyana Chernova, the Olympic bronze medallist from Russia – despite having only just got back into the swing of full training after recovering from an ankle injury that curtailed her indoor season.

Though some way short of peak fitness and form, Ennis racked up the second-highest points tally of her career – 6,790, just 11 short of Denise Lewis' 11-year-old British record. She has not lost a heptathlon – a completed heptathlon – since finishing fourth in the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. Her winning streak, five and counting, is starting to have the look of the one that Kluft enjoyed as an unbeaten senior.

"Oh, she won everything for, like, five years," Ennis protests. "That's an unbelievably long time to win. I'm not there yet but I'd like to keep improving and going the way I am.

"I feel really happy and relieved at the way things went in Götzis. I was quite nervous going into the competition, just worrying about what would happen. I wasn't sure how the work that I'd missed would affect me putting it all together.

"That was at the forefront of my mind and I was also thinking that people were expecting me to keep winning. I didn't want to go to Götzis and put a poor score down and finish in a terrible place. That would have affected me for the rest of the year, so it was great to get a performance in.

"I can start brushing up on the individual events now. It's great to get an opportunity to compete in the Diamond League in New York. The hurdles will be a quick race so hopefully I can get my time down a bit."

The trip to the Big Apple is strictly business for Ennis, two and a half months ahead of the defence of her world title in Daegu. After returning from South Korea in early September her priority will be flying away with her fiancé Andy Hill, courtesy of British Airways, on the one break she has on her schedule before the 2012 Olympics. "I'll need a nice break at the end of what will have been a long season," she says. "I want to get into winter training as quickly as possible to get in that good block for next year and the Olympics."

Ennis's Olympic challenge will be forged as usual in Sheffield. She and Minichiello have preferred to do their preparation work on home ground rather than join the rest of the British team on overseas warm-weather training camps. Cathy Freeman travelled to the other side of the planet, to London, to escape the pressures of home in the build-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Ennis intends to venture no farther than the UK Athletics High Performance Centre down the M1 at Loughborough.

"I don't want to change next year," she says. "I want to keep things as consistent as possible, Just keep doing what I've been doing. There'll be a lot more pressure next year but I've got good people around me and we'll keep trying to block that out, keep things as normal as possible."

There is every chance of the big British hope keeping as close to normality in her home-town habitat. "Yeah, there is something about Sheffield," Ennis says. "It is very different. I was brought up there. I studied there. It's got all the facilities I need. The people of Sheffield are so down to earth and supportive. It's a lovely place to live. I'm very happy and settled there."

Come August, the Steel City's finest, the world's finest all-round female athlete, will be on a plinth at Madame Tussauds – well, a waxwork figure of her, at any rate. Might she be next to Dr Crippen? "I'm not sure yet," she says. "I've asked them to put me next to David Beckham."

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