Katarina Johnson-Thompson: A one-two-three for Britain in Rio would be nice, wouldn't it?
The 21-year-old heptathlete has stepped into Jessica Ennis-Hill's shoes by beating a world-class field in Götzis. She tells Matt Majendie it augurs well for 2016
Thursday 05 June 2014
"It means everything and nothing at the same time." It is not that Katarina Johnson-Thompson is a mass of contradictions, just that the Liverpudlian, mature well beyond her age of 21, is aware that in years to come she will not be remembered for winning in Götzis.
The small Austrian town acts as home to the unofficial heptathlon world championships this year, and Johnson-Thompson is the de facto world champion after a victory there last weekend, when she shattered her personal best by nearly 250 points.
It is a result that will also mean she is added to a Hollywood-style walk of fame of winners on the 40th anniversary of the first event in Götzis, where Daley Thompson, Denise Lewis and Jessica Ennis-Hill have all triumphed in the past.
But as she says again: "It means everything and nothing at the same time. It means everything to the athletes in the sense that the best heptathletes in the world turn up at that one meeting and you want to be No 1, but it means nothing as well as it's not a major championship."
If nothing else, it lays down a marker for this and ensuing seasons. Johnson-Thompson's winning score of 6,682 was the highest by any athlete since Super Saturday 2012 inside the Olympic Stadium, where the now pregnant Ennis-Hill blazed a trail.
The pair remain intertwined, Johnson-Thompson always billed as the "next Ennis-Hill". Now there is a sense that the poster girl of 2012 has her work cut out to catch up when her maternity leave ends.
"I'm not sure about that," says the fast-talking Johnson-Thompson, who verges on being scatty in conversation and competition, and seems to carry a sense that she's not wholly aware how good she is. "Jess is an unbelievable athlete, the defending Olympic champion and has come close to 7,000 points. Never underestimate Jess, that's a dangerous thing to do."
But could Ennis-Hill be nervous about returning to competition, having seen her British rival's remarkable progress this year alone? "Oh, I don't think so," the Scouser adds with a laugh.
On a global stage the rise has been fairly meteoric for the younger athlete, going from 15th at the London Olympics to fifth at last year's World Championships before her recent win.
Ennis-Hill has made no secret of the fact that so prodigious are the younger woman's talents that she fully expects Johnson-Thompson to exceed her achievements, while Thompson recently described her as "the future of athletics".
With Morgan Lake, the 17-year-old schoolgirl also in action in Götzis where she finished 17th with a 6,000pt-plus personal best, "GB heptathlon has never been so strong", as Ennis-Hill tweeted. It may be pushing it to aspire for a one-two-three come the next Olympics in Rio but Johnson-Thompson adds, "that'd be nice, wouldn't it?"
The double-barrelled rival in her sights this season, though, is the Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, wife of the Olympic and world champion Ashton Eaton, who finished just 41 points back in Götzis and is the main threat to Johnson-Thompson at the Commonwealth Games.
"This is only round one and round two is when it matters," she says of the potential showdown in Glasgow. "I need to go away and work on that. It's the title that matters this season. We got on well – Brianne's lovely. When I saw her last in Götzis we said, 'See you in Glasgow and goodbye to the sunshine'. There's just 40 or so points between us so it's going to be tight."
She returned to the gym to prepare for those Commonwealth Games and launches into a dissection of her performance in Götzis that gives the impression she rather underperformed: "I could have done a lot better. I'd run the hurdles better before but that was OK, then I was a bit rusty in the high jump. I was happy with the 200 metres and the long jump as well, although I marginally missed out on my PB in the long jump when I fouled what was clearly a bigger jump, so that was disappointing.
"I was more than happy with the javelin, as that was a surprise as I'd not really been able to throw in training because of an injury, so Mike [Holmes, her coach] got me trying a slightly different technique. And in the 800m, I did just enough."
Having pushed herself past an overall points record, one would suspect her body to feel broken but she is better off than after Moscow last year. "I felt dreadful after the World Championships. Ahead of the 800 metres [where she had a slim chance of a medal] there were so many possibilities – , finishing a certain number of seconds behind and ahead of other people. Normally, I'm terrified for the 800m as I know it's going to hurt – it's absolute pain after six events. But in Götzis I was calm and knew what I had to do. It still hurt, mind."
It is a far cry for the daughter of a dancer, who looked to be following suit – "from being in nappies to about the age of 10, that's what I did, dance". The problem was she didn't like it. Football was the passion, followed by athletics. Each event she tried, she relished, and one event eventually became seven, ending with the most brutal track-and-field discipline open to her.
"It's hard and it hurts, my body still hurts," she says. "When you cross the line in the 800m, you feel you've earned that success, having pushed yourself to the limit. In Götzis I knew I was in good shape but similarly anybody was capable of winning. To achieve that was great."
It has been a year of mostly highs. She broke the British high jump record in February with a clearance of 1.96m before winning long jump silver with a PB of 6.81m at the World Indoors in Sopot a month later, and now Götzis.
She was also recently named the world's 28th most marketable athlete by SportsPro magazine, above Sir Ben Ainslie and Kevin Pietersen. It is a testament to her potential in and out of competition. Not that she is satisfied. "I expect a lot of myself and put a lot of pressure on myself. I've not really won anything major yet."
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