The image is an endearing one – Katarina Johnson-Thompson is in the midst of the biggest event of her nascent heptathlon career at the Olympic Stadium last year and seemingly has enough on her mind mastering her own seven disciplines, let alone thinking about anyone or anything else.
But whenever the opportunity arises between throws and jumps she takes a moment out to watch and reflect on the dominant force in the competition, her countrywoman Jessica Ennis-Hill.
Looking back on Ennis-Hill’s gold medal-winning performance in the capital, the other double-barrelled star of British athletics recalls: “I sat and watched her during the field events when I could. I thought maybe one day I could do the same as her. That’s why she is an inspiration.”
The 20-year-old has already eclipsed her inspiration in one regard by breaking Ennis-Hill’s British national youth record for the event and, some way short of peaking as a heptathlete, there is every chance that Britain can go on to dominate the event over the next two Olympiads.
The Ennis-Hill factor is a big one for Johnson-Thompson, immaterial of the fact that the Olympic champion will be absent from the World Championships in Moscow, which begin this weekend, as she tries to recover from an Achilles problem which looks set to leave her on the sidelines for 15 weeks. The comparison will be ongoing, with both athletes the present of British heptathlon but Johnson-Thompson very much the long-term future.
Of Ennis-Hill’s absence, she says: “It’s always great to have a team-mate competing alongside you and Jess is an inspiration. Now there is just me in Moscow as the only representative. But Jess will be back, I’m sure.
“It must be devastating. I’ve been injured before. I spent 2010 out with injury and then this year when I got injured at the start of the season and went into a heptathlon unprepared. I hope she gets better soon and comes back as good.”
The irony is that Ennis-Hill’s absence in Russia increases Johnson-Thompson’s own chances, as does the recent withdrawal of the defending world champion Tatyana Chernova, who is also injured.
Johnson-Thompson is ranked outside the top 10, with a best points haul of 6,215 from her European Under-23 Championship success in Tampere, Finland, last month, and is still vastly inexperienced at international level. But this is the same athlete who told her grandmother she would come dead last at the 2012 Olympics only to impress with her 15th place, so her predictions can be taken with a pinch of salt.
“I just want to improve on last year,” she says. “I was 15th at the Olympics and will be happy with a top eight in Moscow. I’ve heard people say that because a few have pulled out but I’m still ranked 12th going into Moscow so it will be a huge ask to suddenly go for a medal. Obviously, I’d love to do it but we will have to wait and see what happens.”
A medal is probably, for now, too big an ask, her talent still raw and unnurtured to some extent. But she insists she is competing without expectation, despite being the only British heptathlete in Moscow.
“I don’t think there is any pressure on me,” she adds. “I’m still going to stick to my original goals. I’m still only 20 and there is plenty more time to get medals.”
That Johnson-Thompson is competing in Russia at all is impressive. In May, she tore ligaments on both sides of her ankle – the left one on which she takes off – during a high-jump competition in Loughborough. When it happened, she immediately assumed her season was over. However, she recovered quickly, returned to training within five weeks and, with just 10 days of training under her belt, won her Under-23 crown in Finland.
As a result of that injury, she insists the nerves on the starting blocks for the 100m hurdles were greater than they were in London and will be in Moscow. The bubbly Scouser’s competition at the Olympics was perhaps best remembered by her constant smile as much as her impressive placing.
She has yet to watch a rerun of the competition. “I’ve seen pictures,” says Johnson-Thompson, who for a time had the photo of her laughing at the Games as her screensaver, “but not any footage of my performances. We haven’t got Sky+ at home and the DVD focuses on Jess!”
It was exactly a year ago last Saturday that Johnson-Thompson first stepped inside the Olympic Stadium, an event she says “helped prepare me for anything in life now”.
“Every international meeting or championship I do I can cope a lot better because I can say I did the 100m hurdles, opened up the athletics at an Olympic Games in front of a home crowd, 80,000 people. If I’m nervous in Moscow I can think of that.
“It was the biggest thing I will probably ever do but I didn’t realise it at the time. I walked into the stadium, I sort of realised how big it was, just a blanket of people. I just had to try to focus on my race and I think that has helped me ever since.”
Her ease with the big stage is perhaps fitting for the daughter of a showgirl, Tracey, who met her Bahamian father, Ricardo, while performing around the world.
Johnson-Thompson herself had been tipped for a future as a dancer and earned herself a Royal Ballet School audition. She refused to go and instead wanted to play football. Mother and daughter reached a compromise over athletics, a decision that looks increasingly likely to pay off.
She has celebrated victory inside the Olympic Stadium, winning the long jump competition at the recent Anniversary Games, her final springboard to Moscow and the moment when Ennis-Hill’s Russian rendezvous effectively ended.
Victory celebrations inside Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium are unlikely, although the prospect of a British one-two in the future is a mouth-watering one. For now, Johnson-Thompson is just happy to be competing.Reuse content