Jess Ennis-Hill bows out with head held high as one of Britain's greats

Rise of Thiam plays a part as London's golden girl retires

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the bowels of the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in the summer, an emotional Jess Ennis-Hill knew her amazing race was run. She couldn’t quite admit it then but her tears and choked words as she spoke to the press said her athletics career was at an end.

“I’m pretty emotional,” she said in Brazil after winning heptathlon silver, “but these are happy tears. I’m just proud to be back on the podium. These two days have been pretty tough. It is a mix of everything… thinking back over the last few years.

“It’s a tough decision. It’s a tough event and I’ve done it for so long… so… we’ll see. I’ve just tried to stay focused on here but, yeah, it does creep into my mind that this is possibly my last competition. I might not do that event again, this event again…”

Having had time to think it through the “might not” has become a “will not” as the British heptathlete confirmed her retirement on Thursday with immediate effect. She bows out as one of Britian’s best – and most popular – athletes having won that amazing gold in Super Saturday’s crazy half-hour during the London Games. 

The 30-year-old was unable to defend that medal in Rio, taking silver when the 22-year-old Belgian, Nafissatou Thiam, signalled a changing of the guard. Ennis-Hill had needed to win the 800m, the heptathlon’s final event, by 10 seconds to claw back gold late on the Saturday night. That she won the race comfortably (although by not quite enough) was a final sign of her indomitable fighting spirit. 

ennis.jpg
Jess Ennis-Hill celebrates her silver medal won in Rio during this summer's Olympics (Getty)

Ennis-Hill, who at 5ft 5in spent a career proving wrong those who doubted she had the stature to be a top-level heptathlete, will always be synonymous with Super Saturday and London 2012 when, despite the huge weight of expectation that saw her appointed “poster girl” for the Games, she comfortably won gold. But perhaps her finest achievement was winning gold in the World Championships in Beijing in 2015 a year after giving birth to her son Reggie. That meet, which she very nearly didn’t attend, was meant to be a trial run for Rio – and she blew away the field.   

The lure of the World Championships in London in 2017 played on Ennis-Hill’s mind before her announcement on Thursday but in the end even the thought of performing back in Stratford could not encourage her to hang on. “Having the Worlds in London makes the decision harder,” admitted Ennis-Hill. An Indian summer in the 100m hurdles – her strongest event and one that she has considered doing in the past – was no temptation either, knowing that she would have to invest in it fully. “I want to be the best at what I do,” was how she put it. 

ennis-2.jpg
Jess Ennis-Hill comes to terms with missing out on gold in Rio after winning the 800m - but not by enough (Getty)

“I have amazing memories,” she said on Thursday. “From my first world title in Berlin 2009 to Rio 2016. This is one of the toughest decisions I've had to make. I’ve always said I wanted to leave on a high and have no regrets. I want to thank my family and incredible team who have spent so much of their time supporting me and enabling me to achieve my dreams. Also, a huge thank you to all those people who have supported and followed my career.”

Ennis-Hill's long-time coach Toni Minichiello said she was “one of our sporting greats” and the manner of her retirement - “walking out of the stadium by stepping off the podium” - was “fitting”. 

“Despite all the fame and money she's never forgotten where she's come from,” he added. “Most of her friends she's had from school days. She's humble, she grafts, she pushes herself hard and she never gives up.”

ennis-4.jpg
Jess Ennis-Hill in full flow during the 100m hurdles (Getty)

Ennis-Hill's first taste of success came a decade ago in Melbourne at the Commonwealth Games when she won bronze. After failing to back that up at the 2007 World Championships in Japan she was hit by injuries which forced her to miss the Beijing Olympics. 

After regaining fitness she hit her peak years and won gold at Berlin’s 2009 World Championships and the 2010 Europeans in Barcelona. She then took silver in 2011 at the Worlds in South Korea before that London gold a year later.

Despite the tears in Rio’s Olympic stadium Ennis-Hill, although contemplating the end, was still able to raise a smile. “I’ve put up with Toni for 18 years – that deserves another medal in itself,” she said of her friend and coach.

She then added: “I gave it everything here  in Rio. So I can’t walk away and think I wish I’d done this or that because I gave it my all.” 

Those words could be said of her whole, glittering, career.

Comments