Billed as the mother of all battles, for now the mother is on top. Jessica Ennis-Hill acted like she had never been away taking her customary place in gold medal position in a major championships at the end of the first day of the heptathlon in Beijing.
This wasn’t quite vintage London 2012 – the Olympic champion calling it no more than “solid” – but that was hardly to be expected a year after giving birth. But there was a sense of the old Jess being back, her opening four events enough to put her in the lead with a score of 4,005 points.
All the more remarkable was the fact she had toyed with missing Beijing, not committing until the last minute and insisting she had to be in medal contention to make two weeks away from her son worthwhile.
It was the first act of a potentially epic rivalry with Katarina Johnson-Thompson, the pair playing down their chances beforehand with the respective reasons of parenthood and injury. But Johnson-Thompson ended the day just 80 points behind in second and a British one-two is very much on the cards.
But despite the nature of her first day, Ennis-Hill was typically dissatisfied: “I’ve got a weird feeling of slight disappointment because I just feel I can do better and I know that’s going to take time. But I am surprised that I am first after four events.”
The caveat to that is that their main threat, Brianne Theisen-Eaton (3,865), does not really have a dud event on day two while Britain’s heptathletes are both expected to struggle with the javelin.
In some respects, Johnson-Thompson was just happy to still be standing in the competition, very nearly bowing out attempting a first clearance in the high jump at 1.80 metre, somehow defying logic and gravity to clear it from a virtual standing start so jittery was her run-up.
Ennis-Hill and her coach Toni Minichiello have always liked to lay down a marker from the outset of a competition to strike fear into her rivals. At present, she lacks the fear factor but a time of 12.91 seconds was still quicker than her last heptathlon in Gotzis in May while Johnson-Thompson managed a personal best of 13.37s, hugging her mother afterwards.
It was a contrast of fortunes in the high jump, Ennis-Hill a model of consistency until failing at 1.86 while Johnson-Thompson looked nervous as she nearly bowed out without a clearance before jumping 1.86, higher than anyone else but still short of her very best.
“I am happy that didn’t all end in tears – I have been fighting all season to get to Beijing and I didn’t want it to end that way,” said Johnson-Thompson, adding her rival had admitted to “crapping herself” and “giving her a heart attack” with the nail-biting nature of her leaps.
Ennis-Hill’s day could have been better had she not stumbled out of the shot-put circle with a first throw over 14m, instead having to make do with 13.73m to her team-mate’s 12.47, a personal best for her outdoors.
In the 200m, Johnson-Thompson was a class apart winning in 23.08s to Ennis-Hill’s 23.42s with the stage set for the gold to be decided over the 800m.
“I don’t want to battle it out with Jess in the 800m because neither of us will give up,” said Johnson-Thompson”. I would like to get two good events and give myself an easier time because she is Olympic champion and I think I’ve got the goods as well so the 800m could be really special.”
Sunday will be spent poring over the mathematical possibilities and permutations between the experienced head and her young pretender.
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