Jessica Ennis was 10 years old when British heptathlete Denise Lewis competed in the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. That summer she won a pair of trainers for her success at Startrack Athletics camp in Sheffield and, more importantly, met Toni Minichiello – the coach who has now mentored her for 15 years.
Her mother, a social worker, grew up near Sheffield, while her father, a painter and decorator, grew up in Jamaica. Neither excelled in athletics but at just 1.62m, their daughter has never wholly relied upon genetic physiology for her success.
Mental and physical strength needed
Four years later Ennis watched as a heavily bandaged Denise Lewis won Olympic heptathlon gold in the 800m in Sydney, despite having almost withdrawn ahead of the javelin with an Achilles injury.
“You have to be physically strong and in the best of shape to be a heptathlete,” explains 25-year-old Ennis who is six inches shorter than current Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska. “But mentally you have to be just as strong. There are a lot of ups and downs and you have to be able to deal with it. There will be times when you have to have the strength to battle through injuries and overcome pain.”
In May 2008, aged just 22, Ennis’ Olympic dreams almost came to an agonising end when she suffered a triple stress fracture to her right foot during day one at the Hypo-Meeting in Götzis, Austria. At first, team doctors thought that she would not be able to compete again and Ennis was forced to sit out the rest of the season as she recuperated – missing the chance to make her Olympic debut in Beijing.
A return to action with a personal best
After a 12-month layoff, the psychology graduate returned to action with a personal best 800m time and largest ever points tally, having remodelled her long jump to take off with the other foot. She went on to win 2009 World Championship gold in Berlin just four months, later and exorcised her demons at Götzis the following year with personal bests in shot put and 200m to complete an exceptional comeback.
Today, Lewis’ 11-year-old British heptathlon record hangs by a thread after Ennis recorded a personal best, just eight points shy, when winning European Championship gold in Barcelona in 2010. “It was nice getting so close to the record,” she admits. “But first and foremost I want to perform well and win medals.”
A key medal hope for Great Britain
Ennis approaches the Games as one of Great Britain’s key medal hopes and the British public are already backing their ‘golden girl’ to spearhead the British assault. “It obviously brings extra pressure, but I wasn’t a part of it at all four years ago, so it’s nice to play a big role in 2012 and it’s that much more special for me that the Games are here in the UK.”
The gruelling demands of her event make a year on the track a very long one, with every eventuality possible. “The heptathlon is a massive challenge. You only get the opportunity to compete in a couple every year so it’s a rare event, which brings a lot of pressure to those two days. It’s all about highs and lows and the margin for error is so great – I absolutely love it.”
"An amazing atmoshere"
The mental strength with which Ennis overcomes pressure, injury and physical disadvantage propels her to the front of the field and while she admits that throwing remains her weakest event, it continues to improve. Her pace over short distance is world-class in its own right, as proved when she beat American world indoor champion Lolo Jones over 60m hurdles.
Ennis caught the Olympic bug when she was young. Now the gold medal prospect hopes that, in turn, the Olympic Games in London in 2012 will inspire children around Great Britain to get involved in sport.
“In Sheffield there are loads of kids coming here [to the English Institute of Sport] and wanting to take part because of the Olympic Games. There are lots of training squads and summer camps for the younger kids. It’s really positive that we have a home Games that could inspire these youngsters. They could be the future of athletics.”