During this year there have been many sporting performances that have made the jaw drop and the eyes stretch wide with awe. Yet one achieved recently in Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium, the venue of the 2008 Olympic Games, has surely topped the lot. Jessica Ennis-Hill, merely 13 months after giving birth to her first child, pulled off one the great and most remarkable comebacks in elite sport to win Heptathlon Gold at the 2015 Athletics World Championships. Competing in her first major championships since the London Olympics three years ago and after nearly two years away from the sport, this was an effort of truly staggering proportions – not just due to her performance in the event but through the hard-work she put in to get to such a momentous point.
Ennis-Hill came flying out of the blocks to take the lead after the second event in the high jump and never looked back. No-one could live with her two-day master class in consistency and concentration, where she constantly pushed herself close to her season’s best, something she achieved in the long jump. She established a virtually unassailable lead following the javelin and then powered away from the rest to finish it for good in the final event, the 800m. Her final score of 6,669 was only 250 points below her London 2012 total and 115 ahead of second placed Brianne Theisen-Eaton from Canada. It says everything about Ennis-Hill that in the 9 major championships she has pulled on her spikes for stretching back to the world youths 12 years ago, she has delivered her best Hepathlon score of the year a remarkable 8 times.
A number of factors make this such a standout and inspirational story. As recently as 3 weeks before proceedings began she remained undecided as to whether she should compete as she was not confident that she could win a medal. Only her performance in the London Anniversary Games, where she set three season’s bests, rid her of that uncertainty. For once we approached a major championships not expecting Ennis-Hill to win Gold. Indeed, she did not expect it herself. Pundits doubted she would be able to capture former glories so quickly after such a long period out, sports scientists doubted that she would even physically be able to compete to the levels required. Only a handful of women have tasted the joy of a world title after giving birth and even then most of them competed in endurance races, rather than the multi-skilled and gruelling Heptathlon. Think Jo Pavey’s winning the European 10,000m Gold last year. Then you have to also consider the various injuries she endured, particularly an achilles problem that only cleared up in May. There is always something joyfully refreshing about seeing experts and pundits getting it so spectacularly wrong.
Yet, were such predictions unfounded? The evidence suggested not. The Heptathlon is one of the most gruelling of athletics events incorporating seven disciplines testing not just strength, endurance and speed but the ability to throw, jump, twist and turn. Power and willpower are needed in equal measure. Being in peak condition is imperative. Yet Ennis-Hill only returned to training last November and that simply encompassed 15 minute indoor cycles in her garage. Initially she could not lift any heavy weights nor do any twisting or turning – it was 3 months before she could even lift over her head. While her rivals would have started intense preparations last October, Ennis-Hill had to wait until February for anything resembling normal full Heptathlon training. With no real previous evidence to go by, along with her coach Toni Minichiello she put together a routine that helped her return to her physical peak in time for Beijing. She undertook a punishing timescale, daring to think of Silver at best. The eventual tears of celebration in China were the result of this committed and intense training.
Like a true winner, no sooner had Ennis-Hill taken in the magnitude of her achievement and allowed herself just a little time to celebrate was she then setting her sights upon the next peak to conquer in what has become one of the most historic journeys a British athlete has undertaken. That mountain will be to become only the third track and field athlete to retain an Olympic title after giving birth. Another terrific trait of hers, the admirable modesty and level-headedness, will not allow this latest triumph to go to her head, especially with the emerging Johnson-Thompson and the likes of Nadine Visser and Brianne Theisen-Eaton only likely to get stronger. The scene has been set for yet another memorable climb to the top of the Heptathlon podium at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. She has said that getting gold in Brazil could make her retire there and then – she may have to start preparing the farewell speech.
Young, aspiring athletes should already have known of what a great role model Ennis-Hill is and how much can be learnt from her. This comeback has merely accentuated this point. It is something fellow Heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who failed to deliver at these Championships, will realise only too well. The 29 year-old delivers when it matters most, has remarkable levels of focus and commitment in her training and most of all the belief that no matter the circumstances she can reach the ambitious targets she sets herself. This last year has also shown that having other focuses can take away some of the self-inflicted pressure that such dedication to a sporting career can bring.
It is surely time that people stopped doubting Jessica Ennis-Hill, a supreme athlete who holds Olympic, World Indoor, European and now two World Championship Heptathlon Golds. She believes that this latest achievement stands alongside her win as the poster-girl of London 2012. It is hard to argue against her. The consistency displayed in the Bird’s Nest was perhaps even greater. Acquiring a second Olympic Gold next year in Rio will be even harder still – yet after this resolute and thrilling performance, after such little time for training and preparation, try telling Sheffield’s finest that it cannot be done.