A chance visit to an athletics taster event for children during the school holidays in 1996 proved to be the starting gun shot that set Team GB golden girl Jessica Ennis off on an incredible track career.
Even at the age of 11, racing hurdles for the first time, she made an immediate impression on coaches at the Don Valley stadium in her home town of Sheffield, West Yorkshire – particularly Tony Minichiello who took her under his wing and guided her to Olympic glory in London 15 years later.
After that first taste of athletics Ennis took up the sport in earnest, and became National Track and Field high jump champion at 14 with a leap of 1.70m, a title she would defend two years later.
But she really came to international prominence after switching to heptathlon, and in 2005 took gold at the World Junior Championships, third place in the World University Championships and first at the All England Athletics Championships.
Training for several hours a day, six days a week elevated Ennis to the point where she was seen as a medal hope for Team GB at Beijing in 2008 – until disaster struck in the form of a serious bone fracture, meaning she would miss the Games.
But Ennis proved resilient as well as gifted, and with the help of Minichiello recovered to win the World Championships the following year in Berlin – even changing her long jump style to lead with her weaker foot – and she followed that up by clinching the World Indoor Championships title in 2010 in Doha, the high point of a year in which she recorded a 100% win record.
By 2012 she had become perhaps Britain’s most famous contemporary athlete – a fact not lost on visitors in London for the Games, where her face gazed out from posters all over the capital. Travellers arriving at Heathrow Airport were met by her image almost as soon as they stepped off their planes.
But despite being an elite athlete Ennis admitted to often being physically sick with nerves before competitions and felt deeply the pressure to win at her home Games from an expectant nation.
The 26-year-old put in an incredible 10,000 hours of training for the Games. A typical day would include plyometrics drills – short, explosive bursts of exercise – in a park in Sheffield, weights sessions and endurance sessions to prepare for the 800m. And it was that event, the final one of the 2012 heptathlon that would ultimately seal Ennis’ place in the hearts of spectators in the Olympic stadium and watching around the world on television.
After a strong start in the first event, the 100m hurdles, Ennis broke the British hurdles record and smashed her own personal best with an exhilarating run of 12.54 secs, before performing solidly in both the high jump and the javelin, her weakest event. Ennis went into the 800m with a commanding 188-point lead. And it was here that she truly cemented her status as an Olympic icon.
Knowing she could comfortably take gold overall in the competition without winning the 800m, she produced a world-class performance, bursting from the middle of the pack to finish first, giving her a new British and Commonwealth record score of 6,955 points and provoking ecstatic scenes in the stadium.
The pressure was off, and the face of the Games had delivered. Afterwards she said: ‘I can't believe I’ve had the opportunity to come to my first Games in London and won an Olympic gold medal. It’s unbelievable.’
The new Olympic champion was celebrating again when she married her childhood sweetheart Andy Hill and then gave birth to their son, Reggie Ennis-Hill, on 17 July 2014.
She returned to the competitive arena in 2015 and won her second world title in the Bird’s Nest in Beijing that August with a total of 6,669 points. A year later, at the age of 30, she travelled to Rio as a warm favourite to retain her Olympic title.
Ennis-Hill began her defence in promising fashion, scoring 4,057 points in the first four events (100m hurdles, shot put, high jump and 200m) to take a comfortable lead over the rest of the field at the end of day one. The British athlete struggled in the long jump and javelin the following day, however, allowing Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam to move past her and into the lead with just the 800m remaining.
To retain her crown, the defending champion had to beat the Belgian by fully nine seconds. Ennis-Hill gave it everything she had, running the fastest time of the event (2:09.07) to pour the pressure on the competition leader. Thiam crossed the line only 7.47 seconds behind, however, which give her the gold with a final points total of 6,810, just 35 clear of her British rival.
“It’s very hard to find the words to explain it,” said Ennis-Hill after clinching silver. “It’s very emotional. I have to make a big decision about what I’m going to do. This could be my last one.”
She confirmed that on 13 October 2016, bringing to an end one of the finest heptathlon careers ever seen. “This has been one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make,” said Ennis-Hill. “But I know that retiring now is right. I’ve always said I want to leave my sport on a high and have no regrets, and I can truly say that.”
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