Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: The heptathlon World champion giving back to her community

From her local athletics club to the Olympic stage, Katarina Thompson-Johnson wants to give back to the Liverpool people that 'passionately' supported her growing up.
By Courtney Hill

Katarina Johnson-Thompson has been jumping hurdles since long before her heptathlete days, overcoming a multitude of obstacles that stood in the way of her and her dreams.

The 2019 world champion has been quite outspoken about her realities of growing up in Netherley, a once run-down 'notorious' council estate, as a mixed raced girl with the ambition to become a great athlete.

She vividly remembers the days when she had to spend countless hours on commuting, from catching the bus across Liverpool for training to coaches up and down the country for competitions because she could not afford to learn how to drive.

Being sponsored by the time she turned 15 allowed Johnson-Thompson to afford a gym membership, driving lessons and a car, in what she described as being ‘a weight lifted'. With these things under her belt and the drive and commitment to go far, the gifted athlete took her game to the next level with the view of being involved in a home Olympic Games.

When 'KJT' competed in the London 2012 Olympics, she was dubbed the heir to Jessica Ennis-Hill’s throne.

Fast forward to 2021.

Johnson-Thompson is now one of the faces of British Athletics and is writing her own story as opposed to the sequel of someone else’s.

When she is not winning European and World Championships, back in her home city of Liverpool KJT is creating one of the most important chapters of that story.

As she works towards her golden Tokyo 2020 dream, Thompson-Johnson is hoping she can help young athletes ‘on the cusp of fulfilling their potential’ through her recently-opened KJT Academy.

"Reaching your full potential in sport, and in life, should not be about what you look like or how much money you have. It should be about your passion, your desire and your willingness to work hard. I couldn't be prouder or more excited to be able to help young athletes from the most underserved parts of our community in whatever way I can," she said.

Growing up in Liverpool

When people think of Liverpool they may think of legendary band The Beatles, football clubs Liverpool or Everton, famous actress Jodie Comer and now, ever since she burst onto the Olympic scene at London 2012 as a 19-year-old, Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

Despite coming from a dance background on her mother’s side and initially giving it a shot, it wasn’t long before Johnson-Thompson was swapping tutus for Steven Gerrard shirts and kicking about a football on the streets of Netherley in Liverpool.

Blissfully reminiscing with an old teacher, KJT talks of the time she first began high jumping and how they had to use a bamboo stick in place of high jump equipment.

That wouldn’t stop her from being triumphant, though, as she went on to break the school’s high jump record that stood for 29 years.

Those moments of perseverance were telling of the potential KJT held, and how fitting that her World Championship title in 2019 set a new British record for heptathlon with Johnson-Thompson achieving new personal bests in four of the seven events.

After sacrificing so much by moving to Montpellier alone and finding a new coach to spearhead life after the Rio Olympics, an exhausted KJT collapsed to the ground, visibly emotional upon the realisation that it had all been worth while in the end.

And now, from her local athletics club to the Olympic stage, she wants to help the next generation of athletes as her way of giving back to the community that so fiercely supported her journey.

KJT Academy: The next generation

Last summer, with the world at a standstill, Johnson-Thompson announced that she would be opening her very own academy, partnered with the LFC Foundation and support of her sponsors. A tale of gratitude and empathy as KJT strives to emulate the faith shown in her to others that may need it.

The academy was opened earlier this year to applicants who met the criteria, which included being aged 16-21, from an ethnically diverse background and attend, or previously attended, a state school and located in the North-West area; a somewhat reflection of KJT’s own journey.

"I wanted to help young athletes that were in a similar situation to me growing up," she told The Guide Liverpool.

"When I was growing up I had a lot of help from various people and organisations and I just though that, I'm at that point of my career now where I do want to give back."

Indicative of her want to give back to her community as she looks to qualify for her third Olympic Games, KJT makes a powerful statement to applicants: “Anything that I have got is available to them.”

And while the prospective athletes will have their own coach that specialises in their discipline, KJT will be on hand as a mentor figure to help guide them both personally and mentally in the best way she knows how.

"I am passionate about nurturing and developing future talent to help others achieve their dreams as I have been fortunate enough to do," she told British Athletics.

If her recovery goes to plan, KJT will find herself in Tokyo, on the back of a World Championship gold, ready to compete in a third Olympic Games - and for the athletes in her academy back home, they'll be able to witness what is like when a dream becomes a reality.