Jessica Ennis crosses the line to win the heptathlon at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin (© Getty Images)
It was shortly after 7pm when Jessica Ennis stepped into the Shot Put circle of the Heptathlon at the western end of the Olympiastadion for her third and final effort on Day One (15) of the 12th IAAF World Championships in Berlin.
If the mark of a great champion is how they respond under pressure then that will go down as the moment when this diminutive Briton of 164cm, once nicknamed ‘tadpole’ by her teammate Kelly Sotherton, made the leap from potential star to become a fully grown World champion on the global athletics stage.
Ennis had arrived in the German capital as a slightly surprising favourite, having set the world’s leading score at the IAAF World Combined Events Challenge Multistars meeting in Desenzano del Gardo, Italy, back in May, her first competition for nearly a year. And she’d started the contest here in Berlin in superb form, dominating the first two disciplines of the seven-event competition.
“Crucial moment. It was a big breakthrough for me”
But the Shot Put was always likely to be her sticking point. This was the event that cost her a medal in Osaka two years ago when she missed out on bronze behind Sotherton by just 41 points after a weak put that fell short of 12 metres. It’s also a discipline relished by the Olympic champion, Nataliya Dobrynska, who was desperately needing to make up ground.
True to form the Ukrainian produced 15.82m and led Ennis by a massive 2.75 metres after two rounds – a result which would have all-but wiped out the 23-year-old’s lead. Ennis knew the pressure was on. There may have been four events still to go but this was a moment of truth that would define her championships and, maybe, her career.
Born and bred in the northern industrial town of Sheffield, Ennis showed nerves of steel as she launched the shot out beyond 14 metres. Then this most undemonstrative athlete hopped out of the back of the circle, twirled in the air and clapped her hands with a semi-embarrassed look of glee on her face. It was a personal best by 18cm as she’d cleared 14.14m to stay in front.
“That was really, really important because the shot put was where I messed up in Osaka, so I was worried I was going to lose a lot of points again. I scared myself.
“They were throwing 15 and more so I needed it. I knew I could throw 14, but to leave it to the last round was pretty scary to be honest. I was really panicking, but I knew what I needed to do and got it together in the final round.
“That was the crucial moment. It was a big breakthrough for me. After two really frustrating throws I pulled it back with my third. It was the real turning point.”
From then on, Ennis sensed the gold could be her’s. She went on to win the 200m, the final event of the first day, in a season’s best of 23.25 to end day one 307 points ahead of Dobrynska with 4124, the third highest first-day total in history behind Carolina Kluft and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
I ran for my life over the final 100m
Despite being slightly below par in the Long Jump and Javelin on Day Two (16), the young Briton’s adrenaline-rushed run in the 800m brought her nation its first heptathlon gold medal at a World Championships.
“The adrenaline was really pumping and I went off far too fast,” she said of the 800m. “I was tiring badly and it was only when I saw them coming up behind me that I thought ‘I’m not going to lose this last race’. So I ran for my life over the final 100m.”
It was one last effort at the end of “two exhausting, fantastic days” that says much about Ennis’s character. Now, her name will rank alongside two other Britons, Denise Lewis, the Sydney Olympic champion, and Mary Peters, who won the Olympic Pentathlon for Britain in another German city, Munich, back in 1972.
Asked whether she had them in mind after she crossed the finish line, Ennis said the magnitude of her victory had still not sunk in. “It will tonight,” she said. “I spoke to Denise and it was great to get her congratulations.”
Those two champions have been alone singing Ennis’s praises in the build-up to these championships, with Peters calling her “wonderful”, and “the most talented multi-event athlete” she has seen since Lewis. “Jessica has a nicely balanced performance too,” added Peters, “not outstanding in any event, but good at them all.”
What has been outstanding, though, is Ennis’s ability to bounce back from the bitter disappointment she suffered last year when forced to miss the Beijing Olympic Games with a triple stress fracture of her right ankle. Back then there were floods of tears followed by months of “boring” rehab, plus the tortuous process of learning to long jump off her left foot, which her coach Tony Minichello likened to teaching someone to write with their wrong hand.
She’s clearly a quick learner, though, for Ennis jumped a PB just a few weeks ago in Loughborough and in the Olympic stadium yesterday produced a third leap of 6.29m that kept a healthy cushion between her and her rivals. She admits, however, that she’s still trying to get it right.
“I did make some things a little bit hard for myself,” she said. “I was worried again in the Long Jump but it’s an event where I’ve had to make a lot of changes and I’m still learning and hopefully I’ll get stronger and stronger.”
In all, she’s set an amazing eight PBs in five events this year, testament, says her coach, to the medical and physio-therapy teams at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield where she does much of her training. “A world class team for a world class return,” Minichello calls it.
Coping with expectations
There was certainly a handsome pay-off last night when Ennis again improved her Heptathlon best from 6587 to to 6731 to put herself second on the British all-time list behind Lewis with the British record of 6831 in her sights.
“To be honest I haven’t thought about it before,” she says of the national record. “But it’s within reach now so in the run-up to London 2012 I hope to improve more and maybe get it.”
In a funny way, Ennis says now that missing out on the Olympics helped her cope with the expectations as she approached what one athletics magazine called “her destiny” in Berlin.
“It’s weird,” she says. “But I cast my mind back to the Olympics and missing out. I just really appreciate the position I’m in now and I’m just trying to enjoy it.”
“I was so worried after what happened last year. Yes, there’s been pressure, but it’s a nice pressure to have. I came here with the aim of winning. Everyone expected it and I didn’t know what shape I would be in after last year. But I delivered and it’s been the best two days.”
In many ways it’s been a rapid rise for the multi-eventer who first took up athletics as a schoolgirl when her mother, Alison, took her and younger sister Carmel to their local club to stop them arguing. Carmel’s interest didn’t last long but Jessica (or “Jess” as she’s known to friends) was soon breaking national junior titles and in 2005 won the European junior championships, the first sign of what she could do in the international arena.
But it was the following year when she first captured attention as a senior as she surprised everyone but herself to take a bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, aged 20, a progression that continued when she was fourth in Osaka two years ago.
With her performance in Berlin, that steady progress has just taken a huge leap forwards. With the London 2012 Olympics just around the corner, Ennis is already being backed by some bookmakers to emulate Lewis as Olympic champion.
A few days ago, Lewis – who Ennis calls “a massive inspiration” – was asked how she thought the new British number one would deal with the nation’s expectations.
“Over the two days we will finally see what Jess is all about and how she can handle the pressure. She used to be the underdog and the ‘promising one’ but now is her time.”
It may well be, although Usain Bolt’s historic sprinting meant Ennis was forced to play second fiddle in Berlin last night. Not that she minded when her victory lap was interrupted by the Lightning’s latest barrier-busting exploits.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was great for me to have won the gold medal and be able to enjoy the victory lap, and then to have the added bonus of seeing Usain Bolt run so fast – that was brilliant. The perfect end to a perfect two days.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF