World Athletics Podcast – heptathlon special
The latest edition of the World Athletics Podcast brings together five legends of heptathlon, with Jessica Ennis-Hill, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carolina Kluft and Nafissatou Thiam joined by host Denise Lewis.
Between them, these combined events greats have dominated the last 40 years in the seven discipline contest, so for Ennis-Hill – who retired in 2016 – what has it been like stepping back and watching the heptathlon unfold over the years?
“Once you are in athletics and it has been your whole life – and the heptathlon has been everything for me for so long – it was a strange feeling to make that decision to step away,” said Ennis-Hill, who won Olympic gold in front of a home crowd in 2012 and also has three world titles to her name.
“But it was the absolute right time. I found that I had so many years of feeling highly motivated and driven to compete, and then towards the end of my career it flipped and I felt that emotion of being motivated by retirement and feeling really intrigued about what life what going to be like not being an elite athlete and what I would be able to do.
“It has been incredible to have that career and now be on the other side and get to watch the likes of Nafi dominating and doing incredible things. I think with the heptathlon, there is never a standing still moment – everyone is pushing forwards and it is getting stronger and stronger and there are always these huge personalities and amazing women. I just feel really proud to be part of this family. It is really special.”
Leading the way was the USA’s Joyner-Kersee. Still the world record-holder with her phenomenal 7291-point score achieved when winning the Olympic title in Seoul in 1988, Joyner-Kersee went on to retain her title in Barcelona four years later. She also claimed Olympic long jump gold in 1988 and has four world titles to her name, including heptathlon crowns claimed in 1987 and 1993.
“I have watched all of you from afar,” Joyner-Kersee said to her fellow podcast guests. “To see the sport continue to grow and the excitement and the pure talent, and have an appreciation for what you have done to keep the heptathlon out in the forefront.
“It’s just amazing. I think there is so much rich history and to be a part of this platform, I am so honoured because I am in awe of each and every one of you. And just know that even though I am not out there performing, I love watching the multi events.”
Sweden’s Kluft and Belgium’s Thiam have since joined Joyner-Kersee in the 7000-point club, thanks to their respective PBs of 7032 and 7013. Kluft also won Olympic gold in 2004 as well as three consecutive world heptathlon titles, while Thiam is a two-time Olympic champion with wins in 2016 and 2021, as well as a world gold medallist from 2017.
On how the structure of the heptathlon may have changed over the years, Kluft explained: “Competing together over two long days, you can still see the friendship and the competitive spirit among the girls. It is always spectacular to watch. It feels like there are a lot more girls pushing each other at a high level, but still we have Jackie’s amazing world record there, so we have not reached her level yet, but it has been amazing to see the glory of the event.
"You need stars and great girls pushing each other to make the event interesting, but that goes for all the different events. I just hope that the heptathlon will remain in the front line of giving a great show because that is what we have done – all of us – for many years.”
For Thiam, her own superb 7000-point show came in Gotzis in 2017. “It was the year after the Olympics and after that gold medal I had a lot of doubts,” Thiam said. “I was thinking, ‘what if I just reached my maximum potential?’ I had a lot of questions in my head. I think doing the 7000 really broke that and gave me more confidence, knowing that it wasn’t over and I could do way more in the future. I was not expecting it, to be honest.”
It’s all about having that belief, added Joyner-Kersee.
“The heptathlon is a journey,” she explained. “Everyone would always say, ‘the world record is so far out’ but you know, don’t put limits on what you can do because the human body is capable of doing anything, as long as we believe.”