Sheffield’s Jessica Ennis, 23, made history in Berlin in September 2009 when she became the first British athlete to take the heptathlon gold medal at a World Championship. Now touted as the athlete of the 2012 Olympics, Jessica confides in us about the disappointment of missing out on the Beijing Olympics due to injury, and how it feels to bounce back to become Britain’s hottest medal hope.
Where in Sheffield are you from?
I grew up just off Abbeydale Road, where my mum and dad still live, but now I live in Woodseats.
When you were at school was it always obvious that you had a talent for athletics?
Well, my first introduction to athletics was at a summer camp I went to at Don Valley Stadium when I was about nine or 10 years old, and then after that I took it more seriously in senior school.
And is it something that your parents encouraged you to do?
Yeah, very much so. They introduced me to athletics by taking me down to the summer camp at Don Valley Stadium, and obviously they’ve taken me to competitions, taken me to and from training when I was younger. They’ve been incredibly supportive and involved in my athletics right from the beginning.
Did you do sporting activities together as a family when you were younger?
Not so much sporting, my parents both did a bit of athletics at school and we were a very active family, going out on walks or to the park, things like that, but not so much taking part in competitive sports as a family.
When you did the athletics camp at Don Valley, did you realise straight away it was something that you could make a career out of?
I knew I enjoyed it at that stage, but I wasn’t at the age where it ever occurred to me I would go on to have a career in athletics. It was probably when I got to about 15 and started competing properly, and did my first heptathlon international competition that I began to feel differently about athletics and wanted to take it further, and wanted to have a career in it.
Why did you choose the heptathlon as a discipline?
I started off doing a bit of sprinting when I first started, and then I met my coach, who still coaches me now, and he’s a combined events coach so he introduced me to all the different events and wanted me to keep all my options open and not specialise in an event too soon. And then it just happened that I enjoyed most of the events so decided to focus on the heptathlon.
You’ve been with the same coach since you first started competing, is that relationship integral to your success?
Yeah, definitely. Toni’s coached me since I was 13 and obviously he’s done a really good job. He’s taken me from a child that came down to the track just to mess around and have a bit of fun, to becoming world champion, so he’s a massive part of why I’ve done so well and hopefully why I will continue to do well.
You did a psychology degree at university which is a huge commitment on its own. How difficult was it to combine your training with your degree?
It was difficult. It was a three year degree, the first was okay but the second was tough. And then the Commonwealth Games just happened to fall on my third year so I was away for a month, and it was definitely a juggling act trying to fit in training, which was pretty much full time, with my exams and completing my dissertation. But I’m really glad I did my degree, it was really important to me to go to uni and complete my education because you never know what will happen with an athletic career with injuries and things, so although it was hard I’m definitely glad I did it.
Is psychology something that you’d like to pursue as a career when you retire from athletics?
Possibly, yeah. It’s always something that’s interested me, I did it at A-level as well, so if I had the opportunity in the future to pick it up again then I definitely would.
Living and studying in Sheffield, the Institute of Sport is on your doorstep. How important was it to you to have those facilities close to hand when you were working on your degree and training for the Commonwealth Games?
So important. I was really lucky to be honest to be born in Sheffield and have all these facilities here. When I was younger Don Valley was the main facility and then a few years later the Institute of Sport was built, so yeah, some people have to travel far to get to their main track and do their sessions but only have to travel 20 minutes to do my sessions in such an excellent facility. I can do all my training and get all the support I need there, so I’m definitely very lucky with what I’ve got here. Plus, the travel networks make it really accessible for people no matter where in South Yorkshire they’re from.
Are Sheffield and South Yorkshire supportive of people who show promise at sport?
Yeah, definitely. Sheffield is a really good sporting city and everyone’s been really positive and supportive of me throughout the whole time I’ve been competing, they’ve been brilliant. Even when I was injured last year, everyone was still behind me and showed their support. It’s been great to be from a city that’s so friendly and supportive.
Does it help that all the facilities you need are in your home city, and you have your family around you to support you and don’t have to live away from home to pursue your career?
It’s definitely a really positive thing. My parents live five minutes away, all my close friends from school live in the area, so I have a great social network and family support.
Does having that support network help you to deal with the attention you inevitably get from being such a successful athlete? When you won the World Championships in Berlin in September 2009 the press focused on you literally overnight, how did it feel to go from someone who is working hard, surrounded by family, to suddenly being recognised in the street and on holiday?
It was really strange to be honest. When I came back from Berlin it all changed. For all the people that had come up to me in the past to say, ‘well done on your performance’, it went up a level and everyone was very keen to get behind me. It’s kind of weird, lots of opportunities are opened up in terms of press interviews and appearances and suddenly your time is being taken up with all sorts of things you weren’t doing before. It’s been different, but it’s been really good fun.
When you started competing did you ever imagine that you’d become a household name and be touted as the face of 2012
No! From last year, when I was injured, it’s all changed so much. To be touted to be doing great things is something that everyone wants in their career, so for me to be spoken of like that is a really nice position to be in, so I just want to make the most of it, train hard and take advantage of all the support.
You just mentioned your injury last year – how did it feel to be ruled out of the Beijing Olympics after you’d trained so hard and for so long?
It was a massive disappointment. Every athlete trains so hard for the Olympics, it only comes round every four years so to have that focus for so long and then get injured just a couple of months before is a huge blow. It was a real shock and a real disappointment and it was very hard to deal with, but thankfully I have a fantastic team of people around me who gave me great medical support, great physio and I have a great coach who put a programme together for me. They got me back into great shape and ready to do well this year.
And then you went on to become the first British world champion – how did that feel?
Really surreal to be honest! It was really good because I enjoy having the heptathlon at the beginning of the championship because you get really nervous and you just want to compete. But then when it was all over, and I’d done so well and won the gold medal, after all that I had the opportunity to just relax a bit and enjoy supporting all my teammates, it was really nice.
You got a personal best at the World Championships, what was it about that event in particular that made you do so well?
It was the World Championships! Everyone is 100% focused on really performing at their peak there, but I think missing the Olympics just gave me that extra boost and extra bit of determination to really get my head down and go out there and win that medal.
So do you think that missing the Olympics might have been a blessing in disguise?
Yeah, although I think at the time I wouldn’t have said that! But every athlete goes through injuries and it’s something you have to deal with and move on from. But yeah, it has helped this year, definitely, just to re-focus myself and take some positives from it.
Winning the World Championship led you to being nominated for the Sports Personality of the Year, was that a surprise to you?
Yes! It had just been such a brilliant year, and then finishing the season with a gold medal in Berlin, to have the chance to be nominated on top of that was just so good. And then on top of that having the ceremony in Sheffield as well…
And how do your family feel about it?
Everyone’s really excited, and they’re trying to encourage everyone to vote for me! Just to be nominated is brilliant, and it’s fantastic for it to be based in Sheffield this year, and it’ll just be lovely to go to the arena and just be a part of the whole thing.
Since your success in the world championships, marketing experts have predicted you’ll be a millionaire by 2012. Do you think those claims are justified, or do they just put added pressure on you? Or do you blank all the hype out and channel your energy into your training?
I don’t read any of it to be honest. I just have to train hard and perform on the track and if I do that I’ll get rewards, but if I don’t it could all be gone so I just don’t get wrapped up in that side of it.
So what would you say is your ultimate ambition? You’re going to be at the Olympics in 2012, and the Olympics are the pinnacle of an athlete’s career. Is there anything you’d like to do after that?
I think in the short term it’s just about staying injury free and making major championships up until 2012, and then just being really ready and being at the peak of my career – hopefully – and win a gold medal in London. And then, depending on what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved until then and in London I can make a decision on whether I want to go to another Olympics or world championships, or just call it a day. It’s one of those things that you can’t possibly know until you get there.
When you see all your friends going out to clubs every weekend do you ever think that you’re missing out?
Sometimes! Everyone has those mornings where you don’t want to get up and run or do your session, but I’ve got great friends and they know what I do and that I have to train a lot and make little sacrifices. They appreciate it, and they don’t pile on the pressure for me to go out every night.
So what is it that gets you up every morning and to the training sessions – what drives you?
I think it’s just each championship in each year. I know that if I put the work in and train really hard then I’ll be ready for the summer season and be able to perform well and win medals. That’s my major drive. There are days when I don’t want to go out and do hill sessions when it’s raining, but I know that if I don’t put that work in I won’t win medals and I won’t improve.
What advice would you give to young people who perhaps don’t enjoy sports at school, or maybe their parents have booked them onto an athletics camp like yours did and they’re a bit apprehensive?
Just go down to your track and give it a go! Try all the events and if you don’t like one try another! Don’t just think you’ll be rubbish and not bother, have a go. It’s all about trying everything and seeing what you’re good at, and there is lots of help available – there are clubs all over South Yorkshire. There are lots of camps available, like the one that I went to all those years ago, and there are lots of academies, now more than ever with London coming up. Get involved!