Watch her: The heptathlon is on BBC1, starting on Tuesday at 10:30am and concluding on Wednesday at 8:05pm
Chatterbox, friendly, determined, crazy, generous, scatty. They are all words used to describe Katarina Johnson-Thompson – by herself. Seasoned observers in athletics prefer superlatives, rating her as one of the brightest young talents in the world of sport.
Johnson-Thompson, at 21, will start favourite for gold in the heptathlon at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and appears to be emboldened rather than burdened by the label “the new Jessica Ennis”. The Liverpudlian’s performances so far this season rank her alongside the greatest ever at the same age and there is genuine excitement within British athletics that she could emulate Ennis-Hill (as the Olympic champion is now know), Denise Lewis, Mary Peters and Daley Thompson in winning multi-events gold at the Olympics, maybe even in Rio in 2016.
Lewis, who lifted the Olympic title in Sydney in 2000 and is now part of the BBC commentary team, has been impressed by the rate of Johnson-Thompson’s development: “I didn’t expect her to progress so quickly. With heptathletes, you don’t know when there is going to be that leap forward. I expected this to be a consolidating year. But she’s ripped up that form and said, ‘You know what, I’m on a train and I’m going places.’”
The heptathlon comprises seven disciplines spread over two days of competition and is the ultimate test of all-round ability. One weak event is one too many. The “leap forward” for Johnson-Thompson came at a recent competition in the Austrian town of Gotzis, a hallowed venue in heptathlon history.
Johnson-Thompson won with the highest points total achieved by any athlete since Ennis- Hill won gold at London 2012. “They’d made a big deal of it,” says Johnson-Thompson. “It was the 40th anniversary of the event and as you walked into the stadium, on the floor, like the Hollywood stars, you saw the names of everyone that has won there. Carolina Kluft’s name was there five times, Jess’s three. Denise Lewis’s was there. On the men’s side, Daley Thompson's.”
Daley Thompson, who’s no relation, is a huge fan. The winner of two Olympic golds and a world championship title in the decathlon, he is notoriously hard to ignite when it comes to assessing potential. “You never like to put too much pressure on young shoulders but I’m going to anyway,” he said earlier this year. “She looks more than capable of becoming Britain’s next golden girl and great all-rounder.”
The graph of improvement for Johnson-Thompson has shown a steady upward curve since she took part in her first athletics event at the age of 12. Until then, she was engaged in a battle with her mother Tracey as to how to fill the spare time of an excitable, hyperactive, tomboy child.
Mum was a dancer whose profession took her around the world and into the path of Katarina’s dad Ricardo. She wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but Katarina preferred football kit to tutus – though she did win an audition at London’s Royal Ballet School. The compromise between football and ballet was athletics.
Johnson-Thompson lived in the Bahamas for the first year of her life but has been based in Liverpool with her mother ever since. She visited her father in the Caribbean after competing at London 2012 and was surprised to find that Bahamians had adopted her as one of their own. There will be distant but vocal support from afar for her gold medal bid in Glasgow.
As Ennis was celebrating a glorious success in London two years ago, Johnson-Thompson was grinning her way to 15th place – and a turning point in her career: “I was really focused on qualifying for the Olympics, even though it was well before my time. I was 19, so just to get there was a huge achievement. It was then I realised I wanted to do it as a career.
“I found the whole Olympic experience surreal. The first moment I stepped onto the track, it was overwhelming. The roar of the crowd was something I’ll never, ever forget. I’m fortunate, as a heptathlete I was out there for two days so I was able to absorb it. As soon as I crossed the finish line in the 800 metres, I got thousands of tweets saying ‘Rio, Rio, Rio...’ so I think I’m gonna end up having some pressure but I’ve got a lot of hard work to do before I get to Jess’s standard.”
A fifth place finish at last year’s world championships in Moscow has been followed by a series of personal-best performances this season. “It’s been very heartening,” says her coach Mike Holmes. “We managed to find a way to keep going. Like Jess, relentless, year on year on year. I admire Jess so much because she never yields in competition and it’s great to watch. Katarina’s basically a shy person but she likes to put on a show, it’s a bit of a contradiction. She rises to the occasion when it counts. She finds joy in competition, because athletes do slog away in training when the rain’s dripping down their neck.”
The main threat to Johnson-Thompson in Glasgow is likely to come from the Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who led for six of the seven disciplines before finishing second overall in Gotzis. However, Denise Lewis is confident that Johnson-Thompson can only get better.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she improved again this year,” says Lewis. “There’s improvement to be made in the hurdles, and I can see her, as she gets stronger, putting serious markers down in the throws. She’s the complete package.”
For all her attributes, the sponsorship and endorsement deals will continue to roll in only as long as she performs in the competition arena. There is giddy talk of a titanic domestic show- down when Ennis-Hill returns from maternity leave but for Johnson-Thompson, the only target occupying her mind is the Commonwealth title.
“I’ve never been favourite going into a senior event and I don’t know how I’m gonna cope with that. I’ll go into the competition like I always do and think its anyone’s to take. The dream would be to win the gold medal.”