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.”
Sport: 400m hurders
Watch her: the final is on Thursday BBC1 at 8:25pm
Eilidh Child has just been sent a picture of herself splashes across a billboard outside Glasgow airport. It’s the first time that her status as Scotland’s Commonwealth Games poster girl has hit home and she isn’t sure what to make of it.
“It’s weird. It’s not something I would have chosen, but it’s come upon me and I’m very flattered,” she says. “If people are looking at me like that I’m obviously running well. I’m happy to take it on.”
And she certainly is running well. While many athletes have spent the past few months fighting for a place on their national team, Child, 27, qualified for the 400m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games last September following an impressive 2013 season that saw her win a bronze medal at the European Indoor championships.
That good form has continued this year with victory at the British championships, so Child acknowledges that she is now “definitely expected” to win a medal in Glasgow.
However, a formidable obstacle stands between her and a gold medal – Jamaica’s Kaliese Spencer.
“To beat her, I’d have to run my perfect race and get every single hurdle spot on,” she explains. “Both Spencer’s PB and her season’s best is half a second faster than mind, so I’d have to go out there and run a PB.”
A noticeable absence on the start line will be Child’s Team GB colleague and long-term rival Perri Shakes-Drayton, who will miss the Games after undergoing knee surgery. “I finished higher than Perri at the World Championships in Moscow last year, but she was injured so there’s always that feeling of wanting to beat her at her best. We always seem to get the best out of each other so having her there this year would have helped both of our progressions.”
Medal hopes aside, Child’s main goal is to enjoy Games fever in a way she couldn’t at the London Olympics. She was overwhelmed by the occasion and, despite reaching the semi-finals, she feels her performance suffered.
“I love athletics, but at the Olympics I forgot that. I kind of thought, ‘I don’t really belond here.’ I don’t want that experience at the Commonwealth Games, regardless of how I perform. I want to embrace it.”
One thing that she did take away from London was a firm friendship with Jessica Ennis-Hill. The pair shared a flat in the Olympic village and Child saw first-hand how Ennis-Hill dealt with pressure. “I saw how nervous she got. It was nice to see the human side of her and see that even the best in the world get nervous.”
Born in Perth, Child got her first taste for the hurdles as a teenager when she went with her sister to their local athletics club. After graduating from Edinburgh University she became a PE teacher. It was only after she won a silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi that she decided to dedicate herself to athletics. The following year, with encouragement from her fiancé (former Irish sprinter Brian Doyle), Child relocated to Bath to take advantage of the university’s world-class facilities and coaching set-up.
Although the move has provided respite from Scotland’s pre-Games hypes, Child says she will relish racing in front of a home crowd at Hampden Park. “I don’t think people appreciate the effect it can have. To have a whole crowd cheer you on is incredible.”
Country: Northern Ireland
Watch him: The semi-finals of the bantamweight competition are on Friday from 1:00pm on the red button
You were knocked out in the first round
of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. What are you hoping for this time around?
I’m going for gold – if I get anything else, I’ll throw it away. I was 17 in Delhi and didn’t perform. I want to right some wrongs this year.
Were you pleased with bronze in London?
I was over the moon. But since then I’ve won silver at the European championships – and it’s just made me hungrier for gold.
Why did you decide to move up a weight category [to 56kg] after the Olympics?
I was having problems maintaining the 50kg weight and training was hard because I felt so drained. My world ranking has gone up to number two since I changed and I’m performing better. Also, I can eat more!
Do you have a pre-fight routine?
Usually I listen to the Rolling Stones in the dressing room. Sometimes the “What if I lose?” question comes into my mind, but I can’t let it take hold.
Sport: Para shot put and discus
Watch him: The men’s discus final is on Monday BBC1 at 10:00am
You’re the captain of Team Wales
– how did you get the job?
Brian Davies [the chef de mission of Team Wales] didn’t want the role to affect the athlete’s performance and he knew I would take it well.
I’m only 23 so there are more experienced people on the team than me, but I want to be there for everyone and I’m a believer in leading by example. I think I’m the only para–captain in the world and the only one before me was Tanni Grey-Thompson.
How did you discover your throwing talent?
When it was announced that London had won the 2012 Olympics, I knew I had to be there. It sounds cheesy, but I felt it was my destiny. I tried various sports and then I met Anthony Hughes, who is now my coach. He noticed that I had a natural arm. Eight years later we were competing for Paralympic gold.
What was your reaction to the news that discus won’t be in the Rio Paralympics?
I’m heartbroken not to get the chance to defend my gold medal. It’s horrible, I can’t even find the words, but it’s a decision that’s out of my hands.
Have the London Paralympics left a legacy?
Definitely. I wouldn’t wear shorts until I was 14 because I was ashamed of my disability, but since London 2012 I’ve seen children with disabilities wearing shorts in the park. That’s the legacy right there.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Eilidh Child, Michael Conlan and Aled Davies are SSE Home Nation ambassadors. Tweet your support for your favourite using #GO followed by their country