Jessica Ennis-Hill stands on the cusp of completing one of the greatest feats in athletics history. No British woman has ever retained an Olympic title, in any sport, and Ennis-Hill’s attempt to win a second successive gold medal in the heptathlon carries an exceptional degree of difficulty.
In the history of the Olympics, just two women have repeated their golden glory in successive Games after giving birth, and both of them, Shirley Strickland, an Australian hurdler in the 1950s, and the Cameroonian triple-jumper of a decade ago, Françoise Mbango Etone, prevailed in single events. As a heptathlete, Ennis-Hill faces seven disciplines spread across two days. One weak link is one too many.
Her crowning glory on the track arrived at London 2012 on Super Saturday, when gold medals won also by Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford helped to create one of Britain’s most memorable sporting nights. But away from the track she achieved another milestone when she became a mother in July 2014. Son Reggie is now firmly entrenched in all her training plans and priorities.
“The team around her take a very realistic approach,” says her long-time coach Toni Minichiello. “This is an athlete who’s older, she’s now 30 and not 26 as she was in London, and she’s now a mum and both of those factors have to be taken into consideration. You’re gonna have to do a bit less training because of your age and because of child-care duties, so you have to make the best use of your time.”
At the Games in London, Ennis-Hill set a British record total of 6,955 points. Is the athlete of that vintage gone for ever?
“I don’t look at it in that way,” says Minichiello, “I speak of it as ‘P-P PBs’, which is ‘Post-Pregnancy Personal Bests’. I’m not trying to go back and look at Jess in her prime, training 30 hours a week, most days twice a day. We just can’t do that any more, so to draw a parallel between that person and the person now, I think is unfair.
“I made a conscious decision to wipe the slate clean and she starts from zero in every event. So, for example, in the high jump, she has jumped one metre 95 centimetres in the past, but really for me now her personal best is one metre 86, which is the highest she’s jumped since coming back from pregnancy. I try not to reflect back. She does, and I think that’s quite natural, but I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it’s sensible.”
Ennis-Hill has said she’s not prepared to chase success in sport at the expense of being a mother. She refused to employ a nanny while she prepared to defend her Olympic title – she had the help of her husband Andy Hill, a construction site manager, but mainly relied on her mother, Alison Powell, 50, who has taken a year-long career break from her job working for an addiction treatment charity to help look after Reggie (who is now two).
Dad Vinnie Ennis and Mum Alison Powell watch Jessica at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in 2011
The changes in her mentality and workload that have come with motherhood served her well through last year’s world championships in Beijing. She made a late decision to enter as a result of concerns about her fitness, and came away with gold. Many shrewd judges at trackside feel Ennis-Hill intimidates her competitors, not with boasts and histrionics, but simply by being there.
“A lot of people have said that to me,” says Minichiello. “When she enters the competition arena, she has this presence.
“It’s interesting, back in 2009 [when she won world championship gold for the first time], Jess ran the 200m at the end of the first day in Berlin and Natallia Dobrynska, the Ukrainian Olympic champion from Beijing, came up to her and said, ‘This is your heptathlon, you’ve won.’ And I’m thinking, ‘That’s a strange a comment with three events to go.’
“And I did get the feeling when Carolina Kluft [Sweden’s 2003, 2005 and 2007 world champion and gold medallist at the Athens Olympics] was there, all the others stepped back and thought, ‘Well, she’s gonna win, now whose turn is it for silver and bronze?’ So I think that does happen with the heptathlon.”
As a form guide for Rio, the 2016 world rankings show Ennis-Hill in second place, behind the Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton. The bookmakers prefer to chalk up the odds based on big-occasion pedigree, meaning Ennis-Hill will start as favourite on 12 August.
For some, the tag of favouritism is a burden. For her, it’s just a label, not to be made a distraction ahead of a potentially momentous Games.
The value of a sporting achievement is best measured using a scale of rarity: the less often it has been done, the greater the accomplishment. For Ennis-Hill, her challenge in Brazil is of the kind only a few take on – and fewer conquer.