Jessica Ennis: Eyes on the Golden Prize
You’ll never guess who I had in the back of my cab the other day. Only that Jessica Ennis, MBE, world heptathlon champion and all-round poster girl for the London Olympics.
There are actually three of us in the back seat: me, her agent and Jessica in the middle. Her shoulders are unfeasibly wide, as you would expect from a sportswoman whose seven athletic disciplines include javelin and shot put. As I lean back, my own shoulders rub a little uncomfortably against hers.
Her agent suggests we all buckle up our seat belts – it wouldn’t be wise to risk injury this close to the Olympics. In the ensuing tussle to locate the correct buckles, I accidentally knock Jessica on the forehead.
Fortunately, she dismisses the assault good-naturedly.
We’re on our way from the ITV studios, on London’s Southbank (Jessica has just appeared on the breakfast show Daybreak), to a school in the south-east suburbs, where she is spearheading some sort of sports day for the kids. It’s Thursday, and Thursdays for Jessica are “rest days”.
For rest days read 'media commitment' days. The 26-year-old from Sheffield is bashful about her role as poster girl. It must be strange seeing herself emblazoned across billboards up and down the country.
“I don’t see just myself as the face of the Olympics,” she says. “You’ve got so many great athletes across all the different sports. There are faces for each sport.”
But Jessica has been singled out because she’s a track and field athlete. One whose chosen sport – the heptathlon – features seven of the Olympic Games’ core disciplines: the 100m hurdles, the high jump, the shot put, the 200m, the long jump, the javelin and the 800m.
She will be competing in the main Olympic Stadium for two whole days of the Games (August 3 and 4). What’s more, she’s photogenic and free of any doping controversies. A sponsor’s dream, in other words.
Bizarrely, a senior official at UK Athletics recently voiced concerns that Jessica was “fat” and carrying “too much weight”, triggering a bit of a media frenzy. She really isn’t. But she’s well aware that, as a female athlete who performs on TV in tight-fitting clothing, she is an important role model for young British women.
“I don’t for one minute feel I’m overweight,” she says. “I train as hard as I can, so my body’s the way it needs to be for me to perform as well as I can. That’s the main thing. But if young girls think I’m fat, that’s really damaging. What will they think about their own bodies?
"Also, some of the models in magazines at the moment are so skinny. It’s not healthy, and it doesn’t look right at all, and I don’t think young girls should be trying to achieve that, or worrying about their weight if they don’t look like that. Not everyone looks the same. Everyone’s completely different.”
Her own sport is a perfect case in point. Track and field throws up every possible shape and size of athlete, from the tall giraffes of high jump, and the skinny, flat-chested long-distance runners, to the huge shot-putters and muscle-bound sprinters. A total cross-section of humanity.
As a heptathlete, and by definition an all-rounder, Jessica falls somewhere in the middle. She has to throw, sprint and jump. The Olympic motto – Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) – might have been devised specially for her sport.
There’s a cool sense of urgency to Jessica right now. The last Olympic Games, in Beijing, were a washout for her since she was sidelined with injury. While the rest of the British team were gathering their record haul of 47 medals, she was sitting at home, nursing stress fractures in her right foot and watching their exploits on TV.
A determination to shine this time round in London has meant four years of a near-monastic lifestyle. “I do enjoy going out with my friends,” she says. “But this year, every training day is so important, and every rest day is so important as well. So you can’t have a really late night because then it takes you the whole next day to recover. At the end of the season, when I go on holiday, that’s when I’ll indulge a little bit.”Admittedly, a heptahlete indulging a little bit isn’t quite the same as we mortals indulging a little bit. “I can openly have a nice glass of wine, maybe a few glasses of wine,” she says of holiday mode. “Maybe order a second bottle.”
The need to treat one’s body as a temple is simply part of the job of a professional athlete. “Your life’s very different,” she says. “You don’t just go to work, come back at the end of the day and then just enjoy your evening.
"Athletics and sport is your whole life. It’s how you eat, it’s how you train, it’s how you recover, it’s how you rest. You do have to make sacrifices – but relative to what you could achieve, they are quite small sacrifices. Sport is not a very long career. You retire early to late 30s as a woman, and then you’ve got the rest of your life to go out and party.”
Professional athletes have a small window of opportunity during their lives. “You have to make the most of it. It’s not like studying where you can leave it and come back to it later in life. You have to do it now because your body will only let you do it for this short period.”
This may explain Jessica’s desire to control every aspect of her life – both on the track and off it – down to the tiniest detail. She is a self-confessed control freak. “Yes, definitely. I like everything being in a certain way. In a sport like heptathlon, you have to be organised and structured in everything you do. I’ve always been like that. I’ve been doing athletics since I was 10. I’ve always had to juggle school, homework, training and family.”
Family is younger sister Carmel, mum Alison, a social worker, and dad Vinnie, a painter-decorator. She grew up in the Nether Edge and Highfield districts of Sheffield. “We had a really nice house, always clean and lovely,” she remembers. “We didn’t want for much when we were younger, but my parents didn’t have a lot. Although it was a good childhood.”
Alison and Vinnie first introduced their two daughters to athletics at a local summer camp. “They got me involved but then, as I’ve got older, they’ve taken more of a back-seat role. They’ve not been the crazy, pushy parents you often see at competitions."All sports attract those parental types – the ones who goad their offspring to compete, living vicariously through their success on the field of play. But athletics seems to have more than its fair share.
At any of the hundreds of meetings held up and down the country, you’ll always spot them: the mad dad – and it usually is a dad – with his stopwatch, notebook and look of exasperation. “There are a lot of those,” Jessica says. “Definitely not healthy. It’s hard for me to watch."
Jessica’s parents sound decidedly more balanced. She says that when she was a teenager, it was her house that everyone used to pile back to after school. Her mother was fairly young when Jessica was born. This, she says, kept them close as she was growing up. Her father is older. “He’s 61, but he hasn’t really got grey hair,” she says. “He looks quite a bit younger.”
The other man in Jessica’s life is fiancé Andy Hill, a construction site manager. On Jessica’s finger is the huge diamond engagement ring Andy gave her. They plan to marry next year. The ring is ridiculously unwieldy for a woman who makes her living throwing spears, leaping hurdles and clambering out of sand pits.
“When I compete I take it off for most events,” she says. “Like in the long jump I don’t want sand grains getting in it. But I wear it for the 800m. I absolutely love it.”
The other flash item she always carries around with her is a Mulberry handbag. There’s one on her lap right now, in the back of the taxi. She has a whole collection of them at home, seven in all. Each is a reward to herself for excelling in competition.
“I suppose it should be after a gold medal,” she says. “But I have bought them when I’ve not won as well. It’s not a rule. If you’ve worked hard and achieved something, and ticked it off the list, then it’s nice to treat yourself.”
There are quite a few achievements that have been ticked off Jessica’s list: bronze at the Commonwealth Games, gold at the European Championships, silver and gold at the World Championships. But there’s one glaring omission. This summer, will she be treating herself to handbag number eight?
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Interview: Dominic Bliss