EVEN for the poster girl of London 2012, the Olympic Games are so last year.
In the unlikely surroundings of Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium this week, she will make her first competitive appearance since that glorious night, nearly ten months ago, when she kicked off Super Saturday with gold in the heptathlon. As far as she is concerned, it is time, at last, to move on, with a new schedule, new ambitions, even a new name.
Which is where we are as well to start if confusion is to be avoided. When you are the world’s greatest all-round athlete, and you are beating off sponsors with a stick, the last thing you want to do is change your name, but change it Jessica Ennis has after marrying Andy Hill a fortnight ago. “My name is obviously pretty well-known, so I didn’t want to lose Ennis, but at the same time, I was getting married and really wanted to take on my husband’s name as well. I felt the names were quite short and fitted together so…”
Jessica Ennis-Hill it is then. Bit of a mouthful, admittedly, but we’ll manage, especially on Saturday at Meadowbank, which has the surprise honour of staging the English icon’s long-awaited return to the track. The 27-year-old Olympic champion will contest the hurdles, the long jump and the javelin for Trafford AC in a UK Women’s Athletics League Premier Division meet.
Her need for such a long break from competition serves to underline the scale of last year’s achievement. Not only was her gold medal the product of a lifetime’s work, she won it with the weight of a host nation on her shoulders. The aftermath, in which everybody wanted a piece of her, was almost as challenging. “Once the Games were over, I was mentally exhausted from all the worry, the anxiety and the preparation. It takes its toll on you. So I wanted to make sure, first of all, that I recovered from all that, but also that I was able to enjoy the moment. It’s probably going to be the highlight of my career so I had to make the most of it.”
How she has been lauded these last ten months, a giddying time in which she has, amongst other things, appeared on a commemorative stamp, been given the freedom of Sheffield and appointed CBE in the New Year Honours List. She even had a stand named after her at Bramall Lane, home of her local football club, Sheffield United.
Ennis-Hill has come a long way since she was introduced to athletics at the city’s Don Valley Stadium in 1996. Much to her frustration, that arena, where she has trained for all her major championships, is to be demolished, victim to the same kind of budget cuts that threaten the Edinburgh venue she will visit on Saturday.
Meadowbank, where Ennis-Hill has never competed, appears to be on its last legs. Built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, it hosted the same event in 1986, but after years of neglect, its service to sport has become mainly recreational. Earlier this year, Edinburgh City Council admitted that the stadium had “reached the end of its illustrious life”.
“Facilities like these are really important,” says Ennis-Hill. “We need bases for athletes to train at, facilities that will inspire them as well. That’s the reason I got involved in athletics. I had this great stadium in Sheffield that was really inspiring and held lots of big competitions. It’s important to have that feeling, that atmosphere at local tracks. It makes me really sad that the Don Valley is going to be knocked down. That’s where I began my career. It’s been a huge part of my athletics for so long.”
On Saturday, Meadowbank will make a brief return to the spotlight. As of Friday, about 1,000 tickets had been sold for the event, which has got lucky with Ennis-Hill. She appeared in something called the Leeds Metropolitan University Invitational in April, but this will be her first “proper” outing since she took to the podium last summer. It is, she says, an opportunity to “blow away the cobwebs” and begin a schedule that will culminate in August at the World Championships in Moscow. There, the plan will be to regain the title she lost to Russia’s Tatyana Chernova in 2011.
Beyond that, all roads lead to the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where she will attempt to win the only major gold medal that continues to elude her. Ennis-Hill, who won bronze at the Melbourne Games in 2006, decided against competing in Delhi four years ago, but insists that it is an event close to her heart. “I picked up my first senior medal in Melbourne, which was a brilliant experience. I loved the multi-sport environment, the whole Games atmosphere. To have that in Glasgow will be great. London found out last year what it was like to host a Games, and I would imagine Glasgow will be similar. I just feel very, very lucky that I have these opportunities in my career, that I came into athletics when I did.”
Of course, Ennis-Hill will not feel the same pressure before Glasgow 2014 that she did before London 2012, but she can understand why some of her Scottish counterparts are bracing themselves. Eilidh Child, the hurdler from Kinross, said on these pages three months ago that she would consider asking Ennis-Hill how best to handle the hype that comes with being a home hope.
“I’d always be happy to offer advice if she wants it,” says Ennis-Hill. “For me, the important thing is to surround yourself with good people, people who will support you, people you can trust. You have to keep telling yourself that, although it’s a major championship, you are generally competing against girls you have faced already. Have faith in your own ability and don’t let anything else get in the way.”
Not that many will match Ennis-Hill’s mental strength. Apart from the expectation that complicated her preparation for London 2012, she has suffered more than her share of disappointments, most notably the injury that denied her a shot at the 2008 Olympics.
Now, her hunger is being tested like never before. When you have reached the top, where do you go next? When you have experienced an emotional high that can never be bettered, what is the point of going on? Having fulfilled the ambition that has preoccupied her every waking hour since the age of ten, Ennis-Hill’s challenge is to find another.
She believes that the best can always be better. Impressive though it was to score a record-breaking 6,955 points in London, she is asking herself whether she could score 6,956. And, if she were ever to lose her appetite for the heptathlon, she wouldn’t mind focusing full-time on the 100m hurdles, her speciality.
“London will always be the highlight,” she says. “It will be very hard to top that. But I want to make improvements. It would be great to get close to 7,000 points, if not break it one day. That’s a very difficult goal, but it keeps me motivated. And the hurdles is something I’d like to give a try before the end of my career. I’d love to give it a serious shot and see how I do. Winning medals is all I’ve ever wanted to do. As long as I’m doing that and performing at my best, I’ll be happy.”
• Tickets for Saturday’s Meadowbank meeting are available online at bit.ly/14Mprq1, £5 for adults and £2 for children.