Interview: Jessica Ennis, heptathlete

In her remarkable rise from girl next door to Olympic pin-up, Jessica Ennis’ craziest moment was a tribute from an Oscar winner

AFEW months back, Denzel Washington went on the Chris Moyles show on Radio 1. Denzel was excited. Boy, was he excited. He was telling a story from not long before, from Paris where he’d seen something on television that he just had to talk about. He saw this girl, this tiny little thing competing in the world championships for Britain in something he called the “decathlete”. Is that what it’s called? The decathlete? The pentathlete? The heptathlon, Denzel? Right, the heptathlon.

“This girl was killing EVERYBODY and EVERYTHING,” cried the actor who won his first Oscar for playing a private in the American Civil War, who won his second for playing a narcotics detective in Los Angeles, who won critical acclaim for portraying Steve Biko, Malcolm X and the middleweight boxing champion, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He’ll get to that stuff later on but right now all he wants to do is talk about this person who’s filling his TV screen in Paris, who’s running and jumping and throwing better than anybody else, who’s smiling a smile that makes him go: “Woah!”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Jessica Ennis!” he hollers. “I was fascinated! Tell her I’m in love with her!”

This is a story that Ennis loves. When you ask what’s the craziest thing that’s happened to her since she became the darling of British athletics and one of the faces – if not the face of the London Olympics – then she talks about Denzil declaring his love for her on national radio. She laughs at the memory of it. She’s laughing again now because she’s had another one of those days when her fame opens doors. It’s late Thursday afternoon in Manchester and she’s just returned from Coronation Street.

It’s a big deal, she says. “Oh my God, I’ve had the best day ever!” She wandered along the cobbles, looked in at The Kabin – no sign of Norris – stopped off at the Rovers and found the familiar faces. She had a picture taken with that Peter Barlow and his fancy piece, Carla, had another picture taken with the long-suffering Maria and Sean, the Street gossip. “I don’t know their real names, but I know their characters so well. Corrie makes me laugh. I never miss it. I Sky-Plus it when I’m away.”

Later, it’s back to base in Sheffield, back to the things we never see. Training and more training. Session in the morning, session in the afternoon. Sprinting, hurdling, throwing a shot, flinging a javelin. The rhythm of her life for the longest time.

But it’s a life that has changed over the last while. Not long ago, Ennis was deemed a banker for gold for Great Britain, a world-class talent and world-class poster girl who could be relied upon to stand up to the pressure of a demanding nation in London. She was out on her own as the planet’s pre-eminent multi-eventer, the golden girl of the heptathlon at the world championships in Berlin in 2009, gold again in pentathlon at the world indoor championships in Doha in 2010, where she beat the gold, silver and bronze medallists from the Beijing Olympics, and gold once more at the European championships in Barcelona the same year.

The honours came at her in waves. Cosmopolitan magazine made her Ultimate Woman of the Year for 2009. British athletics writers made her Athlete of the Year in 2010. The Sports Journalists Association made her Sportswoman of the Year. She received an honorary degree from the University of Sheffield. Marie Claire magazine put her on the cover. Glamour magazine made her Sportswoman of the Year. She received an MBE. Madame Tussaud’s cast her in a waxwork. For two years running she was on the podium in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. The sponsors queued up to endorse her. The Beckhams invited her to a party. Jonathan Ross asked her to be on his chat show. She was a celebrity, but a grounded one, the daughter of a painter and decorator dad and a social worker mum, a person who enjoyed the trappings of fame without ever getting carried away with her new life or ever losing sight of where she came from and where she wanted to go.

Things are not as easy now as they were then, though. Her big titles have gone and her rivals for gold in London are circling like sharks. The Russian, Tatyana Chernova, took her world crown in Daegu, South Korea last year and, because of Ennis’s disastrous performance in the javelin, the Ukrainian, Nataliya Dobrynska, claimed her indoor world title in the pentathlon in Istanbul earlier this year and did it with a world record points total. It’s not just Chernova and Dobrynska who are coming on strong, it’s Jennifer Oeser of Germany, it’s Hyleas Fountain of the United States, it’s the bolter of the bunch, Ekaterina Bolshova of Russia, who’s come from nowhere to be a real danger.

Ennis has never believed she’s the face of the Olympics and nor does she believe that she’s the favourite to win gold. Not any more at any rate.

“I’m no longer favourite. Gold might not be the destiny. It’s sport, it’s up and down. I’m not the favourite because Dobrynska broke the world record in the world indoors so surely she should be favourite.

“Who’s to say? Everything happens for a reason. I do believe you have a certain path in life and, yeah, you chose the path you take but I do believe in fate, I’m a bit out there when it comes to that kind of thing. Four years ago [when she got injured before the Beijing Olympics and missed the Games] my world came crashing down around me and I couldn’t see how I could take any positives from it. Things happen for a reason and they make you stronger. The year after Beijing I had a great year and won the worlds and Europeans and world indoors back-to-back. I just think, if I hadn’t been injured, I’m not sure I would have gone on to achieve those things.

“I’m not a particularly religious person but it’s human nature, isn’t it? Most of us want to believe in something and that’s what I believe in. It gives me a more positive way to look at life. There’s always a positive spin you can put on things and you have to find that way, find that slightly different angle no matter how bad things are.”

By her side is her coach, Toni Minichiello, Sheffield-born and reared but with parents from Avelino near Naples. Tony Soprano country, he says.

Jess and Toni. Toni and Jess. They’ve been a team since she was 11. That’s 15 years ago, more than half her life under his watchful eye. “Our relationship is like a sitcom,” he says, but mostly it’s like father-daughter. He has the ability to embarrass her, he cracks his jokes and carries on and she throws her eyes up to the heavens in exasperation and tells him to stop it.

“I know what she’s thinking and what her reactions are going to be,” says Minichiello. “I know when she’s shirking and when she’s genuinely tired, I know when we’re pushing too hard or too little. We’ve had bits and pieces recently where I’ve said you’re knackered, let’s call it a day, and she says, no, I need to train. And I say, no, you’ll be fine, let’s go. What people don’t appreciate is that there is pressure on the athlete but there’s also pressure on the coach and you have to watch out for ‘coach’s panic’. A coach gets worried and adds too much to the training programme, he pushes too hard. We can’t have that.”

Minichiello calls Ennis the “girl next door”. What you see is what you get. No airs and graces. No arrogance. Just Jess. He’s confident, but he’s also a realist. “Jess could perform incredibly well in London, she could break personal bests and break British records and finish third or fourth and that would be seen as an out-and-out failure even though it would be an upward progression in terms of performance.

“Whether her performance is good enough to win a medal, we’ll see. If you look at the indoors in Istanbul, it was better than she’s ever performed before. There were personal bests in there, a world best ever in the 60m hurdles by a multi-eventer and it’s very difficult to be disappointed, but it’s still a silver medal and the nation hasn’t invested as much as its invested for silver. They only want the Big G. I look at her rivals and I see what they’re doing, but you can’t worry about it. I just have to make Jess better and better at being Jess.”

The road to London. Next stop, Barnsley for the Yorkshire Games in mid-May and a chance to put her potentially critical javelin to the test. A week later, the 100m in the Powerade City Games in Manchester. A week after that it’s Gotzis in Hungary and a reunion with Chernova and Dobrynska at a meeting where Ennis has triumphed for the last two years. It’ll be the last time they see each other before the show begins in London.

“There’s pressure, but I’m used to it,” says Ennis. “In sport, you have big highs and really big lows. It’s a rollercoaster ride and you have these extremes. I don’t know how it’s going to be at the Olympics. All I know is that it’s going to be incredible, something that I’ve never experienced before and never will again. I’m not sure I’ll sleep much beforehand. I’ll be really nervous, but in a good way.”