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Jess Ennis: 'I save my tears for behind closed doors'

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Jess Ennis: 'I save my tears for behind closed doors'
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In an exclusive interview with Sport, Jess Ennis looks back on the year of her dreams and the journey that brought her to it

Jessica Ennis is crying. She has not long stepped off the track after the final event of her Olympic heptathlon campaign, the eternally gruelling 800m, and she is exhausted.

She is at the end of a four-year cycle that started with her missing the Beijing Games through injury, watching on distraught from afar as other athletes got to live out her lifelong dream; but that cycle has now drawn to a close on home soil, in front of 80,000 adoring fans in the Olympic Stadium, and that dream is now hers alone. Jessica Ennis, Olympic champion, is crying tears of joy.

“I saw that bit of the BBC interview [with Phil Jones] when I was crying the other day, and it made me really emotional watching it again,“ she says, perhaps unaware that the whole country was weeping with her.

“It’s just weird, and I think those closest to me – [fiancé] Andy and my family – were really taken aback, because I never normally cry in public. I always save my tears for behind closed doors. But during that interview, talking about how I had felt four years ago, and thinking about how much time and effort everyone around me had put into helping me get there... well, it just really choked me up.“

It’s almost impossible to watch footage of that interview without experiencing the same feelings; but, strange as it may seem to Ennis and her family, such an outpouring of emotion was only to be expected after the build-up experienced by this very special athlete.

The moment that Ennis returned from a stress fracture of the right foot to become world champion in Berlin in 2009, posting what was then the third-highest first-day heptathlon score in history along the way, was the moment at which she became the unofficial face of London 2012. Athletics is the showpiece sport of the Olympic Games, and in Ennis a demanding British public had found their darling: fast and powerful but elegant and articulate, the smiling girl from Sheffield was the athlete upon whom we were to pin our greatest hopes. Put bluntly, she was to our home Games what Cathy Freeman was to Sydney 2000.

“I did feel a lot of pressure, and in the lead-up I think it did get on top of me,“ she admits. “But then everyone was so positive and wished me well. You could feel that in the stadium from the very start, that everyone was just so excited and wanted the home athletes to do as well as they could. “That was a massive advantage. Other athletes from around the world thought it would be a disadvantage for us because there was loads of pressure; and there was, but it was such an advantage having that crowd. Stepping out into that stadium for the first time was like nothing I’d ever experienced in athletics before.“

Appropriately, the 26-year-old responded to that atmosphere by producing something she had never produced in athletics before. Her time of 12.54s for the 100m hurdles didn’t just see her into an early lead and set a new British record; it also equalled the time the American athlete Dawn Harper had clocked when winning gold in the individual event in Beijing.

Her hurdles heroics represented the first of three personal bests Ennis was to set during the London 2012 heptathlon; make that four if you count her overall score of 6,955 points, another British record. It was a nigh-on perfect execution of every athlete’s ambition to peak on the biggest stage, and ensured that Ennis went into the final event, the aforementioned 800m, with a practically unassailable lead. Gold may have been assured, but that didn’t mean the Olympic champion elect was about to let up.

“I’d done all that hard training, a lot of horrible, horrible 800m sessions when I was literally dying on the track,“ she recalls. “Every time I did one of those sessions, I’d tell myself it would all be worth it because it was going to help me in that one moment in London. I knew I had a massive lead and would have to do something really stupid not to win, but I still wanted to give it everything because it was the last event. I’d done all the hard work, so why not kill myself one last time and have that amazing crowd cheer me up the home straight?

“I knew the gold was pretty much there, but finishing that race first and actually being able to celebrate was the icing on the cake... you can’t really do the arms up over the line thing when you’re coming through in fifth, can you? It’s much nicer to do it when you’ve come first.“

Such is the competitive spirit, a streak of absolute ruthlessness, that lies behind the enchanting smile. It wasn’t always like that, though. In her recently released autobiography, Unbelievable, Ennis entitles one of the earlier chapters The Reluctant Athlete – and refers to a pivotal moment when, at the age of 16, she went to a friend’s house party the night before a competition.

“I drank too much and crashed out,“ Ennis reveals in the book. “The next morning, grandad arrived to take me to my competition. I pulled the pillow over my head and tried to ignore the crushing headache.

I really did not want to go, but I knew I had no choice. I got out of the house and was sick before I even got into grandad’s car. We drove to the track in silence and I could tell how annoyed he was. I got changed and then I was sick again.“

A decade on, the self-assured young woman sitting opposite us remembers that nauseous teen all too well. “I actually went and jumped a personal best in the high jump that day,“ she laughs. “I felt just awful though, and it had definitely got to a stage where I had to decide what was more important to me. What was the point of going to training with a hangover?

I’d get nothing from the session and it would just be a total waste of time. I could either go out, socialise and get drunk, or do something to make myself feel good and potentially make my life really great through athletics.“

It was a call that the 16-year-old Ennis took little time to make, and one that started her out on a path of dedication to athletics that culminated with that emotional gold in London this summer.

She speaks with no sense of regret at a decision not to move into halls of residence for her first year of university, conscious of the potentially detrimental effects of being surrounded by the associated drinking culture. She is equally unequivocal when we remind her that Charles Van Commenee, the former head coach of UK Athletics, openly stated his wish that she relocate her training base away from her hometown of Sheffield.

“It’s a very individual thing, and you have to make the decision that is right for you,“ explains Ennis. “For Mo [Farah], it was a great call to move out to America and change coaches, because that has obviously really helped his performance in the past couple of years. For me, though, I knew it was right not to uproot myself. I had great people around me and everything I needed, and saw no need to move.

“To a certain extent, your whole life does have to be athletics, and definitely so when preparing for an Olympics. But you have to be able to switch off in some way, and the people around me and my home life is how I do that. That’s how I create that balance, so I knew that the last thing I wanted to do was move down to London and get even more heavily intense. That would have been way too much.“

Unlike a lot of elite sportspeople, Ennis retains an exceptionally healthy relationship with her parents – something she agrees has helped foster her continued love for the sport. “They always encouraged me to keep going with athletics, but never in an overly pressured way,“ she says. “They’re really proud and always come and support me, but if I asked my dad what my hurdles PB is he probably wouldn’t be able to say! They love watching me compete, but they don’t need to know all the details and be massive stattos, do they?“

The details are instead left to the man who has been coaching Ennis since she was 13 years old. Toni Minichiello has been the guiding influence on his star athlete for half of her lifetime; it has been a turbulent and often rocky road, Ennis admits, but she is in no doubt that this is the defining relationship of her sporting career.

“I was a 13-year-old girl coming into the sport and knowing nothing, and Chell was learning the coaching side of the sport back then, so there were always going to be ups and downs,“ she remembers.

“He tried to encourage me and push me as much as he could, but you’ve got to be careful dealing with a teenage girl... you want to push yourself, but probably not quite to the same extent as your coach, so you do get upset.

“But I always knew he was good, a great coach, and I’ve never wanted to give up on anything. He saw that I had talent and always had a long-term plan. It was never about instant success, but a gradual thing; and, as I got older and we got to know each other better, it grew into a relationship that works. We still have arguments and disagree about stuff all the time, but I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done for me over the years. He’s a larger-than-life character, very funny and always interesting – but it works really well.“

Ennis is a charming and generous interviewee who never seems to tire of giving her time, whether it be in the immediate aftermath of competition or, as we meet her, away from the track. But is there another reality behind the smile, one in which she wearies of an endless stream of interviews and yearns for a life in which she is no longer the public property she has now become?

“I’ve always found that in interviews like this, and whatever you do in life, you should just try to be yourself, as natural as possible,“ she counters. “Then it’s not like you’re putting on an act, which is always easier. And I suppose I’ve always been brought up to be as polite and nice as possible. Of course you have those times when you’re tired after training, doing circuits and sweating, and then a bunch of kids come over and take pictures and stuff... sometimes you do think maybe not now, it’s not the best time. But then everyone has always been so positive and lovely. I always remind myself that I wasn’t part of the last Olympics at all, and that this is now a really unique position I find myself in. I would never want to wish these times away.“

That said, these times inevitably give way to the future. Ennis desperately wants to regain the world title she lost to Tatyana Chernova in Daegu last year, but admits to being intrigued at how far she can go over the sprint hurdles.

“I think next year has got to be the heptathlon,“ she says. “I’ve got to do a little bit more. Having got so close to 7,000 points, and with it being a World Championships year again, I think it’s right for me to push on with the heptathlon a little bit more. But the hurdles is very tempting, and it’s great that I still have an opportunity to try and be competitive in the individual event. There’s definitely still time, and I do think how nice it would be to go into an event knowing that I don’t have an 800m at the end of two days of competition. Just a couple of runs…“

Here she drifts off, daydreaming of a life spent focusing on just the one event rather than seven. That time will very likely come. But for now, Ennis can sit back and enjoy the fact that she is exactly what she always dreamed of becoming: the Olympic heptathlon champion.She carried the hopes of a nation into London 2012, and duly delivered what we all desperately wanted on a night we have rightly identified as our top sporting moment of a glorious year. For that, how could anyone else be our athlete of the year?

Tony Hodson @tonyhodson1

Jess Ennis’ book Unbelievable is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20