Signed photographs line the corridors of the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, each one a local athlete turned Olympic champion during London 2012. None is more recognizable than Jessica Ennis-Hill, wrapped in a Union Jack following her win on ‘Super Saturday’ in August 2012, the day when she clinched the heptathlon gold medal, confirming her as the world’s best all-round female athlete.
As well as the walls of her training centre, Jess’s face has adorned everything from billboards and magazine covers to a field on the flight approach to Heathrow airport during 2012, greeting competitors arriving from around the world with the message, ‘Welcome to our turf’.
Four years on from the London Olympics, the smile remains the same, but much has changed for the 30-year-old who is preparing to defend her Olympic title in Brazil. Since 2012, she has married her childhood sweetheart, Andy, and had a son, Reggie, who turned two in July.
Family life has not dampened her motivation as an athlete though; she has returned to top form, winning the world title in Beijing last summer, only nine months after returning from maternity leave.
This year, despite the early season setback of an Achilles injury, she has recorded a personal best in the long jump and her fastest time in the 100m hurdles since her London 2012 win.
Before travelling out to her training camp in Europe and then onto Brazil, Jess spoke to BP Magazine about her hopes for Rio and about life outside athletics.
There was definitely much more pressure in 2012, because there was so much going on. It was my first Olympic Games, after missing Beijing in 2008 through injury, and everyone expected me to win.
This year, there is obviously still a level of expectation, but it’s less intense. I put pressure on myself because I want to do as well as I can, but that’s different. Beyond that, there’s excitement and people want you to succeed, but a home Olympics brings exceptional circumstances.
More of the same really: I sharpen up to make sure that all the events are where they need to be and that I’m comfortable with everything. I’m spending time at a training camp in Europe with my team, so my husband and son can be there as well and I can be with them for as long as possible before I fly out to Rio.
I’m pretty much flying solo for these Games – Andy and Reggie won’t be there, nor will my parents as my sister has recently had a baby. It will be very different to London, when everyone was there – that was a great experience, but life is very different now. I very much want to go to Rio, be focused and concentrate on competing. Obviously, Reggie is my number one priority, so I want to make sure he’s happy and in a safe environment – and I know that’ll be the case at home, which puts my mind at ease.
As any mum would say, motherhood is the most amazing experience and I absolutely love it. You learn so much along the way, because everything is brand new. And he’s changing all the time, so you have to adapt as well. As soon as you think you’ve mastered one thing with him, he’s on to the next.
With the athletics, at first it was about figuring out how to fit everything into the week, but now that’s just the norm. We have to be very organized in our lives, allowing me to train and everything else to happen around Reggie. He’s such a good boy and he’s so lucky to have his grandparents, aunties and uncles – and now a new cousin who he adores – so close.
The sleep – I’ve always said that was the hardest thing about returning to athletics. Having broken sleep and then getting up to train was quite difficult.
When I first started again, the only thing I found easier was the 800m sessions – as your blood volume increases after giving birth and that helps with endurance. But, generally, everything else was a million times harder! I’d lost the speed and explosiveness that’s required for so many events – and that strength took a long time to return.
When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I had more left in my career and I always planned to come back. When I set my mind at something, I want to see it through. Now I’m motivated by Reggie – having him see what his mum is doing and wanting him to be part of it.
I don’t enjoy training for the 800 metres at all. And I find the throwing events quite hard, as I’m not a natural thrower so it’s taken time to get to grips with those. In terms of mental preparation, each event is challenging in its individual way – the hurdles because it comes first and it sets the scene; the 800m because it’s the last and you’re exhausted. And then you need to get the maximum out of everything in between.
I’d definitely remove the 800m from the line-up and replace it with a sprint event. I’d be too scared to add anything like the pole vault – that’s something you need to get stuck into at a young age because of the fear factor. I definitely won’t be trying it – ever.
To learn patience as an athlete, especially after injuries and setbacks, I want things to move on quicker than they can. As an athlete, you want everything, yesterday – you want to be the best and keep moving forwards. But, there are times when you need to be patient, have faith that things will come together and trust the people around you. That’s a lesson I’ve learned over time.
It’s actually hard to remember everything as there was so much happening. Immediately after the Olympics, there were so many fun things to do, so many invitations. But, when October came around, I started back into winter training again and a ‘normal’ cycle began. That was quite hard to get back into.
Life is different now, but the same as well. I train in the same place, with the same coach and with the same set-up as in the run-up to London. That’s important to me, as it works well and I’ve worked closely with those around me for so many years that I don’t feel the need to change anything. Why would I?
I’ll always remember the feeling when I arrived in the athletes’ village. We just got there and then we immediately met William, Kate and Harry [the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry] – that was pretty special. The sight of the crowds flocking into the park and the stadium lit up at night was incredible. The build-up had gone on for years, but to be there on the verge of competition with the buzz in London was unforgettable.
I’m just taking one step at a time. I can’t think beyond Rio at the moment as I need to focus on the final weeks of training and the competition. Whatever happens in Rio, I then have to decide whether I want to retire or continue for another year. It will be a big decision, though.
I’d say determination and focus, combined with happiness, brings success. I believe it’s important to be content and settled in life – if you’re happy generally, it extends to all areas including your work. Sometimes people forget that. I also surround myself with good, positive people. It seems to work for me.