Jessica Ennis is standing by the track at the City of Sheffield Athletic Club; her tiny frame engulfed in a puffa jacket, her hands pushed deep in her pockets against the cold. Ennis is still coming to terms with the most incredible summer of her life, when she became the Olympic heptathlon champion, and one of 17 British women to win gold. She succeeded in one of the most demanding athletics events of the Games, yet looks anything but tough as she looks out across the track at her home club.
“Oh, I might not look it, but I’m definitely tough. I have to be,” she says. “You have to be determined when things are going wrong, and you have to put up with pain and lots of low points. I’m much tougher than people realise. I would never have bounced back after missing the 2008 Olympics if I weren’t. I wouldn’t be able to train five hours a day. I’m a strong woman; there’s no question about that.”
Over the summer the pressure was immense. The 26-year-old became the poster girl for the Games. Her image was on hoardings around London, and British Airways painted a portrait of her in a field over an area the size of 15 tennis courts. Even Prince William came up to her on the day the Team GB athletes moved into the Olympic village and said: “No pressure on you, then.”
And that was before she started competing in seven events over just two critical days. “It was great to get started after all the build-up, and the noise in the stadium was amazing,” she says, smiling at the memory. “I couldn’t hear anything above the roar of the crowd. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Chell [her coach, Toni Minichiello] kept saying: ‘Don’t mess up. Do what you’re supposed to do.’ He meant – just do what you do in training and don’t let the pressure get to you. That’s what success in sport is all about – being able to perform at your best under pressure.”
Ennis more than lived up to the hype, and took gold on a warm August evening halfway through the Games. It was a day that – in Britain, anyway – became known as “Super Saturday”. “Just to be a part of all that was amazing,” says Ennis. “Obviously heptathlon is an individual sport, but at the Olympics we felt like a team – Team GB. And the real truth is that to do well in heptathlon you need a strong, reliable group of guys around you. People say there’s a woman behind every successful man, but the same applies to women. If you haven’t got a strong supportive boyfriend, husband or coach it’s very difficult to make it to the top in anything, let alone international sport.”
Ennis says that she and Minichiello may squabble and fight, but that he has always believed in her. Indeed, at the recent launch of Ennis’s autobiography, Unbelievable, Minichiello described meeting the athlete as “like being dealt four aces in a hand of poker.” For her part, crucially, she trusts his judgment. “I wouldn’t have made it without him,” she says now. “We both know that my victory is a victory for both of us, and for everyone who’s helped me.”
Before Toni Minichiello, though, was her father, whom she describes as being “there for me every day. He brought us up. He was amazing.” Her mother, Alison, was a social worker who frequently worked nights, so it fell to Ennis’s father, Vinnie, a self-employed painter and decorator, to look after Jess and her younger sister Carmel and work around their needs. “He was strict but fair,” she says. “I think that’s all you can ask for. I felt looked after, but I also felt pushed to be the best I could.”
The third man to have a huge impact on her life is her boyfriend, Andy Hill, a construction worker, whom she met in secondary school. They plan to marry next year, probably in May, but she’s coy about revealing too much of her wedding plans. “Me and Andy have been on the whole journey together. He’s been amazing,” she says. “You have to be selfish and focused as an athlete. You have to go away a lot and train all the time, and eat when you want and sleep when you want. You need a strong person beside you, and Andy’s been just that. I can’t thank him enough for the support he’s given me. Hopefully I’ll be able to repay him one day.”
Ennis is now back in training, and preparing for the World Championships next August in Moscow. But another priority is to encourage girls to get involved in sport, on the back of the tremendous impact of the Olympics. “I think it’s important,” she says. “We have this opportunity now. Women and girls watched the Games and they enjoyed it. We need to harness that and get them involved. We need more coverage of women’s sport, showing all the many different events out there. Sport isn’t just about football. And we need to get women involved in coaching and administration.”
There were 4,847 female competitors in the 2012 Olympics, the most ever. But that belies the overall picture; certainly in the UK. Research published in 2011 by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation showed that just 12 per cent of 14-year-old girls are reaching recommended levels of physical activity – half the number for boys of the same age.
“It has to change. It’s important that girls aren’t afraid of sport,” says Ennis. “I remember when I first started doing weight training I didn’t want to be any good at it because I didn’t want to be all muscly. My coach sat me down and said that if I had more muscles than the average woman, but won an Olympic gold medal, it would be worth it. He was right, but it’s hard when you’re younger and want to look like everyone else.
“There’s a training group here in Sheffield and some of the younger girls won’t do weights because their friends at school aren’t all muscly. I’m always saying to them that strong can look good.”
Women of 2012