Cult Grade: Woman Of Steel
Of all Britain's great Olympians, none has been born in a more fitting place and time than champion heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill. Sheffield, the 'Steel City', lost the majority of its world-famous steel industry in the eighties, and so it responded by producing something even tougher. Born in 1986 to a Jamaican father and an English mother, Ennis-Hill came into the world at a febrile and difficult time for her home town. Sheffield needed someone to help restore local pride, and Ennis-Hill turned out to be the ideal woman for the job.
Alongside swingeing economic changes, Sheffield has suffered mixed fortunes in terms of sport over the past few decades. For considerable swathes of that time its two historic and well-supported football clubs, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, have languished in the lower leagues. Its rugby league scene is rather less illustrious than it once was and, despite having produced some rock-hard boxers – Prince Naseem, Clinton Woods and Kell Brook among them – there are some areas of sport in which Sheffield has fallen unusually quiet. Thanks to the efforts of Ennis-Hill, athletics isn't one of them.
In her tenacity, resilience and sheer steeliness, there is no athlete more representative of Sheffield than Ennis-Hill. Whether on the open track, hurdling obstacles or leaping dynamically over the high-jump bar, she spent her career like a perpetually coiled spring. No matter what event she was competing in, her modus operandi was to tap into a seemingly endless reserve of potential energy before exploding forwards with incredible power. Despite her deceptively small stature – at 5"5, many of her competitors towered above her – she boasted scarcely believable strength, complemented nicely by near-incomprehensible stamina. She was hard as nails, basically. When trying to master an event like the heptathlon, a person can't afford to be anything else.
While she made massive strides in her weaker disciplines over the years – shot put and javelin weren't her strongest suits, even if she would have shamed the average competitor – the basis of Ennis-Hill's success was her talent on the track. Her father, Vinnie, had tried his hand at short-distance events in his younger years, so sprinters' genes must have run in the family. Having caught the eye of future trainer Toni Minichiello with her blistering pace during a junior athletics event at Sheffield's Don Valley Stadium, Ennis-Hill soon began to dominate the field. "I saw this kid who stood out from her peers because she was just that bit quicker," Minichiello would later tell the BBC. Ennis-Hill was more than that, however, and by the time she was approaching the defining period of her career she was a phenomenon in more ways than one.
Still just Jessica Ennis at that point, she discovered in the build-up to London 2012 what it was to be tested both on and off the track. While, in a physical sense, she was tougher than ever, she also had to be mentally tough to cope with the enormous exposure she received. In a somewhat arbitrary turn of events, she became the so-called 'poster girl' for Britain's Olympics, and soon enough her face was being used in advertisements, endorsements and promotional material everywhere. It wasn't entirely out of the blue, of course, given that she was among the favourites for the heptathlon and had won gold at the 2009 World Championships, a feat she accomplished on the back of a 12-month lay off with a broken foot. She earned numerous accolades for that achievement and a place on the shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year. That said, the glare of publicity must have been blinding. "I don't really know how that happened," she told The Guardian in 2012, speaking about her 'poster girl' treatment. "One journalist asked me, 'Did you apply for that?' Like it'd been advertised or something." To clarify, she did not.
Ennis certainly wasn't the only presentable gold medal contender going into the Games, nor had she volunteered to step into the limelight. Rather, she was thrust into it by the powers that be, and had to deal with the situation as best she could. She has since talked about the stress and anxiety that caused her, which is little surprise, considering some of the things which were written about her and the intensity of her concurrent training regime. While she was pushing her body to the limit in preparation, some of the media scrutiny was both unwelcome and latently seedy, with comments about her appearance, femininity – or perceived lack thereof – and athletic physique filling column inches for months on end, not to mention the subsequent creepy YouTube 'tributes'.
What exactly the tabloids expected from a woman taking on one of the toughest multi-discipline events at the Olympics, only their editors know. Whatever their motives, she became the focal point of their often invasive attention; a struggle for someone who was neither massively outgoing nor covetous of the trappings of fame and celebrity. Nonetheless, despite her vague uneasiness in front of the cameras, she continued to train in almost superhuman fashion, honing her concentration to the sharpest of points. Come the end of London 2012, she had won gold, and propelled herself to the status of a sporting superstar. She was welcomed back to Sheffield by a crowd of 20,000 people, and commemorated around the city with a post box, plaques and even a stand named in her honour at Sheffield United's Bramall Lane.
Still, for a woman who could soar in the high jump with the best of them, Ennis remained remarkably grounded. Despite her success, despite her show of physical and mental fortitude, she gave few indications that she had been changed by the experience. While running the gamut of chat shows, interviews and media appearances that followed London 2012, she remained modest and unpretentious throughout. Indeed, the go-to word for journalists in the aftermath of her Olympic triumph was 'normal'. In a sporting sense, Ennis was truly exceptional. When it came to her actual character, however, she was still an unassuming lass from Sheffield.
In the months following her triumph in London, one anecdote comprehensively summed up Ennis' feelings on her newfound fame. Speaking to The Telegraph, she said that she had only really noticed it when they plastered a huge poster of her outside her local chip shop. "I was about to go in, but then I saw it and changed my mind," she said. "Me coming out with a bag of chips, while I'm up there doing crunches on the poster... well, it would not look good."
What's great about this is not only Ennis' self-effacing sense of humour, but also the fact that a giant poster was the only thing that came between her and a sesh in the local chippie. Far from affecting her air of normality, she simply could not help but be her everyday self. She remained true to Sheffield in her preparation for the Games, continuing to train at the Don Valley Stadium even when the head of UK Athletics tried to pressure her to relocate to London. She lives in Sheffield to this day, despite the numerous opportunities that her retirement from competition will have thrown up elsewhere.
Not only did Ennis react to her London 2012 success in a grounded fashion, she also refused to let it get in the way of her life away from athletics. Two years after the Games, she was married to her long-term partner Andy Hill, a construction site manager, and had given birth to her first child, Reggie. Having ceased full training for the duration of her pregnancy, she made a gargantuan effort to regain her previous levels of fitness, while also dealing with the late nights, early mornings and general exhaustion of early parenthood. She has since claimed this was the most challenging period of her career. When a champion heptathlete says "I could never have imagined how hard it would be," it's safe to assume it was absolutely brutal.
In the end, however, Ennis-Hill's unshakeable commitment paid off. The gruelling hours spent beating herself back into shape saw her win gold at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing a mere 13 months after the birth of her son, which is the sort of achievement that makes the average person's mind boggle. While the rest of us were sitting around drinking pints, eating beans and potato smiley faces and generally doing shite all, Ennis-Hill gave life to an actual human being before winning one of the most prestigious athletics competitions on earth. Oh, and then she won silver at Rio 2016, only narrowly missing out on gold to Belgium's Nafissatou Thiam. Woman of steel, indeed.
Entry Point: The Elusive Gold
While it's hard to believe now, Ennis-Hill once found gold medals somewhat hard to come by. In the Commonwealth Youth Games of 2004, she won silver in both the 100m hurdles and the high jump, contesting the two events separately rather than in the heptathlon format she would specialise in later on in her career. Her first senior international competition was the 2005 Universiade in İzmir, Turkey, where she managed to win bronze in the heptathlon. Her only gold medal from that period was won at the European Junior Championships in Kaunas, Lithuania, though she did manage to record a British junior record score for the heptathlon with 5,891 points.
If gold medals were relatively scarce in her younger years, it only serves as testament to how hard Ennis-Hill worked to reach her eventual peak. She may have had the extra edge over her contemporaries in terms of pace, but there were other elements of her heptathlon repertoire which she found seriously trying. "People criticised her for being too small, said she'd never make it," her coach, Toni Minichiello, told the BBC earlier this year. Nevertheless, she eventually came to dominate a field that included disciplines, such as high jump and long jump, which are usually the preserve of the tall and willowy. "Jess kept exceeding and exceeding expectations," Minichiello went on. Thankfully, she never stopped.
The Moment: 'Super Saturday', London 2012
In hindsight, it's hard to evoke the same sense of positivity that gripped the country on 'Super Saturday'. London 2012 already felt like a roaring success and then, on a single day, a series of athletes genuinely blew us away. For a fleeting moment, Britain felt united; a strange and distant idea in the current climate of finger pointing, identity politics, prejudice and internal division. The malaise that has taken hold in the interim only makes those halcyon days – Mo Farah winning the 10,000m, Laura Trott and co. winning the women's team pursuit, Greg Rutherford being fleetingly likeable – seem all the sweeter. Then there was Jessica Ennis, sealing Britain's gold medal haul with the heptathlon performance to top them all.
With the event having started on the Friday, Ennis had built up a serious head of steam ahead of the final leg. Her consistency across both track and field was astounding, and there was a sense of relentlessness about her performance. Despite finishing fifth in the high jump and 10th in the shot put, her demolition of the 100m hurdles and second-place in the 200m put her in pole position on the first day. To that, she added a second-place finish in the long jump on the Saturday morning, while ending up a respectable 10th in her weaker event, the javelin throw. That left only the 800m, and plenty of breathing space for Ennis to win gold.
While the crowd were almost certain that Ennis would get her medal, the Olympic Stadium was still alive with nervous energy prior to the race. When Ennis' name was announced over the tannoy, the noise from the stands was enough to send a shiver up the spine. In the end, her competitive spirit shone through, and she won gold with a dramatic flourish. Having been overtaken on the final turn, she made a characteristic last-gasp burst to the line, striding over it to an appreciative roar.
What happened next was pointed and affecting. Having shown off otherworldly strength and determination, the woman of steel broke down in tears. Celebrating her victory on top of the podium, smile beaming, eyes brimming, we saw Jess Ennis unable to contain herself. She had laboured to push herself to the absolute physical limit, she had gone further than anyone else, and for that the toughest athlete in Britain had earned a bloody good cry.
"She is better than Daley Thompson. He never gave birth and came back and won."
– Toni Minichiello on Ennis-Hill.