EXCLUSIVE: Winning gold was the best day of my life… until I tried on my wedding dress! Olympic star Ennis chats to Sportsmail
23:23 GMT, 9 December 2012
It was not until Jessica Ennis crossed the finish line of the 800 metres to become the Olympic heptathlon champion on that unforgettable Saturday night last August that we really saw the burden of expectation.
She stretched out her arms, her palms open, as if trying to touch every corner of the stadium.
Her face, the face that had adorned so many posters and billboards around the capital for so long, folded into a slight frown as she looked to the sky as if to say: ‘I’ve done it.’
Relief: Jessica Ennis's magic moment as she wins heptathlon gold and became a British legend
It was not the frenzied release of
another Sheffield star, Lord Coe, after the 1500m in Moscow in 1980 but
it was relief, all right. Ennis had done it. She was the Olympic
‘It was quite a lot to do,’ she says in her modest, understated way. ‘I think the over-riding feeling was definitely relief. I couldn’t quite believe it had all gone the way I hoped and wished.
‘Everyone’s been talking about it for years. It’s been the longest build-up to anything I’ve ever experienced. Then I realised I was really tired — mentally, more than physically, really.’
Adored: Ennis's triumph inspired the public who cheered her on during the events
As we sit at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and giggle giddily about engagement rings, the focused, determined athlete who crossed the line in London seems a world away from the 26-year-old woman blushing about reading Fifty Shades of Grey on her post-Games holiday.
Ennis got through half of the second book in the trilogy and then got too embarrassed because they are ‘really quite raunchy’.
‘When I got back my mum asked to read them and she’s read all three,’ she adds, giggling again, ‘but I was embarrassed. I kept folding it over so no-one could see what I was reading.’
She is also enjoying planning her ‘medium-sized’ spring wedding to Andy Hill, a construction site manager she met at school, and is ‘loving all the girlie stuff’.
Winner (again): Ennis poses with both the SJA Sportswoman Of The Year award (left) and the Pat Besford award for outstanding sporting achievement
‘The dress bit was the best day of my life because you never try dresses on like that, do you’ she says. ‘It’s very special.’
Ennis’s knack of remaining rooted in the everyday feels completely at odds with her extraordinary achievements on the track, yet her girl-next-door demeanour may just explain how she has managed to reach those heights.
How else could she have made sure the pressure in the build-up to London did not overwhelm her
She can laugh about it now, but Ennis admits she found it ‘weird’ when other members of the British team asked to have their picture taken with her in the Athletes’ Village.
She had never been to an Olympics before, yet people, particularly children, would often ask her what it was like to win a gold medal, an honour she felt the British public had already hung around her neck.
‘I think they did, really,’ she says, ‘because I’d had a good few years, so that added on a bit more pressure.
Down to earth: Ennis says she found it 'weird' when other athletes asked for a picture with her
Award: Ennis proudly holds her MBE, with fiancee Andy Hill
‘People would come up to me asking, “What was it like when you won the Olympics” This is before London! I think that’s what people automatically thought before I’d even got there. Just to add a little bit more pressure.
‘I kept saying, “I haven’t actually been to an Olympics or won an Olympic medal. So I’ll hopefully let you know in a few weeks”. Then it was weird going into the village. Some of the British athletes from other sports were asking for pictures with me and things like that. I felt we were one team, we were all the same, but they wanted pictures and that was really weird.’
Just to add to the butterflies, there were the two silver medals Ennis won at the 2011 World Championships and the world indoors last March. They were two ‘seeds of doubt’ to remind Ennis that things can go wrong, especially in a gruelling two-day multi-event discipline.
At the time she masked her disappointment by saying it would help her preparation for London but, looking back, she has realised it did. There was no way she wanted to experience the ‘worst feeling’ of coming second at her home Games.
‘Not that I needed any more motivation because it was already there,’ she says, ‘and not that I was really settled and thought I was going to win everything. I never thought that. But I think it kind of showed me how easily things can go wrong.
Icon: Ennis with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe (left) and Ricky Gervais (right) at the Graham Norton show
‘It plants that kind of seed in your
mind of things kind of falling apart. It’s quite difficult. You don’t
want that negative thought to be there all the time.
‘It wasn’t a nice position to be in and I think that was the main thing I took from it: it was just the worst feeling to come second at that time and that moment I was in — and I did not want to experience that again.
‘I definitely didn’t want to experience it on such a large scale in London so that did make me really keen to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes.’
She did not, of course. She flew, producing a British record of 12.54 seconds for the 100m hurdles in her first event and setting three personal bests in the seven events on her way to a British and Commonwealth record of 6,955 points, culminating in that final 800m on ‘Super Saturday’.
The impact of that moment, coupled with the public’s admiration for the poster girl who lived up to her billing, makes Ennis the leading female contender for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award on December 16.
She is pleased she does not have to pick a winner herself, mentioning Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farah and Ellie Simmonds before sitting firmly on the fence and concluding it is a ‘tough’ competition this year, but will see any award as a bonus.
These things take time: Laura Williamson with Ennis in 2011, before the Games
Golden girl: Ennis with her spoils
‘Sports Personality is a nice thing to achieve at the end of the season,’ she says, ‘but we would rather have that gold medal. All the athletes are like, “That’s what we set out to achieve — a gold medal”. We’ll see what happens.
‘It’s so hard to say your (achievement) is better. You won a gold medal and so did they, but you’re going to get first position. I suppose it is down to personalities people like. It will be tough.’
And after that, who knows. Under new performance director Neil Black the coaching structure of UK Athletics is changing, with more coaches and athletes based at Loughborough University.
Sheffield, however, has quite clearly proved a successful environment for Ennis and her coach, Toni Minichiello, recently voted the UK Coach of the Year, and the pair are yet to discover how the changes will affect them.
Ennis says she was not particularly
surprised to hear of head coach Charles van Commenee’s departure after
UKA failed to match their medal target of eight in London, despite
winning four gold medals, but admitted looking beyond 2012 is ‘quite
‘I thought we were
really successful at the Olympics,’ she says, ‘but I didn’t know if
Charles wanted to go and pursue something else. There’s always a big
change after the Olympics, so I always expected there to be some
building up for that one moment and it’s scary to think what’s going to
happen after, but obviously change is what’s happening at the moment.
We’ll just have to wait and see.’
Minichiello is ‘convinced’ Ennis can compete at two more Olympic Games, defending her heptathlon title in Rio in 2016 and then concentrating on the hurdles, while Ennis wants to join the elite group of three athletes who have broken the 7,000 points barrier.
Moving targets: Ennis said her Olympic success was the best day of her life… until she tried on her wedding dress
‘I still feel like I’m new to the sport,’ she says, ‘but I suppose I have been around a while now.
‘I want to keep doing the heptathlon and see if I can get closer to 7,000 points and see what I can do at the worlds (in Moscow next year). It’s nice to have that option that I can go and do the hurdles as well, hopefully one day.
‘Olympic gold is any athlete’s dream and that’s what you always work towards. And now I’ve got that. I do feel really complete but it’s nice to then re-evaluate and re-set your targets; 7,000 points would be amazing because you go down in history for that as well.’
Jessica Ennis, Olympic heptathlon champion, is an official Powerade ambassador. For more information, go to www.poweradegb.com