Wonder woman

winning streak

Wonder woman

It was a lovely moment: Jessica Ennis-Hill crossing the finishing line of the 800m to become a champion heptathlete again at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing last summer.

She put her arms out in a wide Y-shaped victory salute, just as she did when she won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics — and this time, if anything, Jessica had even more to prove. She had overcome an Achilles injury — having been forced to pull out of the World Championships in Moscow in 2013 — and had a baby boy, Reggie, in July 2014.

Not only had she triumphed in one of athletics’ most exacting test — the heptathlon takes place over two days and includes hurdles, high jump, long jump, javelin, shot-put, 200m and 800m — she had done it as a new mother. Since the arrival of Reggie 13 months before, she had breastfed for four months, suffered severe sleep deprivation for nine months (he would wake at 2 am, 3 am, then 4.30 am, 5 am — there was no rhyme or reason to it) and refused a nanny. “I still want to be the best athlete I can be, but not at the sacrifice of not seeing my son. I want to see him as much as I can,” she says now.

Defending championWe meet in a studio in north London, where she is being photographed in her sports kit. At 29, she looks glossy and scarily fit. Her abs are as defined as they have ever been. Any changes Reggie may have made to her belly have been entirely reversed. After the shoot she resurfaces in skinny jeans and a pale wool top, which is light and soft, though her tautness is still apparent. She is friendly and I am struck by how relaxed she seems.

She remains thrilled by her win in Beijing, although it was not as trouble-free as it seemed. “I tore my calf muscle,” she says. “It was during the last 150m (of the 800m), right as I came off the bend into the home straight. I felt something go.
After the race I was in a lot of pain and struggled to walk, but it went to the back of my mind as I was in the whole excitement of, ‘Oh my God, I’ve won.’” Despite being in excruciating pain, she did the lap of honour (fast-walking, not jogging) and smiled through a barrage of questions from the world’s media. It is this mettle that makes her popular among her peers.

She is now preparing for perhaps her most difficult challenge: defending her title at the Rio Olympics this summer. Should she make it on to the podium, she would become only the third track and field athlete to retain an Olympic title after giving birth. Even before her 2012 Olympic success and the onslaught that followed, being chosen as the poster girl of those Olympics (among other things, her image was painted over an area the size of 15 tennis courts in a field on the flight path to Heathrow) had obviously left her flustered.

“It’s surreal,” she said at the time — but she now believes the impact went beyond her profile. “It showcased a different physique,” she says. “It showed that I am feminine and girlie, but I lift heavy weights, I run, I get sweaty and I’m strong, and you can marry those two. And a lot of 14- or 15-year-old girls think that it’s either one or the other.”

She has a huge collection of Mulberry handbags and has favoured designers like Alexander McQueen and Victoria Beckham. And yet, she admits there is a part of her that still feels self-conscious. “I don’t wear strappy tops,” she says. “Everyone feels self-conscious about something on their body. It’s just finding a style that works for you and I don’t really suit strappy tops or dresses, so I avoid them.”

Close knit

Despite various sponsorship deals (Adidas, Vitality, Santander and she is also an ambassador for Omega watches), she does not seem to have upped her lifestyle. She still has the same coach, Toni Minichiello —‘Chell’ — who has been her coach since she was 13. She still lives in Sheffield, where she was born (albeit now in a £1 million home with views of the Peak District). She is very close to her parents, Vinnie Ennis, a painter and decorator, and Alison Powell, a social worker; and to her younger sister, Carmel, who works in a nursery school. In 2013, she married her childhood sweetheart, Andy Hill, a construction-site manager. Her friends are people she and her husband have known for 18 years or so.

She confesses that she had wavered after Reggie was born. “It’s just so hard —in fact, “hard” isn’t a strong enough word. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, juggling everything and becoming a new mum,” she explains. “I thought, I’m a Olympic champion, I’ve achieved my dreams. Shall I call it a day? And then part of me thought, you’ve only got a year or two left in your career. I don’t want Reggie to look back and think, oh Mum, why didn’t you just go to the Olympics? You only had a few more months — you should have gone.”

She start training again when Reggie was about four months old. But pregnancy transforms the body in unimaginable ways. She had to contend with abdominal muscles that had separated in the middle (to accommodate her baby) and a body that felt uncharacteristically ‘soft’ (owing to hormones that relax ligaments to make labour easier). But there was an upside. “Your blood volume increases when you’re pregnant,’ she explains. The ability to do well in sports is determined by the capacity to deliver oxygen to muscles. The more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen you carry. Blood volume returns to pre-pregnancy levels within 24 weeks of delivery. But still, 10 months after Reggie was born, her time in the 800m at the Hypo Meeting in Austria was only two seconds off her best.

She minded very much about leaving her baby son for two weeks to go to Beijing. “It was the worst feeling ever. I kept crying all morning. My mum said, ‘He’ll be fine,’ and I knew he’d be fine, but I knew I was going to miss him so much.” As for the future, she is fixed on Rio. After that, who knows? She would like more babies, but only once she has retired. “I will definitely not go on longer than 2017,” she says. In the meantime, she is keeping both worlds in the air.


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