Heptathlete Jessica Ennis
She’s a reigning world champion athlete with dreams of Olympic glory. Add to that model good looks and an MBE, and it’s safe to say that Jessica Ennis is a young woman going places.
The golden girl of British athletics has become the unofficial face of the London 2012 Olympics, a title that doesn’t always sit comfortably with her. ‘Of course, it’s a huge honour, but I do I find it a bit strange,’ she says. ‘With so many British athletes tipped for success, there won’t be just one recognisable face. But if people look at me and think, 'She’s doing well and hopefully she can achieve something great,' then that’s a huge honour. It does add to the pressure, though!’
So, how is Jess coping as Olympic fever mounts?
‘Everyone’s going to feel pressure during a home Olympics, whether you’re a face or not. You just have to use it to your advantage,’ she says. Once your face is out there and people become aware of you, they begin to follow you – and that support can spur you on.’
What about being a role model for up-and-coming athletes – doesn’t that just add to the pressure? ‘That’s one of the nicest things, to be honest. I get a lot of letters from kids. They come down to the track and I hear them say my name. If you’re doing what you love and you’re good at it, then being a role model and inspiring others is a massive bonus. I don’t see that as pressure at all.’
Jess keeps as cool as a cucumber on the track – but what about behind the scenes? She’s engaged: her childhood sweetheart Andy Hill proposed on Christmas Day 2010, ‘under the tree, just us, it was perfect’ – so, on top of striving for the biggest high of her career she now has had the additional challenges of planning the biggest day of her life.
‘You have to separate out the important areas of your life and not let one overtake the other,’ she says. ‘At home, I’m Jess the 25-year-old girl, whereas at work I’m Jess the Olympian.
We put our wedding on hold until after the Olympics, so we could do the planning bit by bit. There’s a part of me that thinks, ‘Oh, I really want to get married now, but the wedding is also a nice distraction. My training gets very intense, so it’s nice to just go home, look through my bridal magazines and wonder what flowers to get.’
Jess acknowledges that crucial to making it all work is an understanding partner, ‘Andy sees the two sides to me – on the track I’m serious and focused, whereas at home I’m in my PJs, hair scraped back, watching rubbish on TV. We’ve been together for so long that he’s seen me come from being a junior athlete through the ranks to the senior circuit. He understands the ups and downs of being an athlete. I also think it’s really important to talk about how you’re feeling rather than bottling it up, otherwise things just build up and you take it out on those close to you.’
She’s aware that her success has had an impact on those around her. ‘Becoming famous changes your partner’s life, too,’ she says. ‘Things are different for me since winning in Berlin, but in a positive way – it’s nice to be recognised and to be invited to do different things. But it’s quite weird for your partner when you’re suddenly getting pointed at in the street. It affects what you can do together, too – for example, we can only go on holiday at the end of the athletics season in September. But it’s lovely to get away together, switch off and relax after a long season, especially if everything has gone to plan and I’ve achieved what I wanted.’
Ah, yes, the little matter of when things don’t go according to plan… Jess famously admitted that the disappointment of getting injured and missing the Beijing Olympics in 2008 meant she could barely bring herself to watch the coverage on TV.
‘I like structure and to know what I’m doing. So when a plan changes it kind of drives me mad,’ she says. ‘I’m like that in every area of my life, which is good in some respects but when you don’t hit the targets you’ve set yourself, it’s disappointing,’ she admits.
As every woman juggling a relationship, social life and a career knows, the key to success often comes down to planning – Jess would also add to that the need to be realistic.
‘Don’t feel you have to do one thing at the expense of something else or that you have to rush everything – career, children. If you manage your time and your life carefully, you can just about fit in everything you want to do without burning out.
Are children part of Jess’s plan? ‘Yes, definitely. I absolutely love kids, but probably post-athletics,’ she says. ‘I think it’s hard to have children while you’re still competing. With the heptathlon being quite explosive and speed-focused I don’t know how much power you’d lose if you took a break to have a child.’
And what about once she’s hung up her trainers? ‘I’ve not thought about it to be honest. I’m so immersed in this moment - wanting to make the most of it and achieve all I can. It’s quite daunting to think about life after athletics because I’ve done it since I was 10, so I can’t imagine a life away from it.’
With the dedication required for her day job, it’s easy to see how other aspects of life could fall by the wayside - friendships, for example - but Jess is quick to quash that notion. ‘Yes, it can be hard – but, if you have good people around you, you have to make time for them, even if that’s just meeting up for lunch or a glass of wine at the weekend.
‘I obviously have to be 100% focused on what I want to achieve from athletics, but I also have to make sure there’s a balance and that I’m able to switch off from it. My friends and I never talk about my work, they really ground me.’
Nevertheless, when you’re truly focused on a goal, you have to make sacrifices. How does Jess deal with that? ‘If you’ve got talent, you have to make the most of your opportunities while you can,’ she says. ‘You have the rest of your life to do things that you perhaps missed out on because you were pursuing a dream. All the other things can come afterwards - and you’ve still got loads to look forward to!’