Jessica Ennis

Words: Andy Tongue
Portraits: Lancton
Styling: Angie Smith

As she works the camera, Jessica Ennis looks every inch the Hollywood movie star. Our photographer worked with her on a shoot three or four years ago when she was a relative newcomer and very nervous in front of the camera, but now she has the confidence and aura of someone who is happy to be the “face of the Games” as she has been dubbed. Afterwards, we chat as she prepares for an appearance with Omega, the official timekeeper of the 2012 Games, at their new boutique in Westfield Stratford, which overlooks the Olympic Park and will be the TOP Partner’s base during the Games.

“I do love to ‘glam up’,” she says. “Because I’m in tracksuits all the time at training, I like to get dressed up and get my hair and make-up done. I’ve done quite a few shoots, but I’m not a model so it’s still quite alien to me, though I do enjoy doing them. When you’re working with a good photographer and you get some direction, it’s great. All the outfits were amazing, but I think the gold coat was my favourite one.”

I’m in tracksuits most of the time, so I do love to ‘glam up’ and get my hair and make-up done

As the media’s proclaimed “face of the Games”, Ennis is very much in demand from her blue-chip list of sponsors (she is an ambassador for Olympic partners Omega, BP, BA and Procter & Gamble as well as enjoying long-standing endorsements with Adidas and Aviva)
and the wider public.

Her blend of Sheffield-girl-next-door and strikingly photogenic looks and athleticism has provided her with a once-in-a-lifetime commercial opportunity, which she would be foolish to pass up.

“The ‘face’ thing is a bit out of my control. But it is nice to be involved in a home Olympic Games, especially as I missed the last one. The key is to be organised and ensure that everyone communicates,” she says.

“My manager Jane [Cowmeadow] talks with me and my coach [Tony Minichiello], so we fit things in when I have breaks or a bit of downtime in my training. You have to be realistic: you can do certain things, but not everything. I don’t allow any sponsor or media commitments to be at the expense of training, so it’s about fitting the right amount in.”

She’s not been out to Stratford much and has deliberately avoided photo shoots at the Olympic Park. “I went to the Stadium last year, but I haven’t been since—though obviously I’ve seen lots of pictures. I don’t want to go out there training and doing photo shoots too much beforehand, to be honest—I’d like it to be new and fresh when I go there to compete.”

But she admits that with less than six months to go until the Games, it’s hard to escape the looming spectre of the biggest sports event in the world taking place in the United Kingdom. “I can switch off every now and again, but now it has become real—and it’s on my mind. I’m anxious to know what the year’s going to bring, but really looking forward to it, too.”

One event she won’t be attending is the controversial Opening Ceremony with its hugely increased budget. Instead, the track and field team will be at their holding camp abroad, putting the finishing touches to their preparations.

“It’s a shame we won’t be at the ceremony, but at the same time we’re there to compete,” she says. “I want to make sure I’m properly prepared and we’ll do that at the holding camp before flying in.”

“The heptathlon always takes place over the first weekend at major competitions—the World Championships, as well. This is nice, because you get your event done and out of the way, and you have time to go and support everyone else and watch some of the other sports.

“If you’re on at the end, you see everyone performing and you get very nervous. I’ll be aiming to see as much as possible—athletics, gymnastics, diving—plus, all the British boxers are based in Sheffield, so it will be nice to see how they’re getting on.”

As the ultimate athletic test, the heptathlon requires Ennis to master seven different events over two days.

“My favourite events are hurdles and high jump,” she says emphatically. “I don’t like the 800m—after two days of competition, two laps of a running track is a long way, even if it might not seem it—and I don’t particularly like the throwing events, but I’m learning to like them in a weird way.”

At the World Championships in Daegu last August, a terrible javelin throw—she only managed to throw 39.95m, seven metres less than she is capable of—ended her hopes of defending the title she had won two years earlier. From being on course to break Denise Lewis’ British world record after a superb first day, she fell so far behind her big rival, Russia’s Tatyana Chernova, that she had to settle for the silver medal, despite finishing with 6,751 points, 20 more than when she had triumphed in Berlin two years earlier. Even her personal best of 6,823 would not have been enough with Chernova finishing with 6,880 so the bar has clearly been raised in the event.

“It will definitely take a personal best to win gold in London,” she says. “I think it’s going to take 6,800-6,900, so it’s going to be a real big challenge, but I’m very capable of that. I just need to be in as great shape as possible, stay injury-free and be ready to perform on those two days.”

“Chernova’s always had the ability to put down a really good score, but hasn’t been able to bring it to the big stage. However, she got it right in Daegu. I always knew she’d get it right eventually, but now she needs to keep getting it right at every championship.”

It will definitely take a personal best to win the gold medal in London

Ennis is acutely aware that injury can strike at any time in a sport where you are always pushing your body to the limit and often beyond, as it did in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when she suffered three stress fractures in her foot at an early season meeting in Götzis, Austria. “It was a very difficult time and I felt quite sulky. I’d had a major injury in an Olympic year and couldn’t do a thing.”

So, along with Chernova, who will be her main rivals in London? “Natalia Dobrynska, she’s the reigning Olympic champion; Jennifer Oeser, the German athlete; and probably Hyleas Fountain, the American girl. They are all very close to the standards you need to win, so I’ll need to keep an eye on all of them.”

One major disadvantage for the 26-year-old Ennis is that at 5ft 5in, she is nearly a foot shorter than the 6ft 2in Chernova. After the World Championships, Ennis’ coach Minichiello said that the size difference between the two women meant their battles have always been “a bit like David versus Goliath. Only this time Goliath has stirred”.

“There’s nothing I can do about it, but she does have an advantage in the throwing events as the release point is higher, so you can get a bit more distance. That’s where I have to work a bit harder,” she admits.

“You’d think that I’d be at a disadvantage in the high jump, but that’s actually one of my strongest events. It would be nice to be a little bit taller, but I just have to get on with it. For my height and weight I’m strong and I’m a speedy, explosive athlete, so that bodes well for most of the heptathlon events.”

To win gold, Ennis knows she will have to be at the top of her game and the sacrifices that demands over the winter.

“I had a horrible outdoor running session earlier this week in the freezing cold rain, wind and sleet—it wasn’t fun at all,” she laughs. “But I know I can’t skip any sessions, just because I don’t want to get wet!”

“We’ve made a few tiny changes to my training programme, but it’s pretty much the same schedule. I could make big changes this year and move away for months, but that’s not what I’m about. I’ve got a great team around me in Sheffield. It’s about keeping my head down, training and trying to block out the other distractions.”

Born and brought up in Sheffield (the London Olympics Chairman Sebastian Coe was brought up in Sheffield, too) and clearly proud of it, she lives with her fiancé Andy Hill, a construction site manager, whom she first met at King Ecgbert School in the city. He proposed on Christmas Eve in 2010, but wedding plans have been put on hold until after the Games.

“He did it in a low-key way—we were just about to go out with his family for a meal. It was really nice and special. We’ve got the wedding planned for 2013 and that will be a useful distraction next year,” she said in an interview last August.

She eschews the celebrity lifestyle—bar one photo shoot with Hello magazine to celebrate their engagement—and is much more at home as a normal northern lass, albeit one who just happens to be an abnormally talented athlete.

“When I have a day off, I like to just catch up with friends, shopping. Go out for a nice meal… the usual things really. I don’t do anything too crazy.”

Such are the demands that seven events over two days put on the body, that even a supreme athlete like Ennis has to strictly limit the number of competitions she can do a year.

“I would probably do a maximum of three a year. Four would be too many. Generally, I try to do two a year, maybe three at a push, but it’s like running a marathon—you have to plan your training to peak two or three times a year—you can’t maintain that level of performance more than that.

“I hope to do some indoor competitions, with the aim of competing at the World Indoor Athletic Championships in March, then go to Götzis at the end of May and do the Grand Prix there, and then look ahead to London.”

Unlike Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe, who both claimed to train on Christmas Day as they knew their great rivals wouldn’t, Ennis didn’t pull on her tracksuit on 25 December.

“I love Christmas and had Christmas Day off. We didn’t have a break, so we trained all the way up to Christmas Eve and then started again on Boxing Day. So it was just the 25th off, then burning everything off on Boxing Day. I eat everything—definitely all the trimmings.”

I might try to sit next to David Beckham in the canteen if he gets into the football team

Her first Olympic memories were of another British heptathlete striking Olympic gold: “You get lots of false memories from things seen on TV from earlier Olympics such as Atlanta and Barcelona, but Sydney 2000 sticks in my mind. I was old enough to understand all—Denise Lewis winning was very inspiring.”

But Ennis makes it clear that she isn’t planning to go running to Lewis or any other former British stars for tips on how to handle the pressure and expectation ahead of the London Games.

“I see Denise at competitions, where she works for the BBC, and catch up with her there. She’s lovely and we get on great. Of course, I’m always happy to get advice from other athletes who have experienced Olympics and major championships, but ultimately I want to take my own path and do it my way.”

Having captained the team at the 2009 World Championships, she’s happy to just be one of the foot soldiers in London, rather than the focal point for the whole group. “The sprinters tend to hang around together and the long-distance runners have their little group. But as a heptathlete you do a bit of everything, so you mingle with all the different groups, which is nice. There’s a wide range of personalities in the team and I enjoy mixing with the different types.

“First and foremost, I’ll be there to compete and try to win gold, but what makes the Olympics different to any other competition are the other sports involved and staying in the Olympic Village. I might try to sit next to David Beckham in the canteen if he gets into the football team!”

It’s easy to forget that Ennis is just 26-years-old, as she seems to have been a star of the British track and field team for a considerable time, so it’s safe to assume that London will not be her only shot at Olympic gold. Arguably, she could be at her peak in four years’ time in Rio as a stronger, more experienced athlete. “It’s hard to say now how my body will
hold up and how I’ll feel, but I hope to go on competing for as long as possible. Rio would be tempting,” she confesses.

I don’t want to go out to the stadium too much. I want it to be fresh when I compete there

And of the other countries her achievements have taken her, which does she recall most fondly? “New York is my favourite place. I love Italy, Australia and Osaka, where the World Championships took place a few years ago. When I’m on holiday, I don’t do anything. I wake up, go to the beach, lie there and read a book—and then do the same the next day.”

With a car waiting to whisk her over to east London, it’s time for our interview to draw to a close. And as she gets up to say goodbye, it’s hard not to notice the classy timepiece she is sporting on her right wrist.

“This is the Ladymatic. It’s gorgeous… very blingy,” she says. “But it’s elegant too. At first you wonder if it is too much, but then you actually think ‘No, it’s not!’ I didn’t need any persuading when Omega asked me to work with them!”


OMEGA is the official timekeeper of the 2012 London Olympic Games


It will definitely take a personal best to win the gold medal in London

Portraits: Lancton