People of Yorkshire Volume 19 – Jessica Ennis-Hill

Jessica Ennis-Hill is a Yorkshire sporting champion, who has also become the nation’s sweetheart and an inspiration to many. She was a gold medallist at the London 2012 games in the Heptathlon, which so far has been the pinnacle of her career.

She was born on 28th January 1986 in Sheffield and grew up in the Highfield district of the city. Ennis attended Sharrow Primary and then King Ecgbert School in Dore.

During the summer of 1996, Jessica’s life would change forever when she was taken by her parents to a “Start: Track” event at the Don Valley Stadium. Here, she won a pair of trainers and also met her coach, Toni Minichello, who would one day coach her to Olympic gold.

Encouraged by this she joined the City of Sheffield Athletics club the following year and so her career began.

In 2000 she won her first pentathlon competition at the AAA U15 Championships, which was the first of many successes in her career. Competing regularly in local and national junior athletics meetings she managed to become one of Britain’s most promising athletes, scooping several other medals, including gold at the AAA under 20s National Championships in 2003 and two silver medals at the Junior Commonwealth games at Bendigo, Australia in the hurdles and high jump. In 2005 she rose to prominence even further by taking the gold in the 2005 European Athletics Junior Championships in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Ennis made her first appearance in a major international senior competition at the Commonwealth Games staged in Melbourne two years later and won a bronze medal in the heptathlon, behind fellow Brit, Kelly Sotherton, who took gold.

Her status as an athlete was growing, scooping the inaugural European rising star award in 2007. Even through these times of success she was determined to keep her feet on the ground by completing her education. After taking her GCSEs and A-Levels at King Ecgbert School she went on to complete a degree in psychology at Sheffield University, of which she graduated in the same year as her award. Moreover Ennis was fast becoming a fine, multi-disciplined athlete, who could run, throw and jump to great effect.

As a women’s heptathlete Jessica Ennis must compete in seven different events held over two days of competition. It starts with a 110m hurdles race, followed by the high jump, shot put and 200m run. The second day begins with the long jump, followed by a javelin throw and culminating in an 800m race. The scoring is not based on what position they finish in each competition, but is linked to the individual times or distances achieved by each competitor through a set of formulas devised by mathematician, Dr Karl Ulbrich. They are constructed so that each event has a “standard performance” or benchmark in order to achieve 1,000 points, e.g. 1.82m in the high jump event. The system then rewards the athletes with more points the longer they throw or the faster they run above these benchmarks, so that when the totals for each events are added up there is a clear winner. Any ties are solved by their performances against the other competitor and how many events each athlete has won during the competition.

In 2008 Jessica Ennis was training to take part in her first Olympic Games to be held in Beijing, China, after finishing fourth in the previous year’s world championships. Unfortunately at an athletics meeting in Gotzis, Austria she withdrew from the competition, due to pain in her right foot, which after further examination turned out to be a stress fracture in the metatarsal. She faced a long lay-off and a disappointed Jessica missed the 2008 Olympics and the rest of that season.

After a twelve month lay-off Ennis hit the ground running, winning the World Combined Events challenge on her comeback, smashing the competition record with a personal best score of 6,731 points. More success was to follow at the 2009 World Championships where she won gold in Berlin. By now her achievements were beginning to be recognised by the nation and by her native Sheffield. A civic reception was held to celebrate the victory, where she was given a full canteen of cutlery and a designer handbag. She also won Sportswoman of the year and another award, British Athlete of the year.
In the run up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, Ennis continued to compete and won the 2010 European heptathlon gold with a record points tally of 6,823. She finished second at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.

As the London 2012 Olympics approached, Ennis, with her girl next-door looks, became an unofficial poster girl for the Games, appearing on billboards, magazine front-pages and even on a 40ft banner at the Sheffield branch of John Lewis. After a two-year unbeaten run, which stretched from 2009-11 much was expected of the athlete going into the games and a lot of undue pressure was placed upon her muscular shoulders. Away from the track Jessica tried to maintain a “normal” existence, which included the acquisition of her dog, Myla, who also goes with her on some of her training runs. In her personal life she has kept the same partner, Andy Hill, who Ennis met during their schooldays in Dore and would later marry in 2013.

Jessica Ennis after winning the heptathlon gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics. Picture credit: Robbie Dale wikipedia creative commons.
Jessica Ennis after winning the heptathlon gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics. Picture credit: Robbie Dale wikipedia creative commons.

In any sport it is one thing having the talent to participate in a chosen event, but it is equally as important that the temperament is right too. Ennis is lucky in that she is able to carry the expectation of the whole nation and deliver.

Saturday 4th August 2012 was to be British Athletics finest hour and it was Ennis’ romp home in the 800m, the final event of her heptathlon competition, which lit the blue touch paper for that famous London night. She won one of three British gold medals within half an hour, along with Mo Farah and long jumper, Greg Rutherford, known as “Golden Saturday.”

In 2013 Ennis’ training facility and second home, since the age of ten, the Don Valley was closed down and demolished by Sheffield Council due to “budget cuts.” Jessica Ennis-Hill, the name of which she now competes under, after her marriage, took a break from athletics, due to pregnancy and missed the 2014 Commonwealth games in Glasgow. After the birth of her son, she resumed training with the next Olympic Games in Rio De Janero within her sights.

A great test of where she was in her comeback bid came at the 2015 Heptathlon World Championships in Beijing. As Jessica stepped onto the aeroplane to China, she confessed that any colour medal would be enough to convince her she was on the right track and give her encouragement on her road to Rio. Amazingly, Ennis won the gold medal, beating off the challenge of Canada’s Brianne Theisen Eaton by 115 points. This was some comeback , just thirteen months after giving birth and becomingthe first multi-sport athlete to win a medal after maternity leave.

She arrived in Rio 2016 with high hopes of a repeat performance. Overnight, she led the field with impressive performances in the 100m hurdles and 200m. Danger was never far away though, with fellow Brit, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Belgium’s Nafi Thiam staying in touch, the latter beating her in both the shot put and high jump events on day one.

The Belgian proved too strong on the second day of competition, especially in the long jump and javelin events, which saw her push Ennis into silver medal position. A win in the 800m could not overturn the deficit, meaning that Jessica Ennis-Hill came second with 6775 to Thiam’s 6810.

In an interview after the event, she hinted at possible retirement, but with the next World Championships set to be held in London, it may not be the last we have seen of Jessica Ennis Hill on the track and field.

Jessica Ennis’ achievements have meant that she is now one of the most recognisable faces in British sport and a true ambassador for Yorkshire.  Ennis-Hill has become a role model for young people and recently topped a poll by Starbucks Youth Action to find the most inspirational person to people under 25. She beat off competition from the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther-King and fellow athlete, Mo Farah.

Despite her fame and fortune, Jessica Ennis Hill has maintained a steely determination to succeed in her chosen sport and managed to also keep control of her life in the spotlight. Her down-to-earth persona helps to make her at heart a dye in the wool Yorkshire lass.