Jessica Ennis-Hill always arrived at major championships prepared to deliver. With seven events condensed into two stressful and gruelling days, there will always be problems and disappointments. Ennis-Hill would sometimes reveal a momentary glimpse of frustration—but then she was back on task, focused. Alongside her unbreakable drive, she is eminently likeable and, even while she was achieving the spectacular, a relatable human being. Ennis-Hill’s retirement will be a loss to British and global athletics.
Her finest moment came in 2012. Blasting off the blocks with a 12.54 in the 100m hurdles—then a national record and still heptathlon best—scoring an immense 1195 points. Even her throws flew over 800 points. The total tally of 6955 set a new British record and put her number five on the all-time list. Any pressure she felt as the “poster girl” of 2012 flew off her shoulders at the end of the 800m as she raised her arms in victory.
Ennis-Hill’s SBs (points), 2006-2016
The Beijing 2015 world championships marked another incredible moment, returning to the event and taking the world title after having her son, Reggie. A second Olympic title, however, was no to be. Toni Minichiello, her coach, said Ennis-Hill’s performances should be measured afresh after her pregnancy. Even though she mustered her best post-pregnancy result in Brazil—and the fifth best heptathlon performance of her career—it was not enough to beat Nafissatou Thiam, one of the surprise packages of the 2016 Games.
Nicknamed “tadpole” by fellow British heptathlete Kelly Sotherton because of her diminutive size, she was an outlier when compared to her rivals. Below is an extract from our body types chart looking at the heptathletes in Rio. That silver dot is Ennis-Hill. In a similar way to Ashton Eaton, Ennis-Hill might not have been the biggest but what she lacked in the throws she made up on the track.
British athletics will take time to get over losing one of its greats. Attention had already started to shift to Katarina Johnson-Thompson (KJT). The hope in Rio was that it would be a battle between the two for gold. It didn’t work out that way—instead another tall athlete, also with a fantastic high jump, took up the challenge.
The rivalry may not have lived up to its potential, but this might be the time for KJT to step up. In 2014, she recorded her PB in Gotzis (6682) and ended the year as world number one. In 2015 she became indoor European champion and broke Ennis-Hill’s indoor pentathlon national record (5000), going number two on the all-time list. The potential is clear.
With such a rich heptathlon in recent history, the British are eager for their next star. KJT has a significant profile, arguably disproportionate to her achievements on the track, so it’s easy to forget that she’s still only 23. Her junior career followed a similar pattern to Ennis-Hill, but Ennis-Hill continued her progression. KJT, for one reason or another, has stuttered.
Best of British: Heptathlon scores and age at performance
However, her best years should still be ahead of her. Ennis-Hill and Denise Lewis achieved their bests at 26 and 27 respectively. The top 100 heptathletes produced their bests at an average age of 25.7 years.
Lottery funding also provides a significant competitive edge for UK heptathletes—more than any other event it seems. The women’s heptathlon was introduced to the Olympic programme in 1984, 16 years before lottery funding would have an impact on Olympic performances (Sydney 2000). Between 1984-1996, Britain only picked up one medal in the event (1996, bronze, Lewis). From 2000, and 16 years after lottery funding was having an impact, it has taken two golds (Lewis 2000, Ennis-Hill 2012), one silver (Ennis-Hill, 2016) and one bronze (Sotherton, 2004). No other athletics event has seen the same impact, unless it relies on a single athlete (ie, Mo Farah) to bring home the medals. It is one of the biggest successes of the programme. With this, the Great British production line of fine heptathletes should continue, even as we say farewell to one of the greats.