Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Olympics Stars #1 - Jessica Ennis

By Shane Thomas

Ladies and Gentleman, behold the face of London 2012, the poster girl, the person who represents all that is good about Britain, Jessica Ennis.

Now you've heard the spin, here's the reality. As far as being the jewel in Britain's athletic crown goes, we may have backed the wrong horse.

After going through the agony of missing the Beijing Olympics, due to a stress fracture of her ankle - made all the more painful as it was documented in a BBC programme - she recovered to win the heptathlon gold medal at the World Track & Field Championships in 2009, and followed it up with an even more impressive display at the European Championships in 2010, taking her closest rival (Natalya Dobrynska) apart in the final event (the 800 metres) to win gold in Barcelona.

Ennis was deservedly feted as one of Britain's finest athletes, becoming something of a national emblem of British success. Indeed, some were already hanging Olympic gold round her neck.

But the Ennis bandwagon has become increasingly rickety over the past year. At last year's World Championships in Daegu, Ennis failed to defend her heptathlon title, crashing into a hurdle in the 100m hurdles, and woefully underperforming in the javelin. She was forced to settle for silver. And while many expected her greatest test to come from Dobrynska, they were both surpassed by Tatyana Chernova, who set a personal best to win the gold medal.

Then in the World Indoor Championships a few months ago, Dobrynska put Ennis and Chernova on notice that she wasn't to be forgotten, as she executed a personal best score of her own to triumph in Istanbul. Once again, Ennis narrowly missed out, finishing in 2nd.

From looking the favourite to win the heptathlon two years ago, Ennis now has two genuine rivals for the gold medal this summer. And looking beyond Dobrynska and Chernova, the American Hyleas Fountain also has the ability to upset the apple-cart. Ennis will need eyes in the back of her head to keep an eye on all three of them.

This is not to overlook Ennis's heart and determination. Part of why she's so liked by swathes of the British public is that - on the outside - she fits the personification of an underdog; her short stature, schoolgirl smile and unassuming "salt of the earth" nature goes against the stereotype of the lithe, Amazonian, formidable woman that we often see in the heptathlon.

But Ennis is girl with a competitive core forged from the steel of the town she grew up in. Her response to the aforementioned defeats were magnanimous, but make no mistake, they hurt deeply. She will line up on the track in August ready to unleash a fire that will singe her rivals in the quest for that coveted gold medal.

And it's probably Ennis's only chance to win, as the two silvers she won in Daegu and Istanbul weren't examples of the Sheffield girl choking. She gave good performances in both competitions, but was outdone by Chernova and Dobrynska displaying their very best. It's now Ennis's turn to do the same, on the biggest stage of all.

She may no longer be the favourite, but she has what it takes to bring as much joy to Britain as Cathy Freeman once brought to Australia. Ennis can satiate the desperate desire of the home crowd to see her succeed, but to do so, she will have to give the performance of her career. When it matters most. No pressure Jess.

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