Sunday, 5 August 2012

Britain's Golden Child

By Shane Thomas

Jessica Ennis. The face of London 2012. Such a nice girl, isn't she? Wouldn't it be lovely if more people were like her?

Let's stop this one-sided view of Britain's latest sporting icon. Behind the courteous persona and schoolgirl demeanour lies a soul-deep core of competitive steel. The nation's sweetheart? I doubt her opponents in the heptathlon think so.
That's not to say Ennis' down-to-earth disposition is a falsehood. Far from it. But it's only a part of who she is. I know plenty of agreeable people, and not one of them would have what it takes to be Olympic Champion - especially when the whole nation is demanding nothing less.

It will be easily forgotten now, but Ennis did not come into the heptathlon competition as the favourite. She lost her World title to Tatyana Chernova last year, and then a few months ago, surrendered her World Indoor crown to the (then) reigning, Olympic Champion, Natalya Dobrynska. On both occasions, Ennis produced strong displays, but not her very best. This brought into sharp focus that only her maximum would do to succeed in London.

And how she produced. Personal bests in the 100 metre hurdles and the javelin - her weakest event. The hurdles wasn't only Ennis's quickest ever time, but the quickest time in the history of the heptathlon. 

Her hurdles performance is important to note here. It's the first event of the competition, the one to lay down a marker and set the pace - especially if it's one of your stronger events. All the pressure, all the build-up has led to this. No more talking, time to go out and perform.

The one emotion that seldom gets associated with Ennis is anger. But don't think that after those aforementioned defeats to Chernova and Dobrynska, that Ennis wasn't angry. She doesn't compete to win silver medals, and would have had a storm raging inside her as she lined up on the track. Hell hath no fury...

The time of 12.54 was a blitzkrieg to her rivals, a run of outright rage that singed every one of her competitors. Chernova and Dobrynska would not have known what hit them, and it looked to have a residual effect, as both women had wretched first days in the competition.

Along with her gold medal, what will likely have pleased Ennis the most is how she responded to adversity. A mediocre high-jump and solid display in the shot-put was followed up a searing run in the 200 metres to end Day 1. Ennis was in silver medal position going into the race, and knew how vital it was that she regain the lead before Saturday morning's long jump. It was the hallmark of Ennis - every time she was (figuratively) pushed, she pushed right back.

Day 2 always sets the nerves jangling for Ennis fans. She has a record of being inconsistent in the long jump and woeful in the javelin, sometimes leaving her with too much ground to make up in the 800 metres.

We needn't have worried. She produced a super display of 6.48 metres to cement her lead, before giving that personal best of 47.49 metres in the javelin to make the 800 metres a procession. But Ennis isn't The Queen, she doesn't do processions. She could have finished 12 seconds behind then-second placed Austra Skujyte and still have won gold.

However, Ennis is driven by a fierce competitive nature. This was no time to relax. Roared on by the home crowd, she took the initiative from the gun and raced into the lead. But the heptathlon takes such a physical toll on the body. You could see the pain etched on Ennis' face as she dragged herself around the two laps of the track.

Chernova, who could still win a medal, passed Ennis with 250 metres to go, and "our Jess" was in third going into the home straight. No matter, third is fine, she'd still take the gold.

But no, it wasn't fine. All the hype, the advertising billboards, the television adverts, the raucous home support, and most importantly, Ennis' own voracious drive for excellence would not allow it to end like this. She would win, and do it the right way. Summoning a final burst of energy that her rivals couldn't match, Ennis regained the lead, crossed the line, and the hopes of a nation were fulfilled.

You'll have to forgive me, but I'm about to steal a line from the journalist, Simon Barnes. Before the heptathlon started, Barnes made the astute statement that the reason we wanted Ennis to win so desperately, why we chose her to be the frontwoman of these Olympics is that, much like Cathy Freeman in the Sydney Games, Ennis represents the type of country we want modern Britain to be. Our national symbol; Polite, decent, unassuming, mixed-race, and a woman. And not only that, the heart of a champion. Ruthless and determined. She's both a nice person and a hard-nosed warrior.

After her disappointments of the past 12 months, Ennis knew she would have to produce the very best of herself to fulfil her dream of Olympic gold. And in her glorious success, the achievement enshrined us all.

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