London, UKFour years ago, Jessica Ennis flew home early after pulling out of the Gotzis international Heptathlon to learn that the reason her ankle hurt her so much was because it had suffered a stress fracture. Her Olympic ambitions in Beijing were over. But fate had a very big consolation in store for her.
Skip forward an Olympiad, and the 26-year-old Sheffield athlete stood inside the centrepiece of the home Games that resounded with patriotic noise, two days of unrelenting competitiveness having earned her the distinction of becoming the first British Olympic gold medallist on a home track since the last day of the 1908 London Games.
As Ennis sank to the track after a fourth personal best in her seven events had secured her the home gold which has been most eagerly expected for at least a couple of years since she won the 2009 World title, she appeared for a moment like Australia’s Cathy Freeman, who had carried the hopes of her nation into the Sydney Games of 2000 and who sank into an almost trance-like state when she eventually delivered the 400m gold.
While the form of Britain’s Beijing 400m winner Christine Ohuruogu has flickered and wavered, diminished by persistent injuries, the athlete who lives a short stroll away from the Olympic Stadium became less of a poster girl for the Games as that responsibility – or burden – passed to the young woman from Sheffield. And, eventually, she made light of it.
Twelve years after Denise Lewis won the Olympic title for Britain in Sydney, and eight years after Kelly Sotherton’s bronze in the Athens Games, Ennis had re-stated Britain’s enduring ability in the Heptathlon event.
"I’m still in shock," she told the post-event press conference. "It’s been a brilliant couple of days. I competed here with a lot of passion and I think a lot of people expected me to win the gold medal here even before I set foot on the track."
She admitted that the emotions of victory had come through as she had stood on the podium.
"It was a case of actually realising that you have achieved one of your main goals," she said. "You never, ever think you are going to get there so when you do it, it is overwhelming.
"Obviously you think back to missing Beijing, and having to push hard, and then losing the World title last year.
"I think Heptathlon is obviously one of the toughest events, there’s a mass of emotions, you have highs and lows, but I was coming here off a personal best performance in Gotzis and I knew I was in the best shape of my life.
"Having the crowd here, they lift you so much. The support has been unbelievable, and starting of in the hurdles so well meant it all kind of rolled into the rest of the events.
"But there was so much pressure on me, and when I saw my family and my fiancée in the crowd during the medal ceremony the emotions came through.
"For Britain to win three gold medals on one night was absolutely unbelievable, and we has still got a lot of really good medal prospects still to go. I think it will definitely, or hopefully, lift the next generation. I think it’s going to have an effect for many years."
Having won the World title in 2009, the memory of how she had lost it last year – when she took silver behind Tatyana Chernova in Daegu after underperforming woefully in the javelin – was a major part of her motivation for the Olympic competition.
"The javelin was really important," she said. "It had let me down massively in Daegu, so I knew it was a major problem and when I went back home I spent a lot of time working on it with my coach, Mick Hill.
"So when I came here I was confident and I think my performance showed that all the work on my throwing had been really successful."
A personal best by the Briton in the javelin – where her Russian rival, who spoke afterwards of "lots of mistakes and problems with health", fell 10 metres short of her own best – meant Ennis was able to go into the final event with an effective eight-seconds margin over the silver medal position held by Austra Skujyte, and 11 seconds over the bronze medal position occupied by Lithuania’s Lyudmila Yosypenko. Comforting statistics ahead of the most important race of her life.
The storm of noise which greeted her as she lined up was acknowledged in limited fashion with a quick wave. There was important business still to be concluded, and her face, carefully made up, was a picture of composure.
Her decision to move decisively into the lead made it clear that she intended to finish with a flourish rather than sidling in. She led to the bell, and the noise grew more intense than ever. Only a fall, God forbid, could stop her now…
Moving out into lane two, she came through to finish the job, claiming both gold and a new overall personal best of 6955 points.
Unlike Kelly Holmes as she had broken through to win her first of two golds at the Athens 2004 Games, there was no disbelief in Ennis’s finish. She knew she had won, and had enough time and space to acknowledge it by raising both arms in triumph.
Soon the tears and incredulity came. As she stood for the photographers with her pre-prepared Union Flag announcing her victory – 'Jessica Ennis, Olympic champion, London 2012’ - spread out behind her it seemed her face would simply burst with emotion.
In collecting the flag she had tried in vain to bridge the gap between the infield and the stands to take the outstretched hand of her long-time coach, Tony Minichiello. They couldn’t reach – but it didn’t matter. The important connections had been made long ago.