British heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson (© Getty Images)
It just so happened that the indoor arena at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield was the venue for Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s return to competition at the weekend. The 2015 North of England Indoor Championships took place in the very facility that Jessica Ennis-Hill uses as her indoor training base in her home city.
Ennis-Hill has yet to hit the competitive comeback trail, six months on from the birth of her son, Reggie, but the Olympic heptathlon champion will have noted with interest the marks achieved in her own back yard by her fellow great British all-rounder.
Due to injury in 2013 and motherhood in 2014, Ennis-Hill has not contested a heptathlon since she crossed the finish line at the end of the 800m at the 2012 Olympics, taking gold with a British and Commonwealth record tally of 6955. It was announced last week, however, that Ennis-Hill, who turns 29 on 28 January, would be resuming her combined-events career in the idyllic Alpine setting of Gotzis on 30-31 May.
Johnson-Thompson will also be in the field for the heptathlon at the Hypo Meeting, part of the IAAF Combined Events Challenge series. The long-legged long jumper from Liverpool finished 15th at the 2012 Olympics, racking up a British junior record of 6267 as a 19-year-old. Three years on, at 22 (her birthday was on 9 January), she has entered 2015 as the world No.1, having prevailed in Gotzis last May with 6682, the best heptathlon score of 2014.
A stress fracture of the right foot prevented the burgeoning Johnson-Thompson from making further progress last year. The unfortunate break ruled her out of a re-match with Canada’s Brianne Theissen Eaton, who finished 41 points behind her as runner-up in Gotzis, at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It also prevented her from attempting to add European Championship long jump gold in Zurich to the silver she won in her favourite individual event at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot in March last year.
Still, on the evidence of her form in the low-key Sheffield meeting, Johnson-Thompson is back in the groove at the start of a year in which she intends to be chasing gold in the pentathlon at the European Indoor Championships in Prague in March as well as the heptathlon title at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August. She sped to victory in the 60m hurdles in 8.40, equalling her lifetime best, then threw 12.32m in the shot, the second-best mark of her career, and won the long jump with 6.63m.
The latter mark was not quite in the class of the 6.92m lifetime best that the Liverpool Harrier achieved in what proved to be her final competition of 2014, as runner-up to 2005 world champion Tianna Bartoletta of the USA at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Glasgow, but it eclipsed the North of England Indoor Championship record of 6.45m. That was set in 1991 by one Fiona May, winner of the long jump title at the 1988 IAAF World Junior Championships in Sudbury for her native Great Britain but who claimed her two senior World Championship crowns (in Gothenburg in 1995 and Edmonton in 2001) for her adopted Italy.
“I’m just excited to be back on the track again,” said Johnson-Thompson. “I got back into training very quickly after the stress fracture and that has been going really well. I’m lifting more weights and feel in a better state than I did at this time last year but you never know what shape you’re really in until you get back into competition.”
Next up on the comeback trail for Johnson-Thompson is the high jump and long jump at the British Indoor Championships in Sheffield on 14-15 February, then the long jump at the Sainsbury’s Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham on 21 February and the pentathlon at the European Indoor Championships in Prague on 6 March.
The competition in the Czech capital will be her first pentathlon since March 2012, when she missed Carolina Kluft’s then world junior record by nine points with a score of 4526 at a combined events international meeting in Cardiff.
Beyond that comes the head to head with Ennis-Hill in Gotzis: world No.1 versus the Olympic champion, itself a prelude to the battle for the heptathlon crown at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August.
With the 2016 Olympics to come in Rio, followed by an IAAF World Championships on British soil in London in 2017, it promises to be the start of a British track and field rivalry reminiscent of the fight for global middle-distance supremacy between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
At their peak, Coe and Ovett spent much of their time avoiding one another. They traded rival performances at arm’s length to such an extent that one British newspaper ran a leader page comment lamenting: “It is as if they are playing a game of postal chess.”
“I don’t think that will happen with Jess and me,” said Johnson-Thompson. “Gotzis is such an esteemed event, you’re not going to miss it to avoid someone.”
It is odd to think that Johnson-Thompson will be heading to Austria as the world leader for the returning Olympic champion to aim at. It hardly seems five minutes since she was sitting at Ennis-Hill’s side at the British 2012 Olympic holding camp at Monte-Gordo in Portugal, listening to the pre-Games favourite field questions about the pressure of being the big home hope for the Games.
“It’s surreal,” she remarked at the time. “I’m normally at home watching Jess in the major championships on television. The night Jess got the gold at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, I’d just come back from a day out at Alton Towers theme park and she was on the second lap of the 800m.”
Three years on from the London Olympics, the turnaround has been equally surreal for the formerly starry-eyed junior. “I didn’t think it would happen this quickly,” confessed Johnson-Thompson, the 2009 world youth heptathlon champion and 2012 world junior long jump gold medallist, who has made continual upward progress under the astute direction of Mike Holmes, the coach who guided fellow Liverpool Harrier Steve Smith to world and Olympic high jump bronze.
“I remember being at London 2012 saying, ‘This isn’t my time; Rio in 2016 will be more at the age when I want to start winning stuff’.
“And then I remember going away from London thinking, ‘That’s only four years away and these girls are scoring so many hundreds of points more than me.’ I was thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be ready for Rio’.
“So I am surprised that it’s happened this fast for me. I am happy that I’m progressing the way I am and that it wasn’t just a pipe dream; I can achieve these things.
“But I think you can’t underestimate Jess. She is the Olympic champion and, if anything, she’s going to come back hungry to get her old place back
“I’m thinking that world No.1 is not mine to keep; it’s anyone’s to take. I think I can do better under those circumstances, so that’s what I’m going to keep in mind.”
Simon Turnbull for the IAAF