When Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium was demolished a few years ago, Jessica Ennis-Hill’s mum had a section of the running track framed for her daughter, along with the words: ‘From cheap childcare to Olympic champion.’
‘It was literally just a summer camp my mum and dad sent me and my sister to for two weeks in the holidays,’ recalls Ennis-Hill of that life-changing childcare arrangement 20 years ago. ‘It all started from there.’
‘It’ being the small matter of becoming the most decorated heptathlete in British history and, with an Olympic gold and three World Championship titles under her belt, a persuasive claim to being these islands’ greatest ever sportswoman.
When Weekend meets the newly enobled Dame Jessica, it’s four months since she announced her retirement from athletics – and she’s ‘absolutely enjoying every bit of it’. ‘I really don’t have the urge to be back in training, or competing,’ says the 31-year-old. ‘I was able to choose when I retired. I don’t have that feeling I wanted to achieve more. And obviously I’ve got Reggie, who takes up so much of my time.’
Reggie is her two-year-old son with Andy Hill, the childhood sweetheart she married in 2013. But motherhood’s not the only thing keeping Dame Jess busy: alongside her various ‘brand ambassador’ roles, she’s recently launched VitalityMove, a series of events designed to get Britain off the couch and, perhaps more surprisingly, has just published her first children’s book.
Evie’s Magic Bracelet is a new series of adventures about a little girl who, in opening instalment The Silver Unicorn, receives a special gift that allows her to talk to animals. It’s been co-written with author Elen Caldecott, and draws heavily on Ennis-Hill’s own childhood in inner-city Sheffield. There is also, naturally, a strong sporting element, including a big race in which – spoiler alert – Evie comes second. Might people be surprised to find Jessica Ennis-Hill, of all people, advocating that it’s not the winning, but the taking part?
‘I’ve definitely got a winners’ mentality,’ she grins. ‘But it’s trying to get across that I haven’t always been an Olympic champion. When I started athletics, I didn’t win anything. I’d say to my dad, “I just want to be on top of the podium once”. So I’m saying, “You’re not going to be the best at what you do straight away. You’ve got to persist.’
She was also keen to write about Evie’s experiences at school, having previously described her early athletics success as ‘quiet revenge’ against the bullies who afflicted her own school days.
‘I was quite a shy child – small and skinny, and really nervous,’ she recalls. ‘I wasn’t physically bullied, but girls can be really horrible – verbally horrible – and I experienced a lot of that. So athletics was a way of proving I was good at something – that I wasn’t just this skinny little girl: I could jump really high and run really fast.’
With the help of lifelong coach and mentor Tony Minichiello, jumping really high and running really fast eventually led Jessica Ennis, as she was then, to a date with destiny at London 2012 – when she mounted the podium as part of Britain’s ‘Super Saturday’ gold rush.
‘I could never have imagined it would happen like that,’ she says, five years on. ‘That I’d be at the peak of my career when a home Olympics came, and get a gold medal. It was just incredible, in every way.’
Olympic glory brought a whole new level of fame: she was on a postage stamp, immortalised in wax at Madame Tussauds – The Beano even turned her into Ennis the Menace. If anything, the World Championships in Beijing in 2015 were even more of a fairytale – a triumphant comeback barely a year after giving birth, during which she’d battled severe sleep deprivation (Reggie would barely go an hour without waking) and been plagued by injury.
‘That was the toughest two years,’ she says. ‘Through injuries, through getting back to training, doubting myself…
‘My job is my body, and my body had changed completely. Then I had to come back and retrain it. It was the hardest thing I could ever imagine doing. So actually coming out and being at the top again, in such a short amount of time, was amazing.’
Is she enjoying being a dame at 31? ‘It’s quite surreal,’ she admits. ‘I’ve not really used it that much yet. I did change it on Twitter recently. I saw Mo [Farah] had! I’m definitely going to use it, but not all the time. I’m not going to make my family call me it!’
Ennis-Hill’s father Vinnie was born in Jamaica and met her mother, Alison, after moving to Yorkshire in the 1960s. For someone who arrived as an immigrant at the age of 12, seeing his daughter made a Dame of the British Empire must be quite something.
‘Both my mum and dad are so proud, and my grandparents,’ she says. ‘They still see me as that little skinny kid running around. They can’t believe their daughter’s a dame and an Olympic champion.’ She’s also been awarded the Freedom of the City of Sheffield. ‘I think I can walk sheep through the city or something,’ she laughs.
She hopes Reggie will read the Evie books when he’s a bit older but admits they’re ‘quite girly’. With an unusually petite frame for a heptathlete, Ennis-Hill has always insisted being a sporting superwoman is no barrier to being ‘feminine’ (‘I like getting dressed up and wearing high heels,’ she says). But what about those who caution against encouraging little girls to wear pink and fairy wings and read about unicorns?
‘It’s really hard,’ she says. ‘I take Reggie out with his little friend Charlotte, and she’s got a pink coat, he’s got a blue coat, and you try not to stereotype them, but you just do. Also, he just loves cars and diggers and Charlotte loves dolls and pushchairs. It’s just within them, isn’t it?’
When not devising new adventures for Evie (a further six books are planned), she still keeps fit, doing parkruns and 5ks (‘5k is a big distance for me!’). She’s comfortable, though, to leave her years of sporting glory behind.
‘When you’re in the mix of it and it’s all happening, you don’t really have much time to reflect on what’s happened – you’re always looking to the next competition, the next thing,’ she muses. ‘These last few months have been the first time I’ve actually been able to stop and look back at what I’ve achieved – the journey I’ve been on, and what it’s taken. And go, “Wow, this has been seriously incredible”.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 16, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend