Jessica Ennis-Hill left ‘totally broken’ after biggest challenges of her life

If there is anyone who could survive lockdown, it’s Jessica Ennis-Hill.

Or to give her the full title, one she’s far too modest to be known by: Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill.

‘I’m used to having a very structured, regimented life,’ she says, talking from the Sheffield home she shares with her husband Andy – a construction site-planner she’s been with since her teens – and their children.

Because, of course, 34-year-old Jessica is one of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced.

And the Olympic and World Champion heptathlete spent over 20 years dedicated to training to be the very best.

‘Every day you’d go to the track. Everything was focused on winning. Though it’s very different now that kids are thrown into the equation!’ she says of five-year-old Reggie and two-year-old Olivia (Liv).

Born and raised in Sheffield to Vinnie, a painter and decorator, and Alison, a social worker, Jessica’s early promise was spotted at an athletics camp at 13 years old, by Toni Minichiello, who would go on to be her coach throughout her career.

One that would see her claim gold at the 2009 World Championships and again at the London 2012 Olympics.

The entire world was gripped when she climbed the podium on ‘Super Saturday’, which marked Team GB’s best Olympics performance in 104 years, with Jess being one of three gold medal winners that day.

But, in fact, that wasn’t actually her proudest moment. That came when she claimed silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics, only two years after giving birth to Reggie.

Warm, open and astonishingly grounded – something she puts down to keeping her feet firmly in her hometown roots – Jessica explains how motherhood altered everything for her.

‘Before I had Reggie, I didn’t have any idea how I would feel – how I would be physically and mentally. Up until that point in my life I was very driven and single-minded.

'Everything was about me and my performances – whatever was going to get me onto that podium. It was the same for everyone around me. It was all about me winning medals.'

‘But when Reggie came along, it changed in an instant. All I thought is that I have to be the best mum in the world and make sure he has everything he needs.'

'I had that constant battle of guilt – should I go and train or should I be with him? It was a really strange time, but equally the best time because Reggie motivated me in a way that I’d never been motivated before. It all became about achieving for him. I’d go down to the track for short, sharp quality sessions and then back to him. I made it work.’

Did she not think of retiring at that point?

‘I still wanted to compete, I still had in my mind that I wanted to do two more years, to get in one more Olympics. I did wonder about what would happen if I got injured and what a massive waste of time and sacrifice that would be, but I kept going.'

'And going on to win another World Championships [in 2015] and then the silver in Rio, on my own terms, was the highlight of my whole career.’

On the subject of injuries, Jessica says she’s been luckier than most. That’s not to say she hasn’t battled them, though. Particularly after Reggie’s birth.

‘I remember driving back from Leeds after having a scan on my Achilles which I’d torn, knowing that I was going to have to rest again and find another pathway back to full fitness. I cried and cried. It was such a huge frustration.'

'But you have those moments when you feel totally broken because of disappointments and setbacks. You just have to refocus yourself, put things into perspective and keep going.’

When Jessica did finally retire from athletics four years ago she hadn’t even thought about what her future would hold.

‘People kept asking me, but I was so used to being focused on the moment, I had no idea.

'My coach and the rest of my team wanted me to go on a bit longer, and I probably could have carried on competing, but I just didn’t have the same drive. I wasn’t inspired the way I used to be. And if it’s not in your head, it’s not going to happen.

'Don’t get me wrong, being in the best shape of your life and finishing first is an incredible feeling. But I know what it takes to get there, and I felt I’d done that.

‘And I certainly couldn’t do it again with two children. I love being a mum – doing the school run with Reggie and watching Liv develop. I’m quite happy to watch everyone else do the athletics bit now.’

When Jessica chats with such clarity and determination, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she’s some kind of superwoman. Far from it, she claims. In fact, get her onto the subject of her children, and she’s hilariously frank.

‘Andy has had to go into the office for a couple of days, leaving me alone with them! Trying to keep them entertained is a nightmare.

‘Just before lockdown we all went out for lunch to a little cafe. As long as Reggie has a pepperoni pizza, he’s happy.

'But I looked round to see that Liv, who isn’t potty-trained yet, had basically pulled down her nappy and was baring her bum in the window declaring she needed a poo… I have never moved so fast in my life.’

And that’s saying something in Jessica’s case.

‘Liv has actually turned into a little diva in recent weeks. She and Reggie used to get on so well, but now she causes fights with him and he keeps asking when she’s going back to nursery!’

Meanwhile, if you imagine that Jessica is still the queen of disciplined exercise, you’d also be mistaken. Although she launched a very successful ‘at home’ fitness app last year – Jennis – she, like the rest of us, still struggles occasionally when it comes to working out in her garage during lockdown.

‘I definitely have trouble at times, when I don’t want to do it. But I try to remind myself about how good I’m going to feel at the end. It’s about that headspace – clearing your mind – and the endorphins it releases. But it isn’t always easy, even if you’ve been doing it for most of your life like me.'

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