The record books tell everything about the cliff face Jessica Ennis-Hill will have to climb when she begins the defence of her Olympic heptathlon title on Friday morning. No British track-and-field woman has won back-to-back Olympic titles. And only two in history have had a baby and retained an Olympic title over a four-year cycle: the Australian hurdler Shirley Strickland and the Cameroonian triple-jumper Françoise Mbango Etone. But, having defied the pressure she faced at London 2012, Ennis-Hill believes she can now defy history too.
“I am aware and I know how difficult it’s going to be,” she said. “I keep hearing all these little bits of stats flying around but I see it as a massive challenge for me. I feel like the odds are a little bit against me because it’s a huge thing to achieve but I’m relishing this opportunity to go out and see if I can do something really amazing at this stage in my career.”
When Ennis-Hill won the Olympic gold medal in London 2012 her focus was purely on herself. This time around she wants to retain her title for her two-year-old son, Reggie, who will be watching back home in Sheffield.
“He’s aware of everything now,” said Ennis-Hill, who put the finishing touches to her training in Spain rather than at the official training camp in Belo Horizonte to spend more time with her son. “He knows what mummy does, he tries to copy what I do. I would love my performances to be great out in Rio, to show him what his mum achieved just two years after he was born.
“It was so nice having him in Spain and coming down to the track and doing his little bit of hurdling alongside me. Every time I ran he was going: ‘Mummy: go, go, go.’”
Ennis-Hill also faces the challenge of her compatriot Katarina Johnson-Thompson and the Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who tops the world rankings. All three are such supremely talented athletes that the mental battle could make all the difference.
When Theisen-Eaton won pentathlon gold at the world indoors in March she admitted she struggled in highly pressured situations. Thompson-Johnson also faces questions about her ability to perform at key moments after her three foul jumps in the long jump cost her the chance of winning world heptathlon gold in Beijing last year. Ennis-Hill, though, is battle-hardened. “I do like to have the pressure that every athlete needs, that pressure to bring out that performance in themselves,” she says. “It’s quite a nice feeling, knowing that I am nervous and anxious.
“Mentally I’ve got to be really on it and 100% focused and stay confident and I’ve got to concentrate on knowing what I can achieve and not be distracted. And physically I’m going to have to be at the best I’ve been for the past few years because Kat’s coming into great form and her jumping has been brilliant.
“Brianne’s got the world lead and I would imagine she’s been able to build on that over the past few weeks of training. It is the Olympics. It’s going to be really tough. I’ve just got to hold everything together and know that I’ve done this before and that I can do it again.”
Thompson-Johnson has been watching videos of Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League final success, when they came back from 3-0 down at half-time to win on penalties, as she tries to complete a comeback of her own. “I always say that as a Liverpool fan I am eternally optimistic because of 2005,” she said. “I watched a video of it on YouTube a couple of weeks ago and it was inspiring.”
It helps that she is feeling better after a frustrating 2015 when she struggled with injuries. “I feel in a much better place than last year,” she says. “I spent all my time going into Beijing trying to get fit. This year I have had a clear run and I feel much better. I have that belief I can beat Jess. I just have to put myself in a good position.”
The first day of athletics competition will also feature the women’s 10,000m, where Jo Pavey will become the first British female track athlete to compete in five Olympic Games. “They’ve all been different,” said Pavey. “In Athens I battled against a calf injury right up until the end and I finished fifth and it was really difficult. I only went on the track about three weeks before.
“Beijing was frustrating because I was going really well but got food poisoning just before the race and then couldn’t compete in the 5K. And I remember back in 2005 finding out that London would host the Games in 2012 and thinking, ‘Oh, what a shame. I’ll probably be too old and retired.’ Never did I think I’d be going to the Olympics after that. It was an amazing experience. But in Rio I still want to try and be as competitive as I can.”