Jess Ennis-Hill had her first hangover when she was 16. She had been out at a friend’s house, acting like any other teen. Someone spilt a drink, someone else tried to clean the stain with raw bleach. It was that kind of party.
When she woke the next day she pulled a pillow over her head to try to make the daylight go away. But she had to go and compete in a junior athletics meeting. She threw up once before she got into the car, and then again when she got out of it at the other end. Back then Ennis-Hill was nicknamed “The Reluctant Athlete”. This was the tipping point, the moment she decided to commit. “It was the day I decided that the sacrifice was worth it,” she wrote later. “I did not want to look back with regrets.”
On Thursday morning, Ennis‑Hill announced she was retiring from athletics. She is only 30, and performed brilliantly in Rio just two months ago. But she says she “wanted to leave my sport on a high”. And after a career in which she won an Olympic gold medal and an Olympic silver, two golds and a silver at the World Athletics Championships, and set the Commonwealth record in the heptathlon, she leaves, she says, with “no regrets”. Exactly as she always wanted it to be. And she has done it all in style: gracious, determined, down‑to‑earth. Most importantly, she has been conspicuously clean and never once given anyone any reason to suspect otherwise.
Before all the gold and silver medals, there was a cheap pair of trainers, the first prize Ennis-Hill won in an athletics competition. That was when she was 11 and her mother sent her along to a summer sport camp at the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield. She was a good runner but had such a short attention span that switching between different events suited her, so she started in the heptathlon. She says she was a “small and scraggy” girl, “paralysed by self‑consciousness”. She was being bullied at school because of her size. Success in sport helped her to start believing in herself. But she has never forgotten how she felt back then.
Ennis-Hill’s father, Vinnie, had done a little sprinting when he was a schoolboy in Jamaica. He moved to Britain when he was 12. Her mother, Alison, was a farmer’s daughter from Derbyshire with a wild streak. If Ennis‑Hill got her sporting genes from him, she learned her competitive instincts from her. As a mixed-race family, there were times when they faced racist abuse. Her father once confronted the parents of one girl who had insulted her at a junior meet. Ennis-Hill is proud of her heritage and talks fondly about the Jamaican food her father cooks, ackee and saltfish, curried goat and pig‑foot souse.
It was at Don Valley that Ennis-Hill first met her coach, Toni Minichiello, a great bear of a man, charismatic with it. They have been together ever since, and sometimes seem like an old married couple, always affectionate, often squabbling. “It’s a love-hate relationship,” Ennis-Hill wrote, “that has caused me more tears, pain, and ultimately joy than I could have ever dreaded or wished for.”
Minichiello pushed her hard. In 2005, it started to pay off. She won at the European Junior Championships in Lithuania. In 2007, she finished fourth at the world championships in Osaka, behind the great Carolina Kluft. During the lap of honour, Kluft put her arm around Ennis-Hill and told her “this will be you, one day”.
Kluft’s prediction came true but there were twists and turns first. Ennis‑Hill was among the favourites for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 but fractured her metatarsal two months before the Games began. The injury not only ended her Olympics but almost finished her career. She spent three months on crutches. Yet the following season she won gold at the Berlin world championships. That success brought its own set of problems. With London 2012 looming, Ennis‑Hill suddenly found she had been elevated to an entirely new level of celebrity. She was awarded an MBE, posed for photoshoots in Vogue and Marie Claire and a waxwork of her went up in Madame Tussauds. Journalists started camping outside her parents’ house.
As the pressure grew and the Games came closer, her form started to fall away. She finished second to Tatyana Chernova at the 2011 world championships in Daegu. All the while she and Minichiello insisted the only thing that mattered was how she did at the Olympics. When they finally came around she delivered the performance of her life, under the most intolerable pressure she had ever faced. She set personal bests in the 100m hurdles, 200m and javelin, and broke the Commonwealth record for the event. Hers was the first of the three gold medals Great Britain won in the Olympic Stadium during those unforgettable 46 minutes on Super Saturday.
More incredible still, Ennis-Hill then went again. She won gold at the 2015 world championships in Beijing and a silver in Rio this summer. All this after she missed the 2014 season because she was pregnant. The win in Beijing came just 13 months after the birth of her son. She had a new confidence now, proudly speaking out against dopers (after Chernova failed a test) and about body image. Back in 2006, when Ennis‑Hill competed at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, her team‑mate Kelly Sotherton nicknamed her “Tadpole”. Sotherton said at the time: “I had another English girl on my heels. I couldn’t let her beat me.” Ennis-Hill heard that, and learned from it. “I realised that you are never going to be at the top for ever,” she wrote, “so you had better enjoy your time there and be gracious about it.” She has been as good as her word. As she always has been.