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Inside Jessica Ennis's battle for gold

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Tom Fordyce | 17:00 UK time, Monday, 29 August 2011

Daegu, Korea

If you found it tense watching on television as Jessica Ennis fought through the first day of her World heptathlon defence, it was nothing compared to the tortures being experienced inside the ropes.

Looking to get to the very heart of the drama, fascinated by the relationship between Ennis and coach Toni Minichiello and by what makes such a seemingly modest woman such a fearsome competitor, I have abandoned the media benches for a front-row seat at the biggest performance of Ennis's life so far.

We are perched on the yellow bleachers adjacent to the second high jump bed, the stadium sizzling in the late-morning sun. Around me sit the crack troops of Team Jennis - an agitated Minichiello, Neil Black, the GB team's head of sports science, and masseur Derry Suter.

Across the barriers is Britain's biggest female sports star, cap on, towel over her legs, easy to miss among the prowling, preening competition.

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Highlights - Ennis set to miss out on gold

She has just run 12.94 seconds in the 100m hurdles, clattering the second hurdle with her trail leg to finish 0.15 seconds outside her personal best. It's solid, but it could have been better. How does Minichiello feel at this point? He grimaces. "Sweaty."

"We need 1.89 metres here. If we get 1.91, 1.93, great - but this is where we open a gap. We need 1.89, minimum."

Ennis stands up and smooths a stray hair from her face. Minichiello is on his feet at exactly the same time, as if pulled upright by the same puppeteer.

The reigning champion has already cleared both 1.74m and 1.77m at the first attempt.

It's no surprise, just a start - in winning her World title two years ago she cleared 1.92m -so this first attempt 1.80m marks the start of the serious stuff.

Ennis likes to lead from the front, as she did in Berlin and Barcelona last summer. Keep clearing first time, pile the pressure on the others, push on as they crumble.

Not this time. She rushes the bar, clips it on her way through and rolls upright with her head in her hands.

Minichiello immediately begins the strange game of charades that will define the next hour. Coaches aren't allowed to communicate with their athletes through texts, tweets or calls to mobiles, and a gap of 10 metres separates the edge of the seating area from the advertising boards that mark the start of the track.

He is mouthing and shouting while simultaneously twisting his torso and making rotating movements with his hands. "TALL ROUND BEND! TALL ROUND LATTER STAGE OF BEND!"

Ennis stands with hand to ear, nods once and stalks away.

Athletes are queuing up on the curve like airplanes stacked in a holding pattern. The tension of a World Championships plays itself out in different ways.

American Hyleas Fountain, leading after the first event, goes through a bizarre ritual - tuck jump, heel flick, split jump, jog to her mark. The coach of Lithuania's Austra Skujyte stands motionless until his athlete jumps, whereupon he leaps in the air without any apparent awareness that he's doing it.

Minichiello stands up and then squats, hands on hips. He usually cuts an avuncular figure, but tension has transformed him. "She's drifting into the bar," he mutters, pulling at the brim of his white sunhat.

Ennis comes round on a curve from out left, flicks up her hips and heels and is over.

Coach puffs out his cheeks and then resumes the charades. This time he turns his upper body to the left.

"We've moved her run-up three foot-lengths back, but she's cramping the bar," he worries. "But maybe it's too far back - maybe she's over-striding..."

One moment he is all animation, the next jamming some headphones in his ears and falling silent. In the middle of a world final he is listening to Amy Macdonald.

"I'm easily distracted," he explains, suddenly serious, and then breaks the tension by fanning Derry and Neil with a towel.

How much information can a coach get across to their athlete? "A maximum of two thoughts. I try to take the emotion out of it when I'm speaking to her. Trust me - with Jess, it's 'do this'. You have to give her strict instructions, but you have to keep it succinct."

He looks a little dejected. "But you also just want to be as much help as possible."

When Ennis fails her first attempt at 1.83m her coach throws his towel to the ground.

Nataliya Dobrynska goes clear. Tatyana Chernova, expected to be a big danger, does the same.

Minichiello and Suter both wince. "That would have been her gone," says Suter wistfully.

Ennis responds with a big clearance. When she crashes straight through the bar on her second attempt at 1.86m Minichiello slumps down, pulls off his sunhat and buries his face in the towel.

The pressure is taking its toll. When the competition is held up by a heat of the 400m hurdles, there is an explosion of anger directed at the officials, a rant that would make Gordon Ramsey blush.

It is almost unbearably tense. GB head coach Charles van Commenee trots down the stadium steps and takes a seat 10 rows behind us. It is rather like having an exam invigilator peering over your shoulder as you take a key A-level. Minichiello glances back and moves a few seats further away.

Jess is sitting with legs outstretched on the track, a pensive look on her face. "She'll be watching the others, but she'll be more angry with herself," he tells me.

Ennis paces to her mark, glances over in our direction, focuses on the bar and slaps her hands on her backside. "Come on girl," murmurs Minichiello, "pull it out of the bag..."

A step back, an acceleration round the curve and the few thousand left in the stadium are on their feet. Derry is clapping me on the back. "This girl can compete!" he yells delightedly. "She just said to herself, I WILL clear this!"

Van Commenee jogs down the steps to Black. "That was make or break!" he exclaims in his comedy Dutch accent, aims a high-five and misses badly.

The rollercoaster ride goes on. Fountain comes in for what would be a season's best of 1.89m. "Please don't clear it," comes the groan from my right. The groan gets louder.

Ennis fails her first attempt at 1.89m, and then her second by the tiniest brush of her legs. "ARGH! You..." The swearwords tumble out of Minichiello's mouth. When Ennis nudges the bar again to end her competition, they come again in Technicolor.

He looks at me, shoulders slumped. "She'll be furious. We'll have to win this in a slightly different way."

Ennis stalks away down the steps into the bowels of the stadium, gesturing for Black and Suter to follow.

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Tom Fordyce gets exclusive access to Ennis' training camp

Later I will find out that she spends the afternoon beset by self-doubt, telling the team that it's not happening for her, that she doesn't feel right, that she can't possibly win.

Five hours later, bounding out of the shot put circle, she is a different woman.

Not for nothing do athletics insiders compare her fighting spirit to that of Daley Thompson, the greatest multi-eventer Britain has ever produced.

Bang up against it, rivals clambering all over her, Ennis has produced a massive personal best with her very first attempt - 14.67m, more than half a metre than she managed in winning European gold last summer.

Team Jennis is alive again; "60s are lovely numbers," chortles Minichiello. Derry throws me a high-five and hits. Phillips Idowu's coach Aston Moore walks over and offers all present his congratulations.

An hour on, Ennis will win her 200m heat in 23.27 seconds, the best time of the day, just off another PB but worth much more into such a stiff headwind. As she leaves the track I see her smile in our direction for the first time all day.

On Tuesday she will have to produce even more. Chernova is lurking menacingly on her shoulder and looks in the form of her life, with several wise old heads telling me the Russian should actually be considered favourite.

You write Ennis off if you like. Her team won't.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Ennis will win, she seems to be coping with all the pressure. I cannot say the same about Ortis Deley the CH4 presenter he seems embarrassed half the time and ill at ease. I pray the BBC get the rights for future Championships back, endless cutting to commercials dispelling any the pre-race tension and Micheal Johnson seems to be ruing joining up with the CH4 coverage. I almost want to say bring back Sally Gunnell she asked more intelligent questions.

  • Comment number 2.

    Ennis should win but hopefully she won't be on the programme cover - am starting to believe in the 'curse of the cover'!! Congrats to Andy Turner though - great result for him.

    Agree with previous comment re; Channel 4 coverage - commentators are good (Dean Macey and Katherine Merry are informative etc.) - Michael Johnson must be wishing for the BBC studio - Ortis Deley seems to be struggling.

  • Comment number 3.

    Have only seen bits of Ch4 coverage. watched some on Eurosport as well but no.1 surely nobody can be that bad that you would even consider Sally Gunnell?? :)

  • Comment number 4.

    Have to agree - Ortis should stick to `gadgets' . Merry has had sone practice at live events and s has improved massively as a commentator - she used to be monotone and dull but is pretty good now.
    I love the interviews after the race with Ch4 though- straight to the point - will you win - will you - go on now you will. With BBC they were too polite to put that to an athlete - the gold medal question was always the the elephant in the corner.
    I hate the constant over analysis of BBC coverage - lets chat for 40 mins and show a 10 second race - but I'd welcome it back over the constant ad breaks.
    P.s. eurosport and c4 rarely have breaks at the same time so with a little channel hopping you can avoid them most of the time.

  • Comment number 5.

    Even C4's coverage is preferable to the talking heads of the BBC, chattering away while live action goes on behind them. C4's results is second to none, far superior to the IAAF's website which takes ages to update. Ortis though is a disaster.

  • Comment number 6.

    no doubt that she will win and become poster girl for London 2012...as for C4 coverage...tuned in to watch and main presenter (sat with Michael Johnson one of the worlds greatest atheletes) and the presenter got names wrong for commentry for next race and even admitted I don't now these people...god for bid they get any more athletics coverage...I returned to five Live etc where they know thier athletes etc..MJ leave C4

  • Comment number 7.

    Actually I think there is a big doubt that Jess will win this, that 150 point lead is rather misleading given that Chernova can long jump 6.80 and throw the Javellin 50m plus this could go down to the last 100m of the 800 and their PB's are really close in that one. I hope it is close, everyone loves Jess she's great for the sport but I'm glad that Chernove and Fountain in the early part of the event have stepped it up. Good for the sport.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great blog Tom.

    It will definitely go down to the wire tomorrow. Chernova has been inconsistent up until now but she is putting together a good series here. Chernova has a much better 2nd day on paper but Jess' throws have really improved over the years and the fact she has already set a shot put PB augurs well for the Javelin. The Long Jump could be a key event. I have always felt that Jess is capable of much more there. I know she changed her take off leg after her injury but this is now her 3rd season since doing that and you really feel a 6.60 jump is in her, tomorrow would certainly be a good time to pull it out.

    If it comes down to the 800 though my money is definitely on Jess then.

  • Comment number 9.

    very close- chernova on stats is slight favourite - but they used to say that about Hingsen etc. when up against Daley...fingers crossed.

  • Comment number 10.

    Great insight into what's going on out there. Well written and hugely interesting. Thanks

  • Comment number 11.

    "Tom Fordyce watches British favourite fights for world crown"

    Er...

  • Comment number 12.

    Well done Channel 4, the coverage has been brilliant. The BBC are hellbent on paying crazy money for lowlights of the procession that is the boring premier league. Utter madness.

  • Comment number 13.

    It's great to see someone with such a fighting spirit. I'm too young to remember Daley but all that I've heard about him seems to be present in Jess as well - the PB in the 1st round of the shot was the mark of a true champion.

    A couple more PBs tomorrow would be welcome, if it comes down to the 800m then surely it's Ennis' to lose.

    Also good to see Louise Hazel putting in a good performance as well, PBs are all you can ask of an athlete.

    http://thebigblogofsport.wordpress.com

  • Comment number 14.

    Actually Chernova has a better PB over 800m then Jess! Still think it will come down to that last race. Can't wait one thing in favour of Jess is that she has been a champion before and Chernova has not (not senior level). Tatyana has been inconsistent in the past but she looks a new athlete now

  • Comment number 15.

    This is one of the most compelling pieces I've read on the BBC website. Tremendous. A real insight. Thanks Tom

  • Comment number 16.

    Jess had an air of quiet confidence after the 200m. I predict it will be close, but this girl does not give up, and she'll win the 800m to win the competition by a small margin.

    For me the C4 coverage has been an absolute disaster. The commercial breaks are horrendously timed - in the 100m heats, as soon as a heat was over, it was cut to inane and pointless adverts for a good 5 minutes, only to cut back to the action in time to see the competitors crouching down in the set position for the next race - no line up, no introduction of even the big stars, let alone the national champion of say, Nepal. These ill-timed breaks have evened interupted interviews with the competitors themselves and even stopped Michael Johnson and Seb Coe in mid-flow regarding the false-start issue. Alas we never found out what they had on their mind.

    Ortis Deley is a lovely bloke, but hideously out of his depth. Wasn't Steve Rider or Jim Rosenthal available? What about rolling old Des out?

    Merry is still monotone and actually rather dull. John Rawling proves why he never made it to the BBC TV commentary box. Only Iwan Thomas, Dean Macey and Rob Walker are passable, but not outstanding.

  • Comment number 17.

    "You write Ennis off if you like."
    Who is writing Ennis off Tom? Get down off your soapbox, she's not just your goldengirl old bean-bag!

  • Comment number 18.

    You let in too much of emotion to block out objectivity. Nevertheless its your own heart to fiddle with.

  • Comment number 19.

    Ennis will only get silver. There is no way at all she wil win by 9 seconds over her nearest rival in the 800 m. Still, let's hope she can improve for the Olympics and win gold.

    I know the coverage is not on the bbc but how on god's earth Channel 4 got the coverage i will never know. The worst coverage of a major sporting event on any channel i have EVER witnessed. Seb Coe was on there yesterday and quite frankly looked embarrassed. I'm sat here all morning wanting to watch Ennis and there is NO coverage whatsoever, instead they're showing repeats of Frasier. How can this be the case? How an this be good for the profile of Athletics leading up to the Olympics? Shocking. There is only Michael Johnson keeping it together and quite frankly he looks like he's ready to jump any minute. Simply atrocious coverage and right now they should just hand it back to the BBC and say, there you go, it's yours. Where is the coverage? I saw none of the mens walking, none of the womens 3000m steeplechase, the last 100 metres of 400 metres men's heats. How are they even allowed to get away with this? So please, can anyone tell me where i can watch it apart from Channel 4? There must be somewhere i can watch it when they are not showing it live? We've missed all of the heptathlon and all we will see is the 800m? Is this right or am i missing it on another channel or something?

  • Comment number 20.

    The coverage from C4 has been very bad, find myself cringing at the presenters. Also watching the pole vault, last two competitors, last jump each for the Gold and they stop transmission? how inconsiderate.

  • Comment number 21.

    Please, BBC, get the athletics rights back. C4 is dire!

  • Comment number 22.

    Chief Sports Writer Tom??? Wowza....

    Following GB athletics is like following ladies british tennis, a never ending conveyor belt of gallant failures. Ennis will get silver

  • Comment number 23.

    Personally I have no worries about Ennis not winning gold at this Worlds. It will mean that she will not have the pressure of being World Champion as she prepares for next years Olympics. Yes she may want the title but if it will add to peoples expectations then I feel it could be detrimental to her success in 2012.

    The people around her need to be more selective about how she is being used outside competition so she can have a life and relax when not training or competing. At present virtually every newspaper, magazine and programme even mildly referring to next year seems to be carrying a picture of her. I'm not talking about pictures of her competing, I am talking about portrait type shoots which from past experience I am guessing are sponsors requirements. How sad that in their drive to get publicity for themselves they may actually be harming the chances of their "billboard"

    In an interview I read a few days ago she said she doesn't read things about herself and races. She can't though avoid all the other coverage. Most telling was that she said she doesn't mind missing the opening ceremony as they are athletes and going to do a job.

    I suggest the sponsors let her get on with doing a job she does very well and reap the benefits from being associated with her when she is successful so helping to take the pressure off her now.

    Or are they not interested in her as a person ?

  • Comment number 24.

    I'm actually not too disappointed that Jess Ennis will seemingly get silver and not the gold that was predicted. It will take some pressure off her before next year's Olympics as Commenesch and many of the British Press where already counting the golds we are going to win (Farah, Ennis etc.) This hepthalon is a VERY competitive event and of course the Russians were going to find an athlete from somewhere who would challenge Jess now and next year. The Russian must now be the favourite for the Olympic gold and this will suit Jessica very well I think, but have no doubt she is a gutsy little athlete and she will work very hard to improve as well.
    Better to have a poor javelin this time than next year!

  • Comment number 25.

    Cowboy martin: I'm watching on British Europsort which is actually quite good and they showed all the throws in the javelin this morning which was excellent.
    Their commentators seem a little out of touch in some instances - example: They maintained that Robeles was unlucky to be disqualified in the high hurdles when in fact the replays showed he was clearly pulling back the Chinese athlete by the arm. Blatant cheating. And of course the Chinese guy would have won but he almost slowed to a stop and the American Richardson passed him.

  • Comment number 26.

    Post 23 & 24 I agree with both of you. It may well be best if Ennis doesn't win the gold as the expectation would run away with itself before London.

    I agree that she is already being over exposed to publicity and sponsorship. This has to have an impact on her training. My fear is that "team Ennis" have decided to cash in on the two years up to the Olympics rather than concentrate on winning gold in London and making the fortune after the Olympics.

    She might be very well adviced to listen to the following interview from Rebecca Adlington on the pressure of competing under expectations. Adlington seemed to struggle with the pressure post Beijing and the demands to be all things to all people but has appeared to come back stronger this year.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8920000/8920646.stm

    For some reason I would take a bet on Adlington being more likely to win gold next year than Ennis.

  • Comment number 27.

    Watching Tuesday morning CH4 Athletics, Ortis Deley has gone to be replaced with a guy who has to read everything from a clipboard. the great MJ trying to do links and stumbling along. Can CH4 be anymore amateurish with their presentation. Also CH4 talking that Ennis can still win by over 8 secs and take the gold if she does all credit but I will eat my hat. Lol just seen interviewer say to british 400m hurdler, oh just heard u didnt make it "DRAT" what do you have to say, talk about kicking someone when they are down.

  • Comment number 28.

    Just seen Shakes-Dreayton go out by 0.01 of a second by not running through the line and easing off rather than dipping over the line.

    Surely if you are going for a fastest loser time spot you run through the line and dip. Or isn't this taught anymore?

    Can't wait to see what Michael Johnson thinks of that.

  • Comment number 29.

    Oh and Channel 4 have gone to the news and two commercial breaks ten minutes prior to what many people in the UK would consider the key moments of the athletics from a UK perspective.

    They have had all morning to have a news update.

  • Comment number 30.

    Shame for Jessica, but hanging a gold medal around somebody’s neck before they have even competed puts tremendous pressure on an athlete, especially in a multi-event competition, where just one bad result can scupper her medal hopes.

    It is noticeable that the her competitors have raised the bar, with Jessica surprisingly finishing second in the 100m hurdles, despite running a very fast 12.94. She was also pushed in the 200m, which was surprising, as she is a very talented sprinter. Her Achilles heel has always been her javelin, and her competitors have taken advantage of that.

    The event moves on, and Jessica will have to be on top form to take the gold medal in London. I have no doubt that she can recover. It could reduce the enormous pressure on her next year, which may be an advantage to her, as public expectation will be lowered, and she will be extremely self-motivated to return to gold medal form.

    It shows how tough it is to win gold medals in world championships, and listening to all these arm-chair athletes and tabloids handing it over to her on a plate was always risky, as any athlete knows.

    I also have a gut-feeling that Phillips Idowu will fail in his quest for gold. You never know at a championships who will raise their game, and he failed to impress at his last outing, despite his greatest threat, Teddy Tamgho, out with injury.

  • Comment number 31.

    hahahaha

    Only in England would anyone say it might be a good thing that she has not won the Gold - because it might put pressure on her next year???! How about putting pressure on the rest of the field because they know that she is unbeatable????

    My goodness - what would an Australian make of these posts?? Laughable.

    Talk about "giving her the medal before the event"! this is what we did with both Mo and Jessica before the worlds.... and they have both disappointed but please less of this ridiculous chat that her loss of form (read "bottle") on the big stage is in any way a good thing.

    Farah, Ennis, Ohurogou... if I cared more about athletics Id be very upset but I don't - GB is rubbish at this and we should all just enjoy the show without expecting too much.

    Or, if they win a gold - we give them the Knighthood right??

    Anyone hear much of Chris Hoy recently??

    Most shameful Knighthood ever - success at one olympics and there you go... makes an absolute mockery of... well... life, to be honest.

  • Comment number 32.

    Well at least she ran a personal best, but commentators saying she has to run 2.01 or 2.02 and she will win, that would be only 7 secs better than her lifetime, the winner was never going to finish more than 2 seconds behind. Now she has to go away and sort her Javelin out, I think i remember Denise Lewis always struggling to throw the Javelin.

    Just hope Mo Farah can do well in the 500om he deserves it, true talent, made me remember the greats of Cram,Coe and Ovett etc.

  • Comment number 33.

    Everyone seems to forget that Chernova is also young so may well improve over the next twelve months.

    At the end of the 800 metres you really saw how small Ennis is compared to many of the other girls. Chernova was head and shoulders taller than Ennis and those long levers must help her in some of the events.

    Ennis was probably a tenth down in the 100 metres hurdles, 6 cm down on the high jump and these few extra points could have made a huge difference before the javelin.

    With less pressure Ennis could and should have thrown 42 metres in round one. It was impossible to see from the Channel 4 performance but did Chernova throw before or after Ennis?

    At the end of the day Chernova scored nearly 6,900 points. It is likely if Chernova is fully fit that Ennis may need close to 7,000 points to win gold next year.

    100 points could and should come from the javelin if she throws consistently but where are the other 120 to 150 points going to come from?

  • Comment number 34.

    To win gold next year I can see Ennis having to run 12.80 in the 100 metres, jump 1.92 in the high jump, throw 14.75m in the shot and run sub 23 seconds in the 200 metres.

    Add a 6.50 plus long jump, 45 metres in the javelin and then 2.05 in the 800 metres.

    Anyone else have any thoughts?

  • Comment number 35.

    Post 31, TeniPurist,

    "Anyone hear much of Chris Hoy recently??

    Most shameful Knighthood ever - success at one olympics and there you go... makes an absolute mockery of... well... life, to be honest."

    -----------------------------------------------------------

    Success at just one Olympic's? You'll find he's also won Gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, not to mention numerous World and Commonwealth medals. If you're going to make sensationalist statements, at least read and research a little. He was the wrong side of 30 when the 2008 games took place, so you could arguably say his best days are now behind him, but his contribuition to sprint cycling in the UK is undoubted.

    With regards to Ennis, this "disappointment" in only gaining a silver medal, should help drive her on throughout the gruelling 12 months and winter training to come in the run up to the games next year. Her Javelin has always been her achilles heel and this weakness has been exposed once again on the biggest stage, but Chernova put in some very good performances throughout and especially today. If Jess can work on her technique a little more on this event and get as close to 50 metres as possible, she'll be very difficult to beat in future.

  • Comment number 36.

    I really enjoyed the event. The other girls put Jess under pressure and she did not handle it quite as well as I thought she would be able to. Her first two events are key and she made errors/underperformed when Fountain put some pressure on her.
    Then when Chernova put more pressure on in the Javelin, she cracked again.
    Chernova's final total is 6880 the best since Kluft got over 7000 points in Osaka, I think to win the Olympics Jess will need to break the British record. But I think that Chernova can get better, she is so tall that surely she can do better then 1.83 in the high jump.
    I don't get the lack of pressure angle you want to win the world champs before the Olympics because of the confience boost that gives you and the message that sends out. If Jess had won it would have reinforced that "I can win from the front" message to her rivals. Instead Chernova has told Ennis that "I can peg you back on the second day and beat you even from 150 points down.

 

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