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Secrets of the golden girl's success

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Tom Fordyce | 21:14 UK time, Saturday, 31 July 2010

On a balmy summer's night in Barcelona, Britain's Jessica Ennis stormed to European heptathlon gold with a stunning series of performances in the Estadio Olympico.

With the world title already to her name after her golden display in Berlin a year ago, Ennis has confirmed her place as the preeminent heptathlete on the planet. But what are the factors that have led to her domination, and what sets her apart from her rivals?

"She loves competing and has a steely determination," explains 1998 European champion Denise Lewis, whose British record Ennis came within eight points of on Saturday. "She relishes the sort of battle she had here in Spain.

"With this sport, there has to be a love of driving yourself forward and pushing your personal boundaries, exceeding what you think is possible - that's the beauty and secret of heptathlon. In every single event you're trying to deliver your maximum, and Jess absolutely relishes that.

"For a 24-year-old, she has rock-solid mental strength. Over the two days of competition, you have to keep this consistent feeling of patience and focus. You have to stay in the now. I know that's a phrase we use a lot, but it's so true in heptathlon.

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Watch Ennis win the 800m to secure heptathlon gold (UK users only)

"The start of the second day is a difficult time - you have to convince yourself that you feel fresh. In long jump you need both the speed down the runway and accuracy on the board, and those are hard, hard combinations to find when you're tired. Her mental fortitude comes through at times like that."

Ennis produced a personal best of 46.71m in the javelin early on Saturday evening, just as she was coming under serious pressure from Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska. It was the culmination of hundreds of tough training sessions with former world bronze medallist Mick Hill in Leeds.

"The beauty with Jess is that she doesn't have a major howler of an event," says Lewis, Olympic champion in 2000. "At worst they're a work in progress.

"I remember with Eunice Barber, when she used to come into the shot put after two very strong events, her whole demeanour and body language used to alter because she just wasn't looking forward to it. She used to barely do a warm-up, because she didn't want anyone to see how bad she was as a thrower.

"As a competitor you feed off that. I used to think, I'm going to nail you in this event, because I can see that you're just not up to it. Jess will never be in that situation."

At Ennis's side on the warm-up track and in constant communication from the stands was her coach Toni Minichiello. The relationship between the two, both in training at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and at major championships, is fundamental to her success,

"There has to be complete implicit trust between coach and athlete. At any championships, if you don't trust the information you're getting, there will be seeds of doubt in your mind.

"Toni has seen the changes in Jess, from the little girl he used to coach to a mature woman. She understands her own mind and what she wants from the sport, and although he is naturally very protective of her, he gives her room to grow."

It was a world-class field at the Europeans. Of the best heptathles of the current era, only Hyleas Fountain of the USA was not in Barcelona.

"Jess understands the strengths and weaknesses of her competitors, and more importantly she understands what she has to do to beat them," says Lewis.

"She's still learning her trade and building every year. This year she's been working on her throws and long jumping in particular, and at the end of the season she'll go away and assess her goals for next year. Even without the British record this year or European record next year, she is gearing towards something special. She knows she has the tools in her armoury, and that's what will drive her forward."

With 250 metres to go in the 800m, Dobrynska surged past Ennis. Had she held a gap of 1.2 seconds, she would have stolen gold. But Ennis fought back immediately and kicked again off the top bend to stamp out the danger.

"She displays real courage when up against it," says Lewis. "It was the same when she was down in the shot put - it was particularly hard for her not to panic when she saw Dobrynska open up with a 15.88m throw. That could have really unnerved her.

"She was disappointed with her second round throw, and I worried that she would sink, that her confidence would drop - her body language was distressed. But she regained her composure, thought about what she had to do technically and competitively and came up with over 14m."

"She also learns a lot from all her competitions. I think we all underestimated her opponents coming into this, and we probably overestimated the ease with which she'd come through the competition. She had to fight.

"You don't choose to do heptathlon unless you've got something special about you, and Jess is the classic example of that."

Ennis's gold appeared difficult to surpass. But on another splendid night for British athletics, Mo Farah's wonderful front-running display matched it perfectly.

Four years ago Spain's Jesus Espana out-sprinted Farah to 5,000m gold. We wondered if there would be anything left in the Briton's locker after his 10,000m triumph four days ago. As one wag remarked in the build-up, it's not easy taking on both a deity and a country.

Oh us of little faith. Farah was imperious, snatching the initiative with three laps to go and never looking like letting go, even when Espana and the partisan crowd were piling the pressure on his lean shoulders coming off the top bend.

In the long illustrious history of British distance running, no man has ever achieved the 5-10 double at a Europeans. Farah was in tears as he crossed the line. In the BBC commentary box, Paula Radcliffe - European 10,000m champion herself eight years ago - almost matched him tear for tear.

The gold rush didn't end there. Dai Greene had come into the 400m hurdles final as hot favourite for gold, and he made the event they call 'the man-killer' look as easy as a stroll in the park.

In the same stadium that Kris Akabusi set the British record 18 years ago, Greene's personal best of 48.12 secs put him joint second on the all-time British list with the legendary David Hemery. On his heels, making it a happy one-two for Wales and coach Malcolm Arnold, Rhys Williams also knocked a large chunk of his PB. It's become something of a British habit this week.

"It was like nothing I have ever experienced it before," said Greene afterwards, with wonderment in his eyes. "I knew I was in PB shape but it's a different thing delivering on the day. There's no better feeling - I couldn't hold back the emotions as I crossed the line."

Greene's triumph means it is now six golds for Britain at these championships, enough to put them second in the medal table. Add in Michael Rimmer's battling silver and the team have a total of 16 medals overall, exceeding head coach Charles van Commenee's pre-championship target with the final day still to come.

The Dutchman is not known as an excitable sort. This weekend, that may be about to change.


  • Comment number 1.

    What a day. Great to see a generation of athletes building for London. A pity about the relay squads but we know what is needed there: practice, practice, practice.

    What cannot believe is the people on 606 getting down on the squad earlier in the day. I am old enough to remember the likes of Ron Pickering talking about the plucky British lad/lass giving it his/her all and coming in er, 15th. YOu young uns don't know you're born!

  • Comment number 2.

    Someone asked me who the two 1,500m runners are who were banned, and who will race against Lisa Dobrinskey on Sunday.
    One is Hind DEHIBA of France (ex-Morocco) who served a 2 years ban. The other is the Russian Anna ALMINOVA who served a 3-month ban for taking something supposedly in a cough mixture which contained an illegal substance!

  • Comment number 3.

    Denise Lewis is correct. Practically every so-called 'expert' said that this would be in a stroll in the park for Jessica Ennis. They completely disregarded the ability of the other girls. It was just like all she had to do was to turn up and the gold medal was hers. Perhaps now they will be a little more circumspect when dismissing the challenge to Jessica in the World Championships next year and the Olympics in 2012.
    It was great to see Jessica respond in the way that she did and to show she is a fighter as well as a very competent athlete. But in this event there will always be dangers ahead, much in the same way that she herself came through to take the gold last year at the Worlds when she was not favourite to do so. The USA have a very good heptathlete coming through and Dobrynska was fitter this time than ever before and no doubt will train even harder, trying to beat Jessica. But she also will improve so there will be some exciting battles ahead.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great win by Jess Ennis in the 800m for heptathlon Gold. Dobrynska pushed her all the way, but Jess found the extra gear to win. Good to see the Ukranian gracious in defeat too and be the first to congratulate her rival.

    Great World Class run by Dai Green, held of his training partner for a new PB and become European champion.

    Great to see competitive Brits/Welsh run under 49 secs in a championship.
    Dai runs under 48secs this year or next year, he will be an elite athlete who'll get medals in the Worlds/Olympics in the future.

    All hail King Mo. Great distance running by Farah.

    Best in Europe, now time to challenge the World.

    Watch out, Bekele!

    Great days Athletics today, can't wait for tommorow.

  • Comment number 5.

    Gosh, what a lattice! I do not know much about Jessica but she looks every inch a winning muscle.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi, I apologise for being a little negative, but with all thse medals that the British team have won, isn't there something missing? Like really competion, no USA, China etc. I am sure the team has done very well, but let us wait to count the medals after the next Olympics shall we?

  • Comment number 7.

    I have been watching UK athletics since I was six years old at the time of the Tokyo Olympics; it thrilled me as a small child and tonight seeing Jess Ennis, Mo Farah and Dai Green and Rhys Williams, the thrill was still there and more. What joy to see all those hard years of training finally pay off. To see people perform and really give it their all, it bought tears to my eyes. Wonderful stuff.Hang on in there Michael Rimmer, you can do it! Well done all of you.

  • Comment number 8.

    It was a great night of athletics and let us not forget the Women's Marathon Bronze - this is a great addition to the marathon competition and our 6 ladies did really well.

  • Comment number 9.

    Yes it's great news for all those British athletes BUT, you really can't get too carried away! This is just a European competition - ie half the world are not there! There were also some pretty dismal British performances in the relays.
    The Olympics is a different ball game.
    A gold at the European may not even get a medal in the Olympics don't forget!
    As usual, the media are hyping this up into some kind of spectacle.
    The problem is that British athletics is hardly the cream of the world and when the rest of the world turns up, we'll really see where we stand!
    Certain sports have already proved themselves on the world stage - particularly rowing - athletics still has a long way to go!

  • Comment number 10.

    Scott Holland - These are the European Championships hence the absence of the U.S., China, Africans etc. but nevertheless you cannot discount the quality of some of the golds and in the field events it is simply a case of checking distances (long jump, triple jump, discus, shot etc) and see how they compare overall.
    Of course Mo Farrah would find it a much bigger challenge in 5,000 and 10,000m when the Africans come into the reckoning and he has yet to go under 30' for the 10,000. But Jessica Ennis BEAT the reigning Olympic champion so that in itself says all you need to know about her gold.
    In some ways the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi will provide a sterner challenge in some athletic events (5,000, 10,000, Marathon) but again not so in others.
    But you can't dismiss the fact that the British atheletes beat the Russians in many many events this time and that is a magnificent achievement and must have shocked the Russians.
    Another factor: Since more stringent drug testing was introduced the spectacular times and performances that we always experienced have virtually disappeared and more modest but realistic results are now being recorded. Accordingly several of the 'world records' must be questioned as they were made back in the bad old days of athletics.
    Any 'world record' still held by an East German would fall into this category.

  • Comment number 11.

    Generations come, generations go. Denise Lewis gave us great memories and now Jess Ennis does the same. This example of the fantastic British success is all the more remarkable when you consider that athletics is something of a "poor relation" in the British scheme of things, not even one really decent large capacity athletics stadium in the whole country. Well done to all the British men and women, and indeed to all the wonderful athletes who have given there all.

  • Comment number 12.

    Fingers crossed for Lee Merrien in todays Marathon. Awesome run in the London Marathon and he hopes to improve on that today so good luck chap from all in Guernsey.

  • Comment number 13.

    'You can only beat who is put in front of you' goes the old saying.
    OK, it's obvious that, due to the non-participation of the USA, and some African and Asian nations, some of the events were no where near as strong as they would be at a World Championships / Olympics, but, on the other hand, many of the field events were as competitive as they could ever be.

    Yes, it's easy to get carried away with the hype, but it's also just as easy to dismiss what many of the athletes did as being, somehow, second rate.

    I'm certain that in their own minds they will know how much of a step-up the Olympics will be, and for each of them that will be different, and they will have to perform that much better.

    However, let's not forget, it's no mean feat to be called 'The best' - or second or third best - in Europe.

  • Comment number 14.

    The secret can be found in her brain, most notably the development of her orbitofrontal cortex and also in the love and nurture of her parents which contributes to the early development of this brain area in early years.

  • Comment number 15.

    jessica is hard worker for country and her familys, i saw all the events
    she always so happy smile proud, very high moral exiting for any event.please jessica keep yours self same personalty and focus to 2010, see you 2010. god blese you and your families. mr govinda

  • Comment number 16.

    The thing about competing in the heptathlon is that no-one can stop you doing your own thing, unless they gang up on you to block you in the 800m. Which if you're fast away, they can't do.

    So if you do the training and possess the talent, it's solely down to you. Sure, you must beat the rest, but if you set the targets and produce, you'll do that anyway.

    It's a totally different type of competition to contact sports, where destruction of other's efforts is part of the game. Or something like tennis, where your opponent's aces can stop you dead without you being able to do anything about it. In athletics, it's down to you. And there's nowhere to hide, no-one to blame but yourself if you don't perform.

    It wasn't hard to predict that Ennis would win, as she showed no weakness at all. One of her competitors did better than expected, but that's all.

    Good thing is: she's healthy and young enough to build from this.

  • Comment number 17.

    It's great to see commenters who are supportive of the athletes and realise just how much talent and, particularly, commitment, it takes to get to European standard.

    It's also no surprise to see the nay-sayers, surely all armchair athletes, who aren't impressed, but need to be reminded just how much of an achievement it is for some people just to be the best thrower or sprinter in their age group at school. There are occasionally individuals so naturally gifted that county titles come easily to them, but even for them, national titles can only be gained by considerable effort and dedication.

    For the vast majority of athletes national titles are out of reach no matter how hard they work or how much time they devote to training. But to be challenging for European titles - like the world and Olympic titles - is reserved only for the most gifted, dedicated and most carefully guided of athletes of each country represented. So far uk athletes have won 6 golds - that's 6 people out of a population of 60 million . . .no mean achievement in my book.

    Let the nay-sayers get off their butts and give the next Europeans a shot if they don't think it's a big deal.

  • Comment number 18.

    The key to Jess Ennis' success is her realistic drive to improve in her weaker disciplines, the shot put and the javelin. Her performances are always within her ability zone giving her the chance to relax and get those important personal bests. On the other hand her stronger disciplines are carried through with enormous panache, never precocious but always with apparently effortless ease. Mentally I have seldom seen a more gracious or sporting mind set for someone so young.

    Here is a young sportswomen who takes full responsibility for her performances and, as long as she keeps fit and healthy, augers well for a long reign as a champion exponent of athletics. Good on you Jess.

    I'd also like to mention Mo Farrah whose double gold was sensational and a great lift to British distance running. And what about David Green and Rhys Williams who exploded to medals so well the opposition might just as well not turned up.

  • Comment number 19.

    the people that think that these performances are just average and that the british will never do as well on the world stage are just another bunch of critics
    the people who won medals for us have done us proud and they will take a lot of confidence from this and this would help them on the world/olympic stage but for now let them just enjoy their achievements
    it is still a medal isnt it

  • Comment number 20.

    This just goes to prove that britain can compete on the sporting international stage. Athletics, swimming and cricket have shown waht intensive training and professional dedication to technique coupled with aspirations to always improve does pay dividends.

    To England's flop footballers I say look and learn. They must and can improve but it is a very hard slog. Do you have the guts? I doubt that physically there are many in the Premiership that could keep up with the training schedule that Jessica Ennis has to endure. Marvellous stuff.

  • Comment number 21.

    Someone mentional rowing.

    Yes really good but just wait till
    the Africans West Indian's, Middle Eastern
    countries and Asians get their act together !

    Same applies to our swimmers and
    especially the over hyped track
    cyclists and sailors.
    Ahletics, Football truly Global sports
    Boxing perhaps..... any others ?

    As for Cricket and Rugby.

    Eight serious contenders in
    each sport ?

    Don't be too hard on our Footballers
    they are still ranked in the top ten of the World.

  • Comment number 22.

    Cannot believe the number of doomsayers on this site. For once UK athletics is on the ascendancy so just enjoy the coming years and also that we have class athletes who can compete against the worlds best. We are a small country with a small population when compared to some like China and the USA, who also have far more commercial and government funding. Save the cfiticism for our pathetic and grossly overpaid prima-donna soccer players.

  • Comment number 23.

    One of the most pleasing aspects apart from the British medals was the camaradarie shown by the heptathaletes. The group celebrations were something that can only come from such a gruelling competition where you are so close to your competitors for a long period of time. Girls who were out of the medals and those who still had a chance all congratulated each other and the medal winners with equal enthusiasm. It was a pleasing sight which you are unlikely to see in the individualistic events such as the sprints where competitors from the same country can barely shake hands.

  • Comment number 24.

    I enjoy all the athletics events and the way the multi event athletes celebrate by doing a lap of honour together and the respect they have for each other really shows the meaning of sport. Something like five girls in the top eight either set personal bests or broke there national record my goodness that is tough competition. From what i have seen on tv most of these athletes who have took gold or a medal have a great chance of competing at a higher level if needed. The confidence and belief has been there for all to see so onwards and upwards towards the London games i say.

  • Comment number 25.

    tooting mick

    I'd say swimming is certainly a world sport. There were medal winners from 30 countries at last year's world champs including champions from Brazil, Tunisia, Serbia, Japan, Denmark, South Africa, Hungary and Zimbabwe alongside the usual crowd from USA, Australia, China, Germany and Britian.

  • Comment number 26.

    i have just watched the interview with michael rimmer, he was asked about whether he was going to go to the commonwealth games, he replied NOT at the moment. I just find it astounding that these athletes are quick to complain if they do not get enough funding and then when they do get funding they are not even willing to represent their country. What a joke......

  • Comment number 27.

    Well said No.17!

  • Comment number 28.

    Great Coverage. Thanks BBC. Michael Johnson's point of view very much appreciated.

    No. 17 should read a little book by Matthew Sayed called "Bounce" - I think he is pretty close.....

  • Comment number 29.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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