Jessica Ennis-Hill still has star appeal on race comeback

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Jessica Ennis-Hill finishes third in Manchester comeback
By Aimee Lewis, BBC Sport

Sometimes the taking part is actually all that matters. The public aren't always hungry for glory. A flash of a smile, a genial wave and just a glimpse of one of Britain's most famous athletes is occasionally enough.

On a grey spring day which disguised itself as winter, thousands gathered and shivered in Manchester as Olympic and world champions demonstrated their talents on the city's streets for the Great City Games.

London 2012 long jump champion Greg Rutherford leapt into the sand in the shadows of the neo-gothic town hall, world 60m gold medallist Richard Kilty and European pentathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson sprinted along Deansgate, turning its stretch of restaurants and shops into a blurry background.

Eva Sheringham supporting Jessica Ennis-Hill
Manchester schoolgirl Eva Sheringham was one of the many children supporting Jessica Ennis-Hill

Every athlete was admired. Every athlete heartily cheered. None of the autograph or selfies collected would be sniffed at.

But the crowd's true love was the athlete whose name was on the A4-sized posters (provided by sponsors, admittedly) waved by children throughout the afternoon. "Go Jess," they read. Short and simple.

Injury and then motherhood have meant no-one has seen Jessica Ennis-Hill compete for nearly two years so her audience looked on keenly, curiosity mixed with excitement.

Many were forced onto the tips of their toes. Some were small enough to get a bird's eye view from the shoulders of parents and grandparents, others concentrated on capturing the moment on their smartphones.

Even passing Saturday shoppers laden with bags paused as the "one and only" Ennis-Hill was introduced.

The heptathlete's last competitive outing may have been in July 2013, but for many the memory of London 2012 is undiminished and TV adverts and billboards have ensured Ennis-Hill is still one the nation's most recognisable faces.

Jessica Ennis-Hill with Denise Lewis (left)
"She looked smooth and competitive," said Denise Lewis of Ennis-Hill's performance

Would she be the athlete she was when winning gold as the poster girl of the London Olympics? No, but the 29-year-old had already warned us she wouldn't be.

Ennis-Hill admitted she would be nervous on her comeback and she looked it. Her eyebrows furrowed as she paced back and forth near the start line.

She had even said there was a possibility she could finish last. "It's not clear where I am just yet," she cautioned.

But the new mum - nine-month-old son Reggie was being looked after somewhere in the crowd - need not have been so anxious. She impressed the experts, despite her time of 13.14 seconds in the 100m hurdles being more than half a second outside her personal best.

As expected, European and British champion Tiffany Porter dominated the race, with promising 20-year-old Lucy Hatton second, 0.02 seconds ahead of Ennis-Hill who was third.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson
Johnson-Thompson finished 0.03 seconds behind Meghan Beesley in the women's 200m hurdles

"She worked hard throughout the race," said former 110m world champion Colin Jackson.

"I thought she was brilliant," enthused former Olympic champion Denise Lewis, describing the Sheffield star's technique as smooth.

For Ennis-Hill, the worry lines had now been replaced with a charming smile. It was a performance which promised better things to come.

"It was really good to be back," she said, her first step to retaining her Olympic crown completed. "I feel like it's a starting point. I feel like I can build on that.

"I'm always going to be disappointed. I know I'm capable of running a lot faster, but I hit a hurdle. I feel like I'm lacking race sharpness."

As journalists swarmed around Ennis-Hill, forcing the Olympic champion to turn like the second hand of a clock to politely answer their questions, Katarina Johnson-Thompson was standing a few feet away, left uninterrupted now her compatriot had returned to share the limelight.

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Katarina Johnson-Thompson beaten by Meghan Beesley in 200m hurdles

Johnson-Thompson has become something of a global force during Ennis-Hill's absence, breaking her idol's British indoor pentathlon record when becoming European indoor champion earlier this year.

The Liverpudlian finished second in the 200m hurdles in Manchester, stumbling as she was pipped to the line by Meghan Beesley.

"It's a bit of fun and I got there in the end," said the 22-year-old of her first experience of the Great City Games.

While the pair avoided a showdown in the north west, there will come a time when they will have to duel. That enticing prospect will hopefully become reality at the end of the month as both are set to compete in Gotzis along with the rest of the world's best heptathletes.

Ennis-Hill says she intends to compete even though her Achilles has been troubling her in recent months, while Johnson-Thompson will be taking it easy before defending her crown in Austria.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson (left) with Jessica Ennis-Hill
All eyes will be on how the competition between Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill will develop in the next 15 months

It is a rivalry which we will perhaps not see flourish until 2016. The balance of power is not yet even enough as Ennis-Hill slowly builds towards Rio.

On the track Johnson-Thompson will be favourite to prevail during these coming months, but away from it it is Ennis-Hill's celebrity which shines brightest.

It was for Ennis-Hill that a line of patient fans waited behind barriers, hoping their Olympic gold medallist heroine would reappear even an hour after the event had finished.

Johnson-Thompson, having earlier spent 15 minutes or so signing autographs after her race, was allowed to freely walk out of the main entrance, passing without fuss those who had assembled for her team-mate and rival on her way out.

It will not always be this way, which is what makes the comeback and the match-up so enticing.