FRENCH CON­NEC­TION

JUDG­ING BY HER 2018 CAM­PAIGN, LEAD­ING BRI­TISH HEP­TATH­LETE KATA­RINA JOHN­SON-THOMP­SON IS THRIV­ING IN HER NEW COACH­ING EN­VI­RON­MENT IN MONT­PEL­LIER, WRITES MARK WOODS

Athletics Weekly - - Spotlight - PIC­TURES: GETTY IMAGES FOR BRI­TISH ATH­LET­ICS

IN­SIDE the pleas­ant sta­dium that nes­tles not far from the pic­turesque cen­tre of Mont­pel­lier, Jean-Yves Coc­hand is do­ing laps of the track as a rab­bit on two wheels while his crew of would-be whip­pets chase gain­fully be­hind.

Kata­rina John­son-Thomp­son’s own bi­cy­cle is parked on the fence in the shade, but this slice of her train­ing regime is firmly pro­pelled by her own two feet.

The south of France may be renowned for a sunkissed life of lux­ury with wine, cheese and baguettes in abun­dance, but her diet since mov­ing here two years ago has been solid work and self-ad­just­ment.

The menu served up real progress in 2018. A world in­door pen­tathlon ti­tle in Birm­ing­ham in March. A Com­mon­wealth Games gold in the hep­tathlon a month later on Aus­tralia’s Gold Coast. Then a sil­ver be­hind Nafi Thiam at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships in Ber­lin dur­ing a sum­mer that un­der­lined her gains in con­sis­tency.

And in sheer en­joy­ment, says her lead coach, Ber­trand Val­cin, who heads a team in­clud­ing Coc­hand and oth­ers. They over­see a group of com­bined even­ters which has in­cluded Kevin Mayer, the Olympic de­cathlon sil­ver medal­list and now world record-holder, and Nana Dji­mou, the 2012 and 2014 Euro­pean hep­tathlon cham­pion.

“That is very im­por­tant,” Val­cin says. “It is al­ways like that when ath­letes ar­rive in

Mont­pel­lier. We need one year. Now she un­der­stands ev­ery­thing.

“So it is a new Kat now, I hope. It is our vi­sion: If you don’t like the train­ing, if you’re

not happy, it’s not pos­i­tive for the ath­letes. It’s im­por­tant to par­tic­i­pate and prac­tice for the plea­sure.”

John­son-Thomp­son, when we vis­ited ear­lier this sum­mer, seemed to be gen­uinely en­thralled by her Gal­lic ad­ven­ture de­spite the oc­ca­sional pangs of home­sick­ness for Liver­pool, her mother and her beloved dogs.

A shift out of her com­fort zone, for sure. But one that has pushed wine, evenings out and days at the beach into her di­ary and cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment which has al­lowed her to re­lax, and then flour­ish.

Ini­tially, she ad­mits: “It was tough, it was all new, and fresh. To be fair it wasn’t that tough to be­gin with be­cause it didn’t feel like it was home yet, it just felt like an ex­tended train­ing camp. But, when I started I think last win­ter was the first proper win­ter I’ve had here, and it was the first time I had a proper apart­ment, that I moved into.

“Last win­ter, it felt like I was liv­ing here, and I was try­ing to do the French thing, and I was go­ing to French lessons in the schools. But, the cul­ture shock has been dif­fer­ent. It’s been hard be­ing away from my mum. It’s been hard not hav­ing the lo­cal super­mar­kets, and not know­ing where to go for what. But, I’m get­ting there.”

The lessons haven’t turned her into a na­tive speaker, at least not yet. KJT un­der­stands more than she lets on, pro­claims Dji­mou, her clos­est friend among the group. “It is our fault,” the Cameroon-born French in­ter­na­tional smiles. “Be­cause we keep speak­ing to her in English. But she is im­prov­ing.

“We teach her words. Not the bad ones. Some­times she’ll go: ‘I’m tired, I don’t want to speak in French.’ But she can.”

Credit to her for try­ing rather than merely util­is­ing the tried and tested method of just scream­ing a lit­tle louder en anglais and hop­ing for a mir­a­cle. Plenty of Bri­tish ath­letes have de­camped to the United States where, at least to a cer­tain ex­tent, the lan­guage is fairly fa­mil­iar.

The clus­ter of Nether­lands-based in­ter­na­tion­als, in­clud­ing Adam Gemili and De­siree Henry, who work un­der Rana Rei­der at Papen­dal can pick up the BBC with­out the need of a satel­lite dish. Go­ing to France, not far but not like be­ing in a fa­mil­iar home from home, re­quired a def­i­nite leap of faith from John­son-Thomp­son.

“Even though I had my own house in

“EVEN THOUGH I HAD MY OWN HOUSE IN LIVER­POOL MY MUM DID A LOT FOR ME AND I WAS AROUND THE COR­NER FROM MY FAM­ILY. IF I NEEDED ANY­THING OR IF SOME­THING BROKE I KNEW SOME­ONE WOULD BE ROUND TO FIX IT. NOW I HAVE TO DEAL WITH ALL OF THAT MY­SELF ”

Liver­pool my mum did a lot for me, and I was around the cor­ner from fam­ily,” she re­veals. “If I needed any­thing, if some­thing broke in my house, I knew that some­one would just come around the day af­ter, or my un­cle would come around, and fix it. Even spi­ders, if there was a spi­der in my house, and I was scared, I would call my un­cle, or cousins, and be like, ‘Help me!’

“But, now yeah, I have to deal with that by my­self. I still Face­Time a lot and still get their ad­vice, like my mum’s FaceTimed me through a lot of meals, what she’s made for me at home, and I’ve tried to make them my­self. I’ve still got that con­nec­tion, but I’ve def­i­nitely grown up, and I def­i­nitely feel like more of an adult.”

The group en­vi­ron­ment suits her bet­ter than her pre­vi­ous hub work­ing un­der Mike Holmes. Learn­ing from peers, as much as tak­ing or­ders and rep­e­ti­tion.

“It’s a lot more re­laxed, and I’ve got dif­fer­ent train­ing part­ners. You’ve met Nana, she’s al­ways laugh­ing and jok­ing. She’s def­i­nitely a good en­ergy to have around in train­ing. She still gets the work done, but she’s just dif­fer­ent about her ap­proach.

“I also feel like the train­ing – be­ing in a big group of multi-even­ters – has just def­i­nitely helped me.

“Nana is good at shot put and javelin. A lot of the girls here are bet­ter than me at throws so they help me ev­ery time I do an event like that – and then I sort of help them. When I room with them I help them, and they help me so our weak­nesses, and strengths dif­fer so we sort of help each other. Yeah, it’s just a lot more re­laxed.”

Af­ter a post-sea­son break that in­cluded stops in New York and St Lu­cia, it will soon be time to re­turn to her flat in the cen­tre of Mont­pel­lier and get back on her bike. Less than 12 months out from the IAAF World Cham­pi­onships in Doha, she has plenty of laps to com­plete in the win­ter as part of her prepa­ra­tions.

“I want to com­pete,” she says. “I am com­pet­i­tive and I don’t like to lose. I don’t

like to feel I haven’t given my all or that my best hasn’t been shown.”

When it comes to the heat of bat­tle, how­ever, John­son-Thomp­son is also try­ing rein in that com­pet­i­tive urge.

“I feel like in com­pe­ti­tions I’m try­ing to come away from be­ing com­pet­i­tive un­less I need to be­cause in hep­tathlon that sort of kills me,” she says.

“So in train­ing if I’m against some­body

I’ll be re­ally com­pet­i­tive if they set up a com­pe­ti­tion where you’ve got to get over that line and ev­ery­body’s get­ting over it.

“But in the hep­tathlon I’m try­ing not to do that be­cause you just have to con­cen­trate on your­self un­til the 800m. I feel like (do­ing) that would ex­press for me if I’m just fo­cus­ing on my­self, and not try­ing to be like ‘oh, I need to beat them’ be­cause at the end of the day it’s just for points.”

If there has been a strik­ing shift, it has been in per­cep­tion. John­son-Thomp­son is now ex­pected to suc­ceed rather than wor­ry­ing if she will fail. It has meant that, fi­nally, she has emerged as the coun­try’s face at com­bined events, with the name of Jes­sica En­nis con­signed to a glo­ri­ous past.

“It was a clear shadow,” John­son-Thomp­son ad­mits. “But I don’t blame peo­ple for com­par­ing it. Be­cause, ob­vi­ously with ath­let­ics, it’s very easy to com­pare some­one who’s done the hep­tathlon to some­one who’s do­ing the hep­tathlon as a ju­nior and com­pare scores and marks.

“Jess is re­tired now so I think that nat­u­rally hap­pens with peo­ple com­par­ing, or peo­ple sort of put me to­wards Nafi in­stead of

Jess be­cause she’s the one who’s Olympic cham­pion now, and she’s the one who’s world cham­pion, and got over 7000 points. So, nat­u­rally a lot of peo­ple move on, and talk about the next per­son.”

Which, if John­son-Thomp­son can catch the rab­bit, might yet be her.

Train­ing cy­cle: Kata­rina John­son-Thomp­son is put through her paces in Mont­pel­lier

Coach Ber­trand Val­cin has guided John­sonThomp­son to suc­cess

Plenty to smile about: Kata­rina John­sonThomp­son has won Com­mon­wealth and world in­door gold this year, as well as a Euro­pean sil­ver medal

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