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