Ennis-Hill tempted by last hurrah in London
Briton joyfully rejoins family before deciding on retirement – or home world championships
For a woman who had made do with three hours’ sleep, Jessica Ennis-Hill still looked her usual sunny, burnished self. She had returned to the athletes’ village at 3am, abstemiously restricting herself to a single glass of champagne, but had yet to find a moment to appreciate the silver medal in her hands.
On what should have been her first morning off in months, she smiled obligingly through a whirl of Rio appearances to satisfy her sponsors, turning up everywhere from a club on Ipanema Beach to a shopping mall in Barra da Tijuca. It is all very well singing for your supper, but she had barely had breakfast.
The show was carefully orchestrated by the British team’s “head of managing victory” – yes, such a position does exist – though Ennis-Hill had, on this rare occasion, finished second. She had been vanquished not by her compatriot, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, but by Nafissatou Thiam, 21, a student from Belgium and a 50-1 shot to claim heptathlon gold before setting five personal bests in seven disciplines.
“She was just on fire,” Ennis-Hill said, resignedly. “I suppose she felt like I did in London four years ago, when everything just clicked.”
The reigning Olympic champion had sensed her moment had gone when Thiam, despite apparently nursing a sore shoulder, threw an astonishing 53.13 metres in the javelin, the penultimate event. It left Ennis-Hill with a stark equation, needing to beat her unheralded rival by 9.47 seconds in the 800 metres if she was to retain her title. By coincidence, their personal bests for the distance were precisely 9.47sec apart, in the Briton’s favour. It was, ultimately, too great a deficit.
Ennis-Hill produced two laps of audacious front-run- ning but Thiam refused to let her surge more than 7.47sec clear. Two seconds in two days: this was all that separated her from another indelible moment in the annals of British sport. She refused to be too angst-ridden yesterday. “I honestly am not disappointed,” she said. “I guess a silver was what I was capable of at this stage of my career. I’m still very proud.”
The word that dared not speak its name was retirement. Ennis-Hill had claimed with some emphasis that these would be her final Olympics, but what no one quite knew yesterday was whether they would represent her last competition of any kind. As she prepared to fly back last night, ready to be reunited with her 18-month-old son Reggie, she explained how she needed more time for reflection.
“I have a feeling in my mind about what I’m going to do, but it’s such a huge decision,” she said. “I want to make sure that it’s the right one.”
She did enough, to suggest, though, that she was contemplating carrying on for another year. Next summer’s world championships are in London, back at the stadium where she savoured Olympic glory in 2012, and would signify the perfect send-off for an athlete who has always had a taste for the theatrical. “I don’t want just to fizzle out,” Ennis-Hill said, firmly. “I want to go out on a high.” She also let slip that the prospect of London 2017 was occluding her thinking, acknowledging: “I would be sad to see it going on without me.”
Toni Minichiello, Ennis-Hill’s long-time coach, likened his protégé to Rocky Balboa, looking to see “if there was anything else left in the basement” before calling it a day. “I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “I’ve told her to take three months to have a good think about what she wants to do.”
What mattered most to Ennis-Hill yesterday was that she was about to be brought back together with Reggie, who had been watching his mother’s exploits from the family living room, 6,000 miles away in Sheffield. “Andy, my husband, was saying to him, ‘ What has mummy been doing?’ He replied, ‘Running, jumping, shot-putting.’ ”
It is this delicate juggling act with family commitments that makes the issue of Ennis-Hill’s continued commitment to the sport a complex one. She has spoken of her desire for a second child but admitted that a bigger brood would force her to give up the savage demands of heptathlon training.
“Combining the two has been a challenge, but it has made everything so much sweeter, turned me into a more rounded person,” she said. “But it’s such a tough event. I was talking to Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who won bronze, and the subject was, ‘How much longer can we keep doing this?’ ”
For now, it is a question she is entitled to defer. At the end of an Olympic campaign that consumed her every waking hour, her overriding emotion was one of relief that she was, finally,