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"My child made me a better athlete"

Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill's focus is on the Rio Games and motherhood. She tells Gabrielle Fagan how much her son has affected her life ... and her performance

Published 18/06/2016

Chilled: Jessica is not feeling the pressure like she did in London
Chilled: Jessica is not feeling the pressure like she did in London

Jessica Ennis-Hill is effortlessly switching between discussing the problems of trying to feed her toddler son Reggie and her plan to win Olympic gold at the Rio games in August.

Characteristically, she manages to appear totally relaxed, but totally focused on both tasks, although she admits it's easier managing her intensive training programme than dealing with a 23-month-old.

"I'm a perfectionist, you have to be as a world-class athlete, and I always want to do things 100% right, so, to be honest, I'm like that as a mother sometimes. I have to reign myself in because every mother learns babies do things at their own speed and in their own time, which Reggie's pretty good at reminding me," she says, smiling as she recalls a "tomato-gate" episode when her son made it clear he wouldn't have it on the menu despite her best efforts.

"Even my husband, Andy, tells me to 'chill out' and that there's really no need to sit there watching Reggie eat every mouthful. Being a bit of a control freak, I want to do everything for him properly and I put pressure on myself. But really, like every mum, I just want to give him the best start in life."

The 30-year-old has already proved she's proficient at juggling motherhood and her extraordinary career.

The latter began when she was 10 years old and her mother, Alison, a charity worker, took her to a summer sports camp in her home city, Sheffield, where her natural talent was immediately spotted.

Since then, Ennis-Hill has become a national icon for winning gold for heptathlon at the 2012 London Olympics and remarkably won gold last August at the Beijing World Championships when Reggie, born in July 2014, was only 13 months old.

"That win at Beijing was fantastic because it was so hard getting back into shape and training after he was born. I started when he was four months old and it was a shock to realise that, after being so used to my body performing at a certain level, it was going to take time to get back up to speed. It took a year for my body to settle," she says.

"It didn't help that Reggie didn't sleep through the night for the first nine months. We've always cared for him ourselves and not had a nanny, so at one stage I was sleep-deprived and questioning, 'what am I doing? Do I actually want to do this at all now I have a child?'"

Her will-to-win triumphed, though.

"I realised there was still this other side of me that's fiercely competitive, who wants to achieve and so it's about trying to balance that with wanting to spend as much time with Reggie as possible.

"One of the great things is that my perspective on life is different now. I've organised training around his needs - it's a no-brainer that he's a priority - so I go out in the morning, spend the afternoon with him, and then do another session when he's asleep in the evening. One of the bonuses is, if I have a bad training session, I don't dwell on it like I used to, because I'm too busy rushing home to look after my amazing little boy who's smiling and needing his mummy. It balances everything out and has benefited my performance."

While clearly besotted, she acknowledges that "guilt" as well as joy is part of a mother's lot.

"When he was born, my mum said, 'you're a mum now, you'll feel guilty for the rest of your life'. And I completely get that.

"That can range from worrying I haven't done a tiny thing right for him, to absolutely hating leaving him behind for two weeks to go to Beijing. That was the hardest thing I've ever done. I had to return with a medal to make it worthwhile.

"Mum told me while I was away he used to toddle up to the TV screen when he saw me and say, 'mama'. That just undid me and melted my heart. This time we're planning for him to come with me to Rio, which will be wonderful."

Surprisingly, Ennis-Hill says she's not feeling the same pressure to succeed that she experienced in 2012.

"It was nerve-racking and stressful competing in London, because it was my first Olympics. Also, I was competing as a favourite and expected to win, so anything less would have been failure.

"Although I'm going to Rio to perform my best and, hopefully, go out on a high, especially as it'll be my last Olympics, I don't feel as much outside pressure.

"I've been fortunate to have had a great career and I just want to enjoy this unique situation, which I'll never have again in my life. It'll be even more special having Reggie as part of it."

There has been one experience she definitely didn't enjoy - in January she marked her milestone 30th birthday.

"I hated it. It was that feeling of not being really 'young' anymore and thinking, 'gosh, I must be grown-up', which was weird, because in some ways I still feel 18 and I train with girls in their twenties.

"It was silly to mind about it, because I'm so happy with my life and feel very lucky to have my husband, Reggie and my career and everything going so well. I do find it hard, when I look back, to believe I am where I am now. I sometimes don't feel that different from the little Sheffield kid who just loved running."

Ennis-Hill has had the same coach since she was 13, Toni Minichiello, and married her childhood sweetheart, Andy Hill, a construction site supervisor, in 2013.

"Probably the most surreal moment was crossing the line at the London Olympics. I couldn't believe I'd fulfilled all my childhood dreams and was going to be on that winner's podium. I feel very privileged."

Belfast Telegraph

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