Belfast Telegraph

Jessica is fired up to take on her greatest challenge

By Guy Aspin

Jessica Ennis-Hill's twenties brought her marriage, motherhood and the repeated sporting success which made her the nation's darling.

January 28 marks her 30th birthday. The next decade has a lot to live up to.

And yet this summer could turn out to be the pinnacle of the heptathlete's career.

The poster girl of London 2012, who lived up to all the hype to win Olympic gold in such emphatic fashion on home soil three and a half years ago, now has an even greater challenge ahead of her - to retain that title in 2016, having had a baby in the intervening years.

Ennis-Hill - with three world titles, one indoor and two out, and a European crown to go with her Olympic success - is already arguably Britain's greatest ever female athlete. Another gold in Rio will end the argument.

Only twice before has an athlete won Olympic gold, had a baby and then returned to defend her title - Australian sprint hurdler Shirley Strickland in 1956 and Cameroonian triple-jumper Francoise Mbango Etone in 2008.

Ennis-Hill's task is to do it in the most gruelling event of all.

She has, however, reconquered the world once already, winning gold at last August's World Championships in Beijing, just 13 months after the birth of her son Reggie and 15 weeks after she first dipped her toe back into the waters of competition.

There is no doubt Rio will prove a tougher competition than Beijing. It is hard to see her two great rivals - fellow Briton Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Canada's Brianne Theisen-Eaton - under-performing so dramatically again.

"Definitely the standard will go up again," said Ennis-Hill, who admitted to being "surprised" her score of 6,669 points was enough to win in Beijing.

Balancing training for seven events with the demands of being a mother is a tough juggling act, but Ennis-Hill said after her win in Beijing: "When you become a mother for the first time it changes your whole life in an amazing way. I am a much happier person and very content with life at the moment, so I think that can only transfer positively into my performances on the track."

Not exactly words to offer her rivals much comfort.

Indeed, anyone who thought motherhood would dim, or even extinguish, Ennis-Hill's competitive instincts has been proved very wrong.

"I always knew that I wanted to come back and perform at this level," she said.

"I was very aware that there were people that probably thought, 'She's won the Olympics, she's done now, she's ready to retire'. That gave me a bit of motivation as well to want to show that I can come back after a period of time away from my sport and perform back at the top level."

Coached by Toni Minichiello since the age of 13, as an up-and-coming athlete Ennis-Hill was nicknamed 'Tadpole' by compatriot and fellow heptathlete Kelly Sotherton.

It was a barely veiled dig at the young pretender's petite stature. And it was a tag to which she would prove laughably unsuited.

At just 5ft 5in she has been towered over by her rivals for her entire career. But for an athlete wrought from pure Sheffield steel, it has mattered not one bit.

Ennis-Hill's first senior international medal came at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where she won bronze, Sotherton winning gold.

She finished behind Sotherton again the following year, fourth to her compatriot's third, at the World Championships in Osaka.

She suffered a major setback in 2008 - Olympic year - though.

Three stress fractures in her right ankle not only ruled her out of the Beijing Games, but threatened her whole career.

Her response epitomised the bulldog spirit and relentless drive she has become known for throughout her career. The next year she was world champion.

She won the world title indoors and European title outdoors in 2010 before having to settle for silver behind Russia's Tatyana Chernova at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu. That is far from the full story, though. Ennis-Hill is still waiting to see if she will be upgraded to gold after her rival was exposed as a drug cheat.

She missed the 2013 worlds with an Achilles injury, marrying husband Andy in May of that year, while 2014 was given over to maternity leave.

Indeed, Ennis-Hill has still only completed two heptathlons since London 2012.

The double-barrelled multi-eventer will start 2016 by racing over 60 metres hurdles at the Glasgow Indoor Grand Prix on February 20, with all sights set on Rio.

Another triumph there would appear the perfect way to bow out, although the draw of a last hurrah in London at the 2017 World Championships would no doubt be strong.

Whenever the end comes, you can be sure Ennis-Hill will have it timed to perfection.

Seven facts about Golden girl Jess

This is shaping up to be another memorable year for the London 2012 poster girl (pictured), and here we pick out seven things you may not know about her:

1 If Ennis-Hill can win gold in Rio de Janeiro, she would become just the third athlete to have a baby and retain an Olympic title over the space of a four-year cycle.

The other two were Australian hurdler/sprinter Shirley Strickland (1952-1956) and Cameroonian triple-jumper Francoise Mbango Etone (2004-2008).

2 Ennis-Hill has been coached by Toni Minichiello since she was 13.

3 Ennis-Hill graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Sheffield in 2007.

4 Born and bred in Sheffield, she still lives in the city with husband - childhood sweetheart Andy - son Reggie and a chocolate labrador, Myla.

5 Ennis-Hill is a fan of Star Wars and has compared herself to Rey, the female lead protagonist in recently released The Force Awakens.

6 When coming through the ranks, Olympic bronze medallist Kelly Sotherton gave her the nickname 'tadpole' because of her diminutive size and age.

7 To celebrate Ennis-Hill's Olympic success, League One side Sheffield United renamed one of the Bramall Lane stands after her.

It was changed to the Redbrik Estate Agency Stand last June.

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