In Good Conscience

Diminutive Jessica rising to the mother of all challenges

Now that the Games are to be screened live in Singapore, might I interest you in keeping an eye open for a Brit who is attempting something pretty special?

Maybe if Jessica Ennis-Hill's event coincides with a Singaporean going for glory next weekend, the suggestion is a non-starter.

Perhaps if I throw in the fact that she is attempting to retain her Olympic crown across seven different elements, and that she became a mum since her 2012 London Olympics gold, you might find the time and inspiration to watch her.

Ennis-Hill runs, hurdles, jumps and throws the javelin and the shot put in the two-day heptathlon that is designed to test just about every sinew, and every facet of mind and body and stamina in women's track and field.

Apart from the intriguing aspect of giving birth and then returning to the Olympics, there might be another side to Ennis-Hill that appeals to you.

She is diminutive for her event. She stands 1.65m and weighs 57kg where most heptathletes are 1.8m and closer to 67kg.

British heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill clearing a hurdle at last month's Diamond League Anniversary Games in London. She is bidding to become the third new mum to retain an Olympic title.
British heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill clearing a hurdle at last month's Diamond League Anniversary Games in London. She is bidding to become the third new mum to retain an Olympic title. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Speed is her asset. Speed and a steely mind behind a deceptive smile. However, if you are getting a picture of a little bird among power athletes, be aware that Ennis-Hill has a six-pack that many men spend thousands of hours in the gym trying to develop.

The women's heptathlon in Rio takes place next Friday and Saturday (and to you early Sunday). The events are more time-friendly to Singaporeans than will be the case to Brits, because if her folks back in Sheffield, England want to see the final race they will be up until the early hours of both Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Millions will, because, in a world hammered by suspicion around sports, "Our Jess" is seen in Britain as someone seeking through talent and tenacity simply to be the best.

Here's the schedule of events, with Singapore times and Ennis-Hill's personal-best performances:

•Friday, Aug 12 8.35pm: 100m hurdles (12.54 sec). 9.50pm : High jump (1.95m).

•Saturday, Aug 13 7.35am: Shot put (14.67m). 9.05am: 200m run (22.83sec). 10.45pm: Long jump (6.63m).

•Sunday, Aug 14 7am: Javelin (48.33m). 9.53am: 800m run (2 min 7.81 secs)

Exhausted yet? Then consider this: Ennis-Hill, the daughter of a Jamaican father and a Sheffield mother, turned 30 this year. Not only are her leading competitors taller and stronger (at least outwardly) but younger too.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson, aged 23, grew up in Liverpool to regard Ennis-Hill as her inspiration. The younger woman, 1.83m and 68kg, emerged as a "beast" of the bench press, and received tips, almost mentoring, from Ennis-Hill.

Now, Johnson-Thompson suggests, it's a weird sensation going head to head with the woman who set the example. Almost, Johnson-Thompson says, like an inter-generational game, both of them going for gold in Rio.

There are, of course, others in the arena. Canada's Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Germany's Jennifer Oeser, Latvia's Laura Ikauniece-Admidina are tongue twisters and candidates. So is Antoinette Nana Djimou Ida, born in Cameroon and now representing France.

Parenthood changes perspectives. Ennis-Hill is as rapt in Reggie as any mum could be. But then it started to become important for the boy to see what makes his mother extraordinary.

And only two women athletes have given birth and retained their titles over the four-year Olympic cycle.

One was the Australian, Shirley Strickland, who won the 80m hurdles gold in 1952 and 1956. The other was Francoise Mbango Etone, again born in Cameroon and winning gold for France, in the triple jump in 2004 and 2008.

All three had sons. The difference is that Ennis-Hill is attempting to keep ahead of the competition in a multi-disciplined event.

Her coach, her physiotherapist, her psychological adviser (though Ennis-Hill obtained a psychology degree at the University of Sheffield) had to wait while she became accustomed to being the mother of Reggie, born in June 2014.

The world moved on. In fact, her world moved on because the Don Valley athletics stadium where she trained was bulldozed while she was otherwise occupied with maternal things.

That's progress, or lack of it. England's supposed Olympic legacy has disappeared now that the 2012 London Olympic Stadium has become the home of West Ham United FC (albeit with provision to hold athletics events). And Sheffield's Don Valley stadium, built for the World Student Games in 1991, was demolished as a cost-cutting exercise.

The site where Ennis-Hill first discovered the joy of competing at a summer camp when she was nine, it has been redeveloped as a wellbeing research centre and a technical college.

Her good fortune was that her potential was spotted when she was nine by Toni Minichiello. A burly man of Italian descent, Minichiello, once an unfulfilled decathlete, was taken at first by her sprint speed.

Over the ensuing years, Ennis-Hill and coach Minichiello developed what he describes as "a father-daughter thing. She finds me slightly embarrassing, like a dad who is dancing badly".

To mould an Olympic champion is one thing. To wait for her to decide after pregnancy and birth that she wanted to go through it all again is, as Minichiello observed: "A very different kettle of fish."

Parenthood changes perspectives. Ennis-Hill is as rapt in Reggie as any mum could be. But then it started to become important for the boy to see what makes his mother extraordinary.

At two, he might just be aware of what she does, and of what makes the millions coming into the family home through endorsements with global brands.

Minichiello talks of her phenomenal work ethic, her belief, her focus. He has talked about the changed anatomy that comes with motherhood.

Blood volume increases, and can be converted into endurance and power. Tendons may never be as sharply reactive. Twisting and turning of abdominal muscles took six months to rebuild. At 30, she might anyway have lost the top end of fast responses to the gun.

They sound like marginal gains and losses. But over and above it all, is the mind and the desire. Next weekend will test that to the limits.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Diminutive Jessica rising to the mother of all challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe