Shifting sands

Injury and poor performance looked to have ended Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s chance of success. Now the Merseyside athlete’s back on track with hopes of a medal in the Tokyo Olympics

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Even before they met her, the coaches who put Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s life back on course had a nickname for her.

“Droopy” they called the woman who only a couple of years prior to being crowned a world champion had been ready to throw in the towel.

‘I didn’t get exposed to athletics in the normal way. I just loved doing it and I loved the feeling of winning.’

Why Droopy? “Because I looked so sad all the time in competitions,” says the 28 year old with more than a decent chance of cementing her place among the planet’s athletic elite at the rearranged Tokyo Olympics in – fingers crossed – a couple of months’ time.

That unhappy demeanour, so painfully displayed in defeat at the last Games in Rio, is gone, replaced with a quiet confidence, and the body and mind of a world-beater at the heptathlon – seven tests of track and field and the ultimate challenge for a female athlete.

Change did not come easily. She gave up everything she knew and cherished to start over away from British shores, with the doubts of leading UK athletics coach Toni Minichiello ringing in her ears.

Minichiello had coached another heptathlete, Jessica Ennis-Hill, poster girl for British athletics, one of Britain’s greatest sportswomen and a daunting act to follow. Some – perhaps Minichiello included – had thought he might achieve the same for the young pretender.

Johnson-Thompson’s life has followed the classic arc of the movies: from gifted teenager named as Ennis-Hill’s successor by the media, to, in her words, “three years of absolute failures” to the all-time best performance by a heptathlete in a GB vest.

Glory in Tokyo would provide a Hollywood ending for the girl from Liverpool, but back when she was breaking a Catholic schools record for the high jump, aged 11, Johnson-Thompson had never even heard of the Olympics, never mind that an international athletics competition was happening up the road.

“There was a whole Commonwealth Games in Manchester when I started athletics in the early 2000s, which we could have gone to and been exposed to, but we had no idea,” she says. “We were only down the M62 and didn’t realise.

“I didn’t really get exposed to athletics in the normal way. I just absolutely loved doing it and I loved the feeling of winning.”

At junior school in Halewood, the Merseyside town known chiefly for car-making, she was “one of the sporty ones, playing football, racing boys. I got put into the high jump when I was the tallest person in the year”.

That high jump record had stood for 25 years before she made it hers, and it was then “I realised I was quite good” and she joined Liverpool Harriers.

Rather more than “quite good”, as it turned out. The carefree running and jumping of a thousand playtimes would prove the ideal raw material for a heptathlete in the making.

At 16 she won gold in the event at the World Youth Championships and three years later, still a teenager, competed alongside Ennis-Hill in the London 2012 Olympics, the latter winning gold.

So began the hype around the pair’s supposed rivalry. Even KJT, as she became to fans, was caught up in it, comparing the competition between them to that of GB middle distance superstars Coe and Ovett four decades earlier.

But while Ennis-Hill enjoyed continued success, Johnson-Thompson’s dreams were to unravel over three summers of physical issues, defeat and criticism, leaving her self-belief at rock bottom.

High hopes for the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships in 2014 were dashed by a foot injury that ruled her out of both, and the following year, a World Championships campaign that had begun promisingly ended in tears (literally, on the shoulder of a BBC reporter) after three foul attempts in the long jump.

Her then coach Mike Holmes would later recall how, in the aftermath of that failure, “the press, especially the TV pundits, jumped on us from a very great height”.

Twelve months later, at the Rio Games, a “meltdown” in the javelin effectively ended her challenge when a push for gold had been predicted (“a familiar capitulation”, according to one national newspaper).

Of that period, she says: “I felt like a big UK event that was happening. Because everyone fell in love with the heptathlon in 2012, I applied a lot of pressure on myself when I wasn’t physically or mentally ready. I thought when you’re young you can just bowl into things and hope for the best.”

In the months leading up to Rio, “I was still giving it the big chat like I was going to get a medal, or get gold, and I just wasn’t ready at all”.

It was at the 2012 London Games that she had first realised “what everything was about. This was the pinnacle of sport”. Rio, four years later, “was very different. I didn’t know if I could be in this sport any more”.

Before flying home, she confided those doubts in Ennis-Hill – “losing on such a big stage and criticism and injuries and everything together at the same time, so, yeah, I remember having a little chat with Jess. I can’t remember exactly what I said [she has, she says, blocked out much of the Rio experience] but it might have been along those lines of ‘well, I’m done with this’”.

Johnson-Thompson says the senior athlete’s response was to offer a measure of perspective, reminding her she was still only 23, at which age Ennis-Hill had not even been to an Olympics.

The UK media appeared less willing to make allowances for youth and, after Rio, Johnson-Thompson plunged into a period of gloom and uncertainty, during which she abandoned her training schedule altogether.

Did she feel then that her potential was to go forever unfulfilled? “Yeah, completely. All the way back to 2014, when I cracked my foot, it was three years of absolute failures and injuries and public embarrassment.”

Seeing me wince she adds: “I know, but that’s how I felt at the time, when papers are talking about you and everyone’s expecting a lot from you. But the older you get, you realise that everyone’s just thinking about themselves really.”

Lifting herself out of that bleak mindset into a new country and a whole new way of living took – she slows her words for emphasis – “a… long… time. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, so I got rid of everything, and just started again. Fresh start, fresh people, fresh environment, completely different training, completely different way of life and I just hoped for the best.”

She pulled her life up by the roots, discarding pretty much all that was familiar and dear to her: her coach, her boyfriend, her home city, two pet dogs, friends and family (she and mum Tracey are “very close. It’s just been me and her for almost all my life”).

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This must have been a big wrench? “It wasn’t. It was hard to leave my family but I knew I needed change and I knew what I wanted to achieve in the sport, and I just wanted to give it a go. And I think, er, well, I didn’t think – I was just single-minded, focused on trying to find a solution.”

Since December 2016, she has been based in the medieval French city of Montpellier. There, a team of coaches under principal Bertrand Valcin has worked on both her physicality and mentality, adding robustness to the natural talent, ironing out the emotional frailty that had seemed to undermine her efforts in competition. She is Droopy
no more.

“They made my body more durable, so I train every day now, sometimes twice a day,  and I always do every single event every week.” Also, “they give me more confidence in that they believe I can win, they believe I can do well”.

Finally, the sweat spilled on to the training fields of south-west France would be converted into gold at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, the global success at senior level she had for so long craved.

Her nickname in France now is “Katastroph” due to a propensity for tripping over her feet in training. She doesn’t take it to heart (“I’m so accident prone, I fall over, bang my foot on everything”). If anything, it reflects the rapport between athlete and coaching team. Valcin is a reassuring presence at times of crisis. “He’s chilled. He won’t panic if something goes wrong.”

At the 2019 European Indoor Championships in Glasgow (another gold and the fourth best performance of all time), “I opened up the long jump with a no jump and instantly started to think back to 2015 that this is going to happen again, and he’s just like, ‘oh, that was great, what you need to do is…’ and he completely calms you down. He’s a good person to have by your side.”

Along with maturing as an athlete has come personal growth. “In 2017, when my dad passed away, it’s something that changed me, made me grow up as a person, made me definitely different about how I act towards my loved ones.

“Grief is not something that is spoken about a lot and I tried to find articles or books or series on how to deal with stuff.”

Maturity has brought a determination to speak out, too, on subjects that she has actively avoided in the past. Johnson-Thompson is of mixed heritage and last year made a powerful statement on race, in which she recalled how attending a football match was “one of the first times I was made fully aware that the colour of my skin could be used against me”. When a black player was racially abused, “I wondered whether I, a 14-year-old girl in the stands, should be the one to get up and say: ‘That’s not okay.’”

Johnson-Thompson says now: “I didn’t stand up at the time, I didn’t say anything and nobody around me said anything.” These days it’s important for her to “make sure that you are on the right side and stand up for things that are blatantly wrong”.

She’s not just talking the talk. Her newly-established KJT Academy will provide opportunities to “state-schooled athletes from diverse ethnic communities” in the North West.

The academy, supported by her beloved Liverpool FC, was born of Covid and “wanting to put back into the community, wanting to do better. When the Olympics got cancelled, it was like, what else am I if I’m not training and not being an athlete? What else do I want to do?”

The clue to a future career may lie here. Meanwhile, with her thirtieth year in sight, there is no sense of panic about time marching by. Recovering from an achilles tendon injury sustained late last year has not ruffled her, nor even my suggestion that, in a worst-case scenario, Tokyo could be called off altogether.

“I don’t think it will this time, and if it does then we’ll adapt like we have done before. It’s out of our control. All athletes can do now is train like it’s going to happen. So that doesn’t even concern me.”

From her manner in interview, you would not guess this was the world champion at her chosen sport. Confident, yes, but unassuming and polite with it. I thank her for her time. “Oh no,” she says. “Thank YOU.”

Ahead is the small matter of overcoming the reigning Olympic champion, Nafi Thiam of Belgium, who won heptathlon gold at the recent European Indoor Championships in spite of having coronavirus a month earlier. Five years on from the failure of the Rio Games, it’s a prospect Johnson-Thompson appears to be relishing.

“I’m feeling really stronger. I’m a completely different person to last time. I can rationalise everything. An injury’s not the greatest thing to have right now but I’m in really good shape, and I’ve got a lot of time still. Covid has made me realise the value in time. I’m really excited to finally get this going.”

Photos: Shutterstock

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