Carrying the sporting torch for mothers

ActionWomanAward_LogoThe reigning World and Olympic heptathlon champion scrolls down the pictures on her smart phone and alights delightedly on a photo. She holds it out. Not for the first time, you imagine. And there’s Reggie, her 15-month-old son, a mop of blond hair, being hugged with furious devotion by a little girl from one of his playgroups.

Jess Ennis-Hill smiles with undisguised pride and joy. She is one of the world’s most celebrated athletes, global superstar, professional winner and even when she has lost – as in the 2011 World Championships – there are grave suspicions she was up against a turbo-charged Russian on drugs, a state-backed doping system and the allegedly kleptomaniac leaders of her own sport.

But the gold medal won this summer at the World Championships in Beijing, just over a year after giving birth, is a bit special. It was this performance – simultaneously barrier-breaking and rival-crushing – that earned her nomination in the 2015 BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards.

Some of the post-win publicity implied a breathless disbelief that such a new mother could remain so athletically pre-eminent. In fact, she reckons it makes her a more clear-eyed competitor. “Being a mum just give you a completely different perspective to everything. I now come to training and I know I have to get as much done as possible, to be really focused to make sure the quality’s there. Because that’s the time I’m away from Reggie and want to make it worthwhile.

“It also makes me a little more relaxed. It makes me realise that if I don’t do as well as I want to – training or competing – it’s not the end of the world. I’ve got this amazing little boy at home – and he’s my world.”

It is not a world familiar to many global brands. Calpol, mashed banana and sleepless nights. But if anybody in British sport has a down-to-earth, sensible head, it is the 29-year-old Sheffield athlete, who still lives in the city where she was born and trains with the coach she has known all her athletic life, Toni Minichiello.

She may have cried on the flight to Beijing, distraught at leaving Reggie behind for a fortnight, but she had left husband Andy so many notes and was proposing to Skype him with further instructions that the baby-management structure was pretty flawless. And so, it turned out, was her World Championship campaign.

She said afterwards that she and Minichiello had mulled over the possibility of her being fit enough to win bronze or even silver. “We never spoke about gold. I just thought it was a little beyond me this year.”

“It was a bit of surprise,” said Minichiello, “But a testimony to how good an athlete she is compared to the rest of the world.”

Impressive efforts in the javelin, long jump and 800 metres gave her victory by more than 100 points. More pertinently perhaps, her young British rival, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, wrecked her own chances in the long jump where she recorded three no-jumps.

The television cameras caught Ennis-Hill putting a consoling arm round her devastated 22-year-old team-mate. “No athlete wants to see another athlete fail like that. You want to see them doing as well as they possibly can and I felt very, very sad and really emotional for her. You could see how much those World Championships meant to her. But I think it’s important to learn from these experiences. You have a setback, you learn. She’ll definitely do that.”

She will if she follows the example of Ennis-Hill and the relaunching of her career, irresistibly tagged ‘The Mother of All Comebacks’ by grateful headline writers.

“Missing 2014 was weird because obviously I was missing it for an amazing reason. I really enjoyed being pregnant and going through that whole experience, but it was weird not competing. I didn’t get sickness or any kind of problem. It was strange seeing my abs change and my stomach getting bigger, but it was just an amazing feeling knowing my little baby was growing inside me. I loved it.

“The thing I struggled with most in 2015 was leaving Reggie behind for two weeks. That was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But it was also the unknowns of coming back into training. ‘Have I come back too soon?’ ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ‘Should I keep pushing on?’”

Sport once viewed mothers as hors de combat. As though the very fact they were wrestling with baby-grows and wheeling pushchairs somehow robbed them of muscle and a mind to perform. Various sporting suffragettes from Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Dutchwoman and mother who won four gold medals at the London Olympics nearly 70 years ago, to the more recent heroics of Jo Pavey, have confounded that view. Now all it takes is spectacular child care (in the case of Ennis-Hill from her husband and wider family), good advice and ferocious dedication to a schedule.

“More woman are becoming sporting mums and you take inspiration from them. You see what they’re doing and think maybe I can do it, too. I think it’s important that everyone shares their experience. You have so much conflicting evidence when you’re pregnant. Whether you should train, whether you should rest, whether you should do nothing or a bit of running. In the end you have to do what’s comfortable for you.

“But you can definitely have a child, step away from your sport and then come back into it. You just have to make sure you do it sensibly.”

That word again: sensible. For such a competitive beast, she exudes an aura of calm and meticulousness which must be seriously annoying to any over-heating rivals. Psychologically, emotionally, it’s a huge card to play. If anyone imagined that motherhood would make her more vulnerable, quite the opposite is the case, according to her coach.

“She’s a different person. A completely different person,” said Minichiello. “The way I approach her training is that she’s a brand new athlete as opposed to referring back to the 2012 version. We’re learning to do things in slightly different ways.

“But the motivation is there, the desire is there. None of that has changed and, if anything, motherhood has enhanced that. The motivation isn’t just personal. Now she wants to do well for herself and her family.”

Her growing family – at least in the not-too-distant future. Chronologically, however, the Rio Olympics come first. “I’m definitely going to wait till I retire before having my next baby because it is a challenge trying to do everything. But, yeah, I definitely want more babies. Maybe one more in the future.

“And I’d love to have a really successful 2016. I’m going to train as hard as I can and hope that I can get to Rio in one piece and contend for a medal there. I’d be pretty happy with one more medal there.”

Her coach had a quiet word with her once the victory shenanigans and tears had calmed down in Beijing. “Who’d have thought we’d be back in the Bird’s Nest after missing the 2008 Olympics through injury,” he told her. “You’re going to get your Beijing moment after all.”

And if the Rio moment happens, Reggie might be there to see it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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For a full list of the 10 sportswomen who were contenders for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year 2015 CLICK HERE.

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