Laura Winter talks to former Commonwealth heptathlon champion Louise Hazel about Jessica Ennis-Hill’s retirement and how she found fulfilment when her own career came to an end
When Jessica Ennis-Hill retired she admitted it was the “hardest decision of her life”. Louise Hazel, team-mate, rival and Commonwealth heptathlon champion in 2010, can empathise. She retired three years ago and has since forged a successful career in television, radio and the fitness industry. She believes Ennis-Hill made the right decision at the right time.
Hazel, now 31, said: “It is extremely difficult. I’ve seen many people get it wrong. My advice is, go out on a high. Or if you’ve just tipped over the edge and you know you are in decline, jump ship.”
Ennis-Hill certainly went out on the closest thing to a high when she took the silver medal in the heptathlon at the Rio Olympic Games this summer to add to the gold she won in London four years ago. She is still the reigning world champion after her victory in Beijing in 2015, just 13 months after giving birth to son Reggie.
Hazel said: “Jess got what she came for in 2012: she got the gold. I’ve known her for the best part of 15 to 20 years and when you’re a 14-year-old girl at the English Schools, your ambition is Olympic gold. I sent her a text and said what a huge achievement her career has been and how important she has been for heptathlon, not just for our generation but for the next generation, too.
“To walk away from her career with two [Olympic] medals is an incredible achievement by any standard. The first medal was what she came for, the second is a bonus. Yes, she has walked away before the 2017 World Championships, but she has seen how strong the young girls are coming up and she could walk away from those championships with nothing.
“She is a fierce competitor who gets a lot of joy out of winning, not for the money or the fame. She keeps herself to herself and does it for the enjoyment of winning. When that goes, it’s time for her to hang up her spikes. She’s always been a family girl and now she has started her own I’ve no doubt she’ll be adding to that.”
Hazel has seen several sides of the Sheffield-born athlete – from the “under-dog” 14-year-old, the private athlete reading Fern Britton’s autobiography, to the global superstar she became. Ennis-Hill is, says Hazel, one of her “favourite people to be around”.
“She is a genuinely lovely girl and she has a wicked sense of humour which you don’t see much in the public eye. If we were away competing together, we would always have a laugh. In 2009 we roomed together for the World Championships before she won gold. We were out in Portugal at holding camp and she was reading Fern Britton’s autobiography. I said to her, ‘What are you going to learn from that, that is going to help you in the next two days?’ She said [adopts best Sheffield accent], ‘I really like her, it’s a really funny book’. I just thought she’d be a bit more hip and cool than that!
“But as a competitor, she is fierce. She isn’t scary, she doesn’t try to intimidate you. She is the type of person who will kill you with kindness. She doesn’t emit anything external to anyone. She is so focused and puts all her energy into her performance. She is very insular on the field. No one else matters but her. She has an amazing ability to focus on the task in hand, an innate ability to control her emotions and channel her nerves into her performance. She has an emotional intelligence unlike any other athlete I have ever competed against. It’s built into her DNA.”
Hazel’s retirement came after she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and advised to take six months off after competing at London 2012. She gave it six weeks and did a personal training qualification. She then started writing a fitness programme called The Podium Effect and the rest is history.
“I was very ready when I retired, so it wasn’t scary. I started writing a 360-day fitness plan and it completely took my mind away from athletics. For me during that time, there was no devastation. There are always highs and lows as an athlete, it’s just about riding something out and the time off gave me the opportunity to do something else for a short time while I got fit and healthy again. By the time I qualified as a PT I was sitting at home, writing loads of fitness content. I was buzzing from it.”
Some high-profile sports stars have struggled with the void that is left when they no longer compete on the biggest stage. But for Hazel, retirement was somewhat of a relief and the start of something new rather than a grieving process. “The shackles had been cut loose,” she admitted. “I’ve spoken to Victoria Pendleton about it, too. We discussed that it feels like a duty, we have a God-given gift of talent and you have to fulfil it and go as far as you can do.
“I loved my sport, I loved athletics and I loved having the opportunity to do that. I appreciate not many can represent their country, and win medals and compete at a home Olympics. But it also comes with sacrifice and it’s not normal; anyone who chooses this life is not a normal person.
“Retirement was about finally being able to be creative and to do other things I didn’t know I had talent for, like radio, TV, film and the fitness industry. I didn’t know I was creative at heart. I had been stifled by the constraints and routine of sport. Now I can put my mind to whatever I want.
“Athletes should always pre-empt retirement, and start working towards it. It’s the start of something new. Whenever anyone retires I always say, ‘Congratulations. It’s the time to celebrate your achievements and turn over a new leaf’.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.