No stress for Jess

Jessica Ennis: 'Everyone should enjoy competing at a home Olympics'.  Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.
Jessica Ennis: 'Everyone should enjoy competing at a home Olympics'. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.
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JESS Ennis does not give the impression that she is burdened by the groaning weight of national expectancy on her slender but muscular shoulders.

London might be calling but the world and European heptathlon champion is trying her best not to be distracted by the noise - with other priorities, such as defending her world title and breaking Denise Lewis’s British record her next targets.

However, the Sheffield woman is - alongside Sir Chris Hoy and Rebecca Adlington - an undisputed big fish in the British Olympic pond.

Yet Ennis - grounded, unassuming and distinctly unstarry - would rather be snuggled on her sofa in a pair of baggy tracksuit trousers, watching her way through DVD box set with fiancé Andy, than take advantage of the showbiz opportunities that come with her status as one of Britain’s best-known sportswoman.

“I’ve never had any lessons on dealing with fame,” says the psychology graduate. “There are lots of pressures and things to handle but you have to learn to take things in your stride and just focus on the ambitions you have set yourself.

“It’s nice to get opportunities to do different things because of your athletics but you have to be strict with what you accept. I get really nervous competing but I swear presenting an award at the MOBOs (Music of Black Origin awards) was much worse.”

At every Olympics one domestic-hope is highlighted to carry the dreams of an entire nation - and recent history shows that more often or not it’s a track and field athlete. Michael Johnson, at the 1996 Atlanta Games, used this crippling pressure to inspire himself to new heights - racing to an unprecedented 200m and 400m double and claiming two Olympic and one world record in the process.

Four years later Cathy Freeman raced to 400m gold just a few days after cranking up the pressure on herself by lighting the Olympic flame.

While she was still at the peak of her powers in her late 20s, it was her last major success, Freeman later admitting that having sampled the soaring high of success on the home stage she had struggled to motivate herself for anything else.

But for every good there is a bad and an ugly. Konstantinos Kenteris was the poster boy of the Athens Olympics having won Olympic gold in Sydney and also the world and European 200m title. But in the days before the opening ceremony he failed to attend a drugs test, faked a motorbike accident and was dropped from the team ‘in the interests of his country’.

And then there was Liu Xiang in Beijing. Many thought the Games would not be considered a success unless the sprint hurdler retained his title.

His face loomed down from every billboard and beamed out from every ad break. But he stunned the Bird’s Nest crowd by walking off the track in tears, an untimely tendon Achilles injury forcing a nation a billion strong to take a sharp intake of breath.

These are all salutary lessons for Ennis, who knows first-hand the pain of missing an Olympic through injury, watching the last Games on TV with her fractured ankle in plaster.

Which is perhaps why she avoids taking too much attention from the fanfare that greets every milestone on the journey to next year’s Games.

“London 2012 is always there at the back of your head but I try to stop it popping in my mind all the time,” she adds.

“I don’t go to bed dreaming about it. I’ve got this year’s World Championships to focus on - retaining that title - and there are other ambitions and targets I want to achieve before 2012. Maybe when those championships are over I will start to feel different. I know the expectation will be massive but I believe I have the ability to control that and still perform,

“I felt pressure before the European Championships because everyone was expecting me to win gold. It was nice to know that I could deal with it and hopefully that’s a valuable experience. Everybody should enjoy competing at a home Olympics; you won’t perform your best if you are dreading it.”

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