It’s not often you can relate to an Olympic athlete. They are, undoubtedly, a unique kind of their own – determined, intimidatingly resilient, unfaltering. Ask them if they ever doubt themselves, and there appears a reinforcement of sureness, like a physical reflex; the reason, perhaps, they have achieved so much. When I ask Jessica Ennis-Hill, if ever feels like she can’t face the day, I’m surprised. She pauses. “I have thought, in the past,” she says, meaningfully. “I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.”
When we meet, it’s just three weeks until this year’s Olympic Games, in Rio, begin. We’re in Sheffield, Jess’ hometown on a sunny Wednesday afternoon – and, so far, Jess has been just as you might imagine: happy, light-hearted, approachable and warm. Perhaps it’s just a perception - the lingering memory of her impenetrable fortitude at London 2012, when she stormed the heptathalon to take gold for Great Britain – but, even when she’s not on the track, there’s a quiet air of determination about her.
It’s only around 15 minutes into our chat that her guard appears to lower slightly. It’s now four years since she won gold and solidified her title as the golden girl of British athletics, three years since she married her husband, Andy – and two years since she gave birth to her son, Reggie. Since 2012, she says, everything has changed.
“Life is completely different now to what it was in the lead up to London,” she explains. “Physically I’m not the same athlete as I was before, in 2012. Having my first child has meant my body has changed so much. Plus, back then when I was training, I was 26/27 – now I’m 30. My body has aged. It doesn’t particularly like all the training. And I’m a mum first now.
“Having my son was the first proper time that when I was trying to come back into training and juggle everything and just try to get back into some sort of physical shape, it was really hard. I didn’t know if it was going to be possible and that was the only time I really questioned whether I wanted to push on.”
Life is completely different now to what it was in the lead up to London. I’m not the same athlete as I was before, in 2012
She says she turned to her husband for support, and used Reggie as inspiration to keep her going. “You have the benefit of wanting Reggie to see what his mum has achieved,” she explains. “Not many people get to go to the Olympics; it’s a very unique opportunity.
“It’s nice now because he knows more. So in the morning I’ll say ‘Mummy is going off to training now and he makes huffing noises because he knows I’m going running. When I was away in Beijing last year Andy would put me on TV when I was competing and he would run around the living room and try and do a high jump on to the sofa.”
Today, Jess isn’t on the track training, or even resting in preparation for the imminent trip to Rio. Instead, she’s taking a day off to surprise a group of school students as part of Sky Sports Living for Sport, part of Sky Academy, a free initiative open to UK & Ireland secondary school which aims to build confidence and develop life skills.
Instead of collecting an award, she’s presenting one to a particularly stand-out student, Christopher Badger, 18, of Aston Academy in Sheffield, who has excelled in the project he’s been involved in through the scheme. At the English Institute of Sport, Sheffield, Jess is surprising Chris and a room full of students, who have no idea she’s here. Later Jess will present Chris with the Sky Sports Living for Sport Student of the Year for England award, and she couldn’t be happier to do it.
“I wanted to get involved as I’ve seen first-hand what an impact sports has had on my life,” she says. “How it has changed everything for me – who I am as a person, from being involved at a young age.
“It can be powerful. This whole programme is that in a bubble; inspiring young people to do sport and taking something really positive away from it.”
We end our chat, and Jess is one day close to heading off to Rio. And as the world’s eye turns to South America and the global sports elite, it’s clear the nerves have dissipated; whatever doubts she once had have faded.
“I’m ready,” she says.
Sky Sports Living for Sport is a free initiative that works with secondary schools throughout the UK and Ireland to help young people build practical skills and self-confidence: www.livingforsport.skysports.com