• ESPN Sports Personality - No. 5

Jessica Ennis - Golden Girl

ESPN staff
December 17, 2012
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The past 12 months have thrown up a catalogue of memorable performances, including golden Olympic moments, acts of golfing greatness and more than the odd piece of heroism on a bike. Leading up to Christmas, ESPN will name its top 10 sports personalities of the year in ascending order...

If you based a footballer's year on two single days in 2012, any number of players could be voted Player of the Season.

But Jessica Ennis virtually did just that. After two days of superb competition she was crowned Olympic heptathlon champion at London 2012.

However, it was so much more than that. What Ennis achieved was nothing short of inspirational. The poster girl of the London Olympics, Ennis' name was plastered across billboards and televisions for months in the lead-up to the Games.

Having gone through the agony of missing the Beijing Olympics four years previously with a foot injury, Ennis was not just a gold medal hopeful, she was expected to win - she admitted in the lead-up that anything less than gold would be considered a failure.

Carrying the expectation of a nation on her tiny shoulders, Ennis was rarely out of the headlines. Just a week after she was inexplicably accused of being fat by a senior UK Athletics official, she hit back in style, smashing Denise Lewis' British record.

As with Andy Murray in the run-up to Wimbledon each year, Ennis' every move was scrutinised, and she was forced to allay fears over her long jump after struggling with her run-up in during a low-key meet.

Having been robbed of her world title by Tatyana Chernova at the World Championships the previous summer, Ennis had learned what defeat tasted like, and didn't like it.

The old motivational adage says that success is one per cent inspiration, 99% perspiration, but it does not take mentality into account. There is no doubting Ennis' talent, nor her dedication, but it did not guarantee her gold in London.

Her coach Toni Minichiello deserves credit for getting his charge to the start line in perfect shape and injury free. Getting athletes to peak at the right time is to a certain degree a science, although it does seem to require a certain degree of luck.

The morning athletics sessions are historically poorly attended events at the Olympics, but there wasn't a seat to spare on the opening morning of the athletics on Friday, August 3, as 80,000 packed into the Olympic Stadium.

"You'd be lucky even at World Championships if the stadium is half-full," Ennis later said. "But the place was rammed. Incredible."

If there were any concerns over the shape Ennis was in, those were quickly dispelled as she quite literally burst out of the blocks, setting a new British record in the 100m hurdles, clocking a sensational 12.54 seconds which would have been enough to win individual hurdles gold in Beijing four years previously.

After a slightly disappointing 1.86 metres in the high jump, traditionally one of her strongest events, Ennis surrendered her lead to Austra Skujyte after throwing 14.28m in the shot put. But another personal best - this time in the 200m - catapulted Ennis back up to the top of the standings at the end of the first day of competition.

Ennis settled the nerves early on Saturday, leaping 6.48m in the long jump, just three centimetres short of her personal best - a superb effort given her struggles in the weeks leading up to the event - to extend her lead.

In the penultimate discipline, the javelin, which is traditionally Ennis' weakest event of the seven, she threw a lifetime best of 47.49m to leave Ennis on the brink of glory.

The 800m was essentially a two-lap victory parade for Ennis, who was one of the best middle distance runners in the field. But rather than cruise around and enjoy her golden moment, Ennis set her sights on the magical 7000-point barrier, which only three women in history had achieved.

"I'd trained so hard, done so many horrible 800m sessions and every time I did one, forcing myself through it, I was thinking to myself, 'You're doing this for one race only'," Ennis said. "If I'd just jogged round, what would have been the point of all that pain?"

Ultimately, she fell short in her pursuit of that milestone - her time of 2:08.65 was only enough to take her to 6955 points - a new British and Commonwealth record.

An expectant nation had to wait almost a week for a first gold medal for Team GB, but the floodgates had been opened and Ennis was the beginning of a golden evening in the Olympic Stadium, as Greg Rutherford sprang a surprise in the long jump before Mo Farah capped a glorious night with victory in the men's 10,000m.

For Ennis, who suffered heartbreak in 2008 when she missed the Beijing Olympics with injury, it was a mixture of ecstasy, exhaustion and pure relief that she was able to deliver when it mattered most.

Whether or not she goes on to regain her world title, defend her crown in Rio, breaks the 7000-point barrier, or even the world record, nothing is likely to surpass Ennis' performance in London, when she justified the hype and confirmed her status as Team GB's golden girl.

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