Her grandad gave Jess a fiver for a PB and £3 per medal – but became skint

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People will say I am biased but to my mind Jess is the greatest British athlete of all time. Who else has had the career she has had? Olympic champion at London 2012. Double world champion. Seven global medals – more than any heptathlete in history – plus another couple in the Commonwealth Games and European championships, too. And to return to the top after having her son, Reggie, in 2014, when so many experts believed the stresses of the heptathlon would make it impossible, says a lot about how talented and tenacious she was.

But, to me, Jess’s most endearing quality is how she is as a person. When we trained in Sheffield there would often be youngsters running around the track alongside her. And she was always happy to talk, pose for selfies or sign autographs. Increasingly, you see sports people who are aloof and keep themselves in a bubble. But Jess always wanted to be someone that people not only looked up to but could say hello to as well. Look how magnanimous she was to Nafissatou Thiam after the Belgian athlete beat her at the Rio Olympics or how she comforted Katarina Johnson-Thompson after her three no-jumps at the 2015 world championships. That wasn’t made-up bullshit – Jess has always been that person.

The question over the past year was always whether Jess would retire post‑Rio or after the London 2017 world championships. Clearly she wasn’t going to continue on to the Tokyo Olympics, so her decision makes a lot of sense. There was no soul-searching. Most athletes don’t get to choose when to retire. Either they get injured or old, soldiering on until they become a shadow of their former selves. Of course, a gold medal in Rio would have been a perfect way to bow out but unfortunately Thiam hadn’t read the script. Perhaps we should have written it in Flemish and French!

The first time I saw Jess she was about nine years old. I used to run an indoor athletics meeting for primary schools at Don Valley and I could see straight away that she was better than her peer group. She kept coming because her mate did, too. Her mum didn’t mind – she saw it as free childcare! At that stage everyone kept wanting to push Jess towards sprinting but my feeling was that sprints are difficult to do in Britain because it is so bloody cold; so I thought let’s do lots of different things, let’s develop the athleticism and work out which events she really likes. It turned out she was good at most of them.

Even so, Jess was always striving to be better because that is the person she is. But when she was growing up she also asked to do different events to fleece her grandad because he had told her he would give a fiver if she got a personal best or £3 if she won a medal at an event. It meant Jess would come to me and say ‘Can I have a go at this event – I’ve not done it before?’ She was so successful I think her grandad became skint and he had to renegotiate the deal.


Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill celebrates winning the gold medal in the heptathlon in Beijing in 2015. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

By 15 she was so seriously good that she was able to finish third at the national under-20 championship. At that stage she largely did the pentathlon and she was great at four events and crap at 800m but as she got older she eradicated her weaknesses and her mental toughness shone through. People often praised her ability to perform under pressure but it was always there. She was a competitive machine. Even if we were throwing bits of paper into the rubbish bin, she would want to win.

She was under enormous pressure before London 2012, pressure that began when she won the world championships in Berlin in 2009 and Seb Coe said she would be the face of the next Olympics. For the next three years she carried that mantle like it weighed a feather but the pressure was real. I remember I told Charles van Commenee, UK Athletics’ performance director, that she was the only team member where a silver medal would be regarded as a loss. Yet still she delivered.

But for all her brilliance at London 2012, I would still put that performance behind her gold medal at last year’s world championship in Beijing. To come back from the birth of a child and within a year be the best in the world again was something special.

We had plenty of banter in our time together – you’re talking 18 years, give or take. There are very few athletes and coaches who have been together that long. It’s extremely rare. Marriages often don’t last that long. And even though Jess is now retired, she ran in the park with us last Sunday, up the hills, still pushing it hard. I don’t know what Jess will do next but in the years ahead I pity anybody at school sports day who wants to race her. They should put her in the dad’s race. She would win that, too.

Toni Minichiello was Jessica Ennis-Hill’s coach

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