This was supposed to be a marker for Rio. The decision to compete at the World Championships came only at the last minute. Bronze would have constituted success, she said. Yet here she was, seven years after injury first denied her a shot at lining the Bird’s Nest in golden feathers, snaffling the colour of medal that might have been hers at those very Olympics.
This was a victory of character and heart as well as athletic excellence. As Usain Bolt also demonstrated in his cleansing of the 100m, when separation is measured in fractions, mettle makes the difference. Like Bolt, Ennis-Hill knows how to manage the environment, her presence enough to inhibit the output of others.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson does not lack for talent. It might be that the totals she compiles down the line are greater than the wonder mother’s. She was second overnight with her best event to come. When the moment beckoned, Johnson-Thompson could not produce a measurable jump, bouncing herself off the podium.
Johnson-Thompson is so good at the long jump she will be back in the pit this week to contest the individual event. In the molten heat of competition her method disintegrated. She could not deliver what has become second nature. This is what elite competition does, it fries the synapses, mangles mind management systems, takes you down.
Ennis-Hill arrived in Beijing with form nowhere near optimised after giving birth to her son, Reggie, just 13 months ago. Though she notionally returned to training last November, the birthing process meant a period of adaptation and rebuilding unlike anything she had known before.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson cuts a forlorn figure following her failure in the long jump which ended her hopes of a medal (AFP)
She competed for the first time since her Olympic success at London in 2012 only in May, and delayed a decision about Beijing until after the Anniversary Games in London last month. Her body clock was always set to Rio time, where she hopes to defend her Olympic crown next year.
How do you tell a winner not to win? Once she understood that victory was physically within her grasp in Beijing, the demand stiffened for the rest of the field. Johnson-Thompson was not the only one to suffer. Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton did not come to China for silver and left recalibrating the challenge facing her in Brazil.
While Johnson-Thompson was disintegrating in the long jump, Ennis-Hill was posting a season’s best, as she did in four of the seven disciplines. The final event, the 800m, was a formality when it might have been the contest that identified Johnson-Thompson as the woman to beat in Brazil. That was a vision she was contemplating when second at the end of the first day with her strongest suits to come.
“I don’t want to battle it out with Jess in the 800m because neither of us will give up,” she observed from the safety of Saturday night. “I would like to get two good events in the long jump and javelin and give myself an easier time because she is Olympic champion and I would like to think I’ve got the goods as well so the 800m could be really special.”
It was for Ennis-Hill. The long jump failure rendered the javelin redundant for Johnson-Thompson, though she was still required to throw. And the climax that the 800m should have been became for the same reason a jog around two laps of the track to save Johnson-Thompson’s legs for the long jump.
You hope she will be stronger for the experience. Though sports folk commonly observe how they learn more from defeat than victory, winning is a skill some never acquire.