London (AFP) – Jessica Ennis-Hill possessed, appropriately for someone born in the northern English city of Sheffield, a steely determination to be the best in her event heptathlon.
Sheffield, known as ‘Steel City’ for its history in producing the metal, was featured in iconic British box-office film ‘The Full Monty’, but Ennis-Hill added a golden dimension to the city’s image.
The 30-year-old claimed two world outdoor titles and, in her crowning glory, Olympic gold in London in 2012.
The latter was testament to her tough-as-teak character as she blossomed in the face of enormous pressure to perform in front of her ‘home’ crowd. It came as due reward for years of sacrifice in training and resilience in the face of several injuries.
Olympic glory brought her millions in commercial endorsements, a postage stamp, a gold painted postbox and a gala welcome back in her home city.
“This is my home and this is the place that I love,” she told the thousands who gathered to greet her.
Her love of the sport was kindled by her parents. Her painter and decorator Jamaican father Vinnie Ennis and her English mother, social worker Alison Powell, both dabbled in the sport, the former as a sprinter and the latter the high jump. They took their daughter, aged 10, to watch a meeting.
“I couldn’t say I excelled at other sports,” she told the Daily Telegraph in 2008.
“I played basketball, but was a little bit too small. It was really just for fun, I just concentrated on athletics from 13, but did several disciplines.”
However, her talent was evident from an early age, according to one of her coaches at the time.
“She stood out a mile… she was probably one of most talented youngsters I’ve ever seen,” Mick Thompson told The Guardian in 2010.
Despite her focus on sports it didn’t distract her from her studies and she progressed to earn a degree in psychology — her thesis was on ‘self discipline’.
Indeed she admits the sparkling smile, while not being a front, was quickly disposed of when she confronted her rivals.
“I know. It is a contradiction,” she told The Guardian in 2012 after winning Olympic gold.
“I think that’s one of the first things you’d say if you met me, that I am just nice and smiley.
“And that’s how I might appear when I’m not competing. But I’m totally different when it comes to sport. It’s just something that seems to be within me. It’s not external or visual. But it’s within me.
“You have to be totally up for it and motivated otherwise you just wouldn’t win. But it’s not something that a lot of people see. Apart from maybe my family.”
Ennis-Hill — who admits to having been bullied at school because of her then slight build — has also shown on occasions she is willing to stand up and make her feelings clear when she believes something is wrong.
Never was this more apparent than when she objected to Sheffield United suggesting they would re-sign striker Ched Evans after he served time for rape — he is presently being re-tried after that conviction was quashed on appeal — and demanded the club remove her name from one of the stands.
“I believe being a role model to young people is a huge honour and those in positions of influence in communities should respect the role they play in young people’s lives and set a good example,” she said in November 2014.
Ennis-Hill may have just failed to become only the third athlete to give birth and win Olympic gold — finishing second in Rio — but her two-year-old son Reggie is consolation enough.
“Reggie is better than any gold medal,” she told The Sun earlier this year.