London: “It’s a lot different,” says Jessica Ennis, reflecting on how life has changed since winning Olympic gold, “a lot different to the way it was before the Games.” Only the other day, a bunch of schoolchildren wanted to hug her. “I was like: ‘Why do they want to hug me?’” She laughs, in the confused but chuffed sort of way that befits the heptathlete who quietly embodies two extremes: the face of London 2012 and the girl next door who just happened to capture the imagination of a nation, shrugging off the incalculable weight of pressure and expectation on her petite frame to deliver gold at her first ever Olympic Games.
Touring the country to promote her autobiography she has been greeted by queues of people, long lines snaking beyond the warmth of the bookshops and out into the freezing cold, all patiently waiting to meet athletics’ answer to the people’s princess. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before, meeting that amount of people. I just find it weird that people get really excited to meet me,” says the 26-year-old, reeling off a list of examples of gifts she has been presented with. The strangest thing, though, which she says she still can’t quite get her head around, are the girls who cry at the sight of her. “Yeah, properly crying!” she says. “I felt like I was [in] a boyband. I said: ‘Why are you crying?’ And they couldn’t even talk. Then I felt like I was going to cry. I was like: ‘Oh, you’re not sad, are you?’”
In the streets, at the shops, they call her name, loudly, quietly; some are discreet, some are excited. But everyone wants a to have a look, or take a picture, or get an autograph. “The little kids call me ‘JessicaEnnis’,” she says, jamming first and second name tightly together in the way that kids at school like to do. “It’s always: ‘JessicaEnnisJessicaEnnis!’” She laughs. “But a lot of people, especially at home in Sheffield, they feel like they really know me so a lot of people just call me ‘Jess’. That’s quite nice.”
On Sunday evening the public chose her as runner-up to cycling star Bradley Wiggins in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, choosing from the most competitive shortlist ever assembled. Ennis, who had twice finished third in previous years, was among the bookmakers’ choices to claim the top spot. For every athlete shortlisted there is a unique and compelling argument as to why they most deserve the accolade.
With Ennis much of it comes down to the way she handled the inexorable levels of pressure, perhaps the only athlete for whom silver would have been deemed a failure. Even Prince Harry passed comment when meeting Ennis at the athletes’ village ahead of the Games. “So there’s not a lot of pressure on you then?” he joked. Perhaps he too had seen the enormous image of her painted on a field under the Heathrow flight path — a spectacle that her fellow heptathlete Jessica Zelinka described as the “Jessica Ennis theme park”.
Somehow Ennis managed to shrug off the pressure and flourish in that stadium, trouncing the competition with the third largest winning margin in an Olympic heptathlon, and a new British record to boot.
She says she coped by blocking it out, avoiding newspapers and the internet, and retreating to the holding camp in Portugal ahead of the Games.
“It’s only now that I realise that my mum and my dad and [fiance] Andy, everyone was pretty worried and stressed about me. They didn’t want to see me upset. They knew how much it meant to me, they worried a lot about how much pressure was being piled on me, but I was unaware of it at that stage.”
Perhaps most surreal of all, says Ennis, is watching back her gold-medal winning performances in London. All seven of them. From the hurdles, to the high jump, the shot put, 200m, the dreaded javelin and long jump, and the gruelling 800m final slog, Ennis says she barely recognises herself.
“It feels like I was never a part of it, it doesn’t feel like me, it’s quite weird. I just feel like I’m watching someone else and I’m thinking: ‘Oh, they’re doing really good! I’m really happy for them!’ It just feels so surreal.”
She says it is the first time she has ever felt so disconnected from the person she watched back as part of her championship reviews, undertaken with her coach, Toni Minichiello.
“I’ve always watched championships back to look at things I need to improve and work on, but this is definitely the first time I’ve looked back and thought it doesn’t feel like me. I think it’s just because it’s an Olympics, it’s so different to any other championship. I’d always heard stories about the Games but I’d never been part of one so it was hard to imagine it before you’ve ever experienced it yourself.”
After all those years in tracksuits, performing lung busting drills of cold hill runs up in her home town of Sheffield in the depths of winter, how does it feel now to be a celebrity, touring the chatshow circuit with her gold medal?
“Er, I don’t feel that I’m a celebrity,” she says, despite the singer Jessie J’s recent tweet that described Ennis as her “twin sister” after the two met on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man. Will she be making extra room on the guest list for celebrities to attend her wedding to Andy next spring? “No, no, no, no,” she says, sounding genuinely horrified. “It’s exactly the same as it was before, close friends and family only.
“Ultimately I’m an athlete. I want to be known for what I do and that’s athletics and my performances. All the other things are just nice to dip in and out of. It’s really weird being on these chatshows and things, it’s very surreal you know I’m normally at home watching them on TV.”
When it comes to Spoty, Ennis said it was “an honour and a privilege” just to have made the BBC shortlist in such a competitive year. She would have loved to have won, of course, but she has already realised her life ambition in winning Olympic gold: “If I come away with nothing but that this year I will be happy for ever.”