Ennis-Hill taking her first steps on long road to Olympics in Rio

Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill during a photocall for the Great CityGames on Great CityGames Manchester track, Deansgate, Manchester. (Picture: Barrington Coombs/PA Wire)
Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill during a photocall for the Great CityGames on Great CityGames Manchester track, Deansgate, Manchester. (Picture: Barrington Coombs/PA Wire)
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Twenty-Two months have passed since the golden girl of British athletics last donned the spikes in competitive action.

You have to go back even further – nearly three years – to her last act at the highest level, that never-to-be-forgotten ‘Super Saturday’ when she strode to the top step of the Olympic podium.

The Jessica Ennis-Hill who lines up on the starting blocks in the 100m hurdles at the Great CutyGames on Deansgate in Manchester today, is an altogether different beast.

She is married now, a mother to a nine-month-old son, and her priorities have changed.

But with 15 months to go until the next Olympics, today marks her first tentative step on the road to Rio and on the journey to proving she can reclaim her place as the world’s best multi-eventer.

To do so, she will first have to take back her position as the country’s No 1, an honour now taken in her absence by Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

The 22-year-old Liverpudlian, who won pentathlon gold in the European Indoor Championships in March – so breaking Ennis-Hill’s British record – contests the 200m hurdles today.

They might be avoiding each other today, but the two leading lights in women’s athletics will not be separated for long.

They are due to go head-to-head over seven events in Gotzis, Austria, at the end of the month.

Gotzis has provided the backdrop to so many of Ennis-Hill’s highs and lows down the years; her heartbreak at suffering an Olympics-ending injury in 2008 was laid to rest four years later when she broke Denise Lewis’s national heptathlon record.

Such raw emotions are not expected across the Pennines today.

Ennis-Hill would settle for steady rather than spectacular as she makes her first appearance since the Anniversary Games of July 2013 back at London’s Olympic Stadium.

“I do feel a little bit like, ‘what am I doing?’ But it’s going to be a really fast race,” said Ennis-Hill, who goes up against American world champion Brianna Rollins, Great Britain team-mate and European champion Tiffany Porter and compatriot Lucy Hatton, the European indoor silver medallist over 60m hurdles.

“I’m coming back into a really good field.

“It’s a good environment with a nice fast track, so I feel that I’ve just got to get back into it and see where I am and have a benchmark for something I can work on throughout the season.”

The Sheffield athlete, who will compete in front of her son Reggie and an expected crowd of 25,000 spectators, accepts she is stepping into the unknown today.

The hurdles is her strongest event, but she has admitted she is in a “no man’s land” of not knowing what sort of time she might be capable of.

A series of minor Achilles niggles have hampered her training, but she is relishing the chance to feel the buzz of competition again.

However, as she promoted today’s event alongside Johnson-Thompson, the golden girl of London 2012 insists the pressure is no longer on her shoulders.

“I don’t feel as much pressure because I feel that I’ve had my amazing year of being the poster girl (at London 2012) and achieving my dreams,” said Ennis-Hill, who returned to training before Christmas.

“Now obviously Kat’s here and she’s doing so well. I just want to get back into competing and give myself a really fair go of having a child and coming back and trying to be successful.

“I don’t want to look at this time and think, ‘why didn’t I give it a proper go?’.

“I’m happy to keep my head down and focus on what I want to achieve.”

While Ennis-Hill is a regular at the CityGames, Johnson-Thompson is competing here for the first time as she kicks off an outdoor season she hopes will culminate in heptathlon gold at the World Championships in August.

Her last action earned her the European pentathlon crown, the first senior gold medal of her career, but was greeted with tears of disappointment and frustration as she fell agonisingly short of breaking the world record.

“Since then we’ve just steadily got back into training and I think there’s no rush to be in top shape at the minute because Beijing is so far away,” she said.

“The Great CityGames is fun. It’s an event where the 100m hurdles for me is too short. I always have to chop down my strides because I’m too tall for them whereas with the 200m hurdles I can just stride out and do seven strides between the hurdles.

“It’s going to be really stiff competition in the 200m, especially with Meghan Beesley. I remember she smashed it last year and got the world best performance so it’s going to be tough, especially with Eilidh Child there too. So I’m against specialists and it’s not an event I’ve ever done.”