Weekend Interview: Katarina Johnson-Thompson happy to be the princess-in-waiting to ‘queen’ Jessica Ennis-Hill

Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill. Picture : Barrington Coombs/PA
Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill. Picture : Barrington Coombs/PA
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KATARINA JOHNSON-Thompson has long been considered the heir to Jessica Ennis-Hill’s throne.

However she fares at this summer’s Olympics in Rio, the 23-year-old suspects Tokyo 2020 will provide the optimum opportunity for coronation as our new heptathlon queen.

TEAM-MATES: Katarina Johnson-Thompson embraces her inspiration and Sheffields Olympic heptathlete champion Jessica Ennis-Hill after competing in the 200m at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing last year.  Picture: Adam Davy/PA

TEAM-MATES: Katarina Johnson-Thompson embraces her inspiration and Sheffields Olympic heptathlete champion Jessica Ennis-Hill after competing in the 200m at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing last year. Picture: Adam Davy/PA

Ennis-Hill almost certainly will not be competing in four years’ time, leaving the way for Johnson-Thompson to shine.

The Merseysider, though, has no great desire to see her British rival retire – admitting beating a peak of her powers Ennis-Hill in South America would provide the biggest compliment of all.

At 23, Johnson-Thompson is heading for her second Olympics after bursting onto the global scene as a teenager at London 2012.

Competing alongside Ennis and Louise Hazel, the youngster finished in 15th place with a score of 6,267, a performance of huge potential.

Britain's Katarina Johnson-Thompson celebrates with a British flag after winning the gold medal in the women's pentathlon at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Prague last year. 2015. Picture: AP/Martin Meissner

Britain's Katarina Johnson-Thompson celebrates with a British flag after winning the gold medal in the women's pentathlon at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Prague last year. 2015. Picture: AP/Martin Meissner

Four years on, the Liverpool Harrier hopes to fulfil that potential at this year’s Games in South America, for which Johnson-Thompson says Ennis-Hill is more or less back to her best – even in spite of motherhood, injuries and time having moved on.

It means Johnson-Thompson will need the performance of a lifetime to prosper in Rio, but the undoubted rising star of British heptathlon would not have it any other way.

In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post as the triathlete received her Team GB Rio kit at the NEC in Birmingham, Johnson-Thompson said of Ennis-Hill: “I think she can be beaten but she is looking back to her best and I’m not worried about that. It’s hard to explain.

“She’s back to her best and it’s not something where I’m like ‘oh no, she’s back to her best, I’m not going to have a chance.’

Sheffield's Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, right. Picture: Adam Davy/PA.

Sheffield's Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, right. Picture: Adam Davy/PA.

“It is something like ‘okay, well if she’s back to her best then whoever wins is the true Olympic champ; it is not won on default, it is not won because of injury, whoever wins it is true and it is real’ so, in a way, it makes it a lot more exciting.

“At the minute, she’s the best. She’s Olympic champ, she’s current world champ so I want to be able to beat the best if I can – if I can get it together.

“That’s exactly what she’s got on me – she’s got experience, she’s got age but, hopefully, I can just put it all together on the day.”

As a youngster, it was not initially clear in which activity Johnson-Thompson’s best days would come.

The Merseyside-raised youngster initially chanced her arm at dancing but, as a self-proclaimed tomboy, football was the next port of call before the starlet found her niche in athletics.

Throughout it all, mum Tracey has been her biggest fan, even if the desire for her daughter to follow her lead as a dancer did not exactly go to plan.

Johnson-Thompson recalled: “It was my mum who got me involved in just different hobbies when I was growing up.

“It was always ‘okay you’ll do school but you need something to go with it.’

“My mum said ‘okay do you want to go and do some dance lessons?’ so I did a bit of that and hated that. I was a bit of a tomboy so I tried all different sports – I went to football and had a few more lessons and I just kind of found athletics and my mum has always backed me fully, even though she hated standing in the cold.

“I think one of my first sessions when I joined the Harriers club was when it was raining one night and we phoned up and we were like ‘is it still on because of the rain?’ We just heard hysterical laughter down the phone, ‘of course it’s still on, it’s just a bit of rain!’

“She’s always been there, she’s like my biggest fan, she’d meet me off the bus after school and stuff in all my sports kit and without her I definitely wouldn’t have been able to continue, especially through those tough teenage years.”

Three years on, a 22-year-old Johnson-Thompson then looked poised to enjoy her finest moment at last year’s World Championships in which she sat second behind the impressive Ennis-Hill after the first day of competition.

But heartache was to strike on the second day when the Woolton-born athlete produced three fouls in the long jump meaning any hopes of making the podium were subsequently dashed.

The Merseysider also suffered a double dose of frustration in 2014 when injury forced her to miss both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships.

Rio 2016 could present the perfect and ultimate stage to make amends but, reflecting on her four years since London 2012, Johnson-Thompson is keen to point out that time is very much on her side.

The heptathlete reasoned: “After the Olympics when I came 15th, I remember thinking ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do if I’m going to live up to all these people saying I’m going to be good in 2016!’

“I didn’t really think it was going to happen, I’m 23 now and, obviously, that’s still relatively young for an athlete so I was thinking maybe Tokyo would be my time rather than Rio because I was thinking it was too soon but I’m just fortunate now to be in this position.

“I think it’s been a rocky road, obviously we have had some ups and some downs – some injuries and some really good performances.

“It’s just putting it together on the day and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Ennis-Hill paid Johnson-Thompson a huge compliment recently when highlighting her younger companion as a key rival for gold.

But Canada’s world No 1 Brianne Theisen Eaton will be another hugely tough nut to crack and Johnson-Thompson says she would be more than happy with a bronze.

What is certain is that after ‘learning the Olympic ropes’ in London, no part of Rio 2016 is about the experience, for all that Tokyo 2020 could well be the ultimate chance to shine.

Asked what she would be happy with in South America, Britain’s rising star pondered: “I think to get a medal.

“To get the gold is going to be very hard. I think it’s really hefty opposition in Jess and Brianne and a couple of other girls.

“But while it sounds so clichéd, it literally just depends on the day. Everyone is capable of winning, including myself but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to win, especially in the heptathlon.

“I have just got to do everything in my power to just put myself in the best position.

“I want to leave the track – even if I come third or fourth – to be thinking ‘you know what, I couldn’t have done anything else there’. I don’t want to leave and be like ‘I should have won’ or ‘I should have done that’. Then I’ll be happy, I’ll be able to live with myself but if I don’t do that, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

“Thinking back to the experience I had in 2012, coming to Kitting Out I was like bouncing around, doing everything, trying everything on – so happy.

“But now I am just sort of contained, this is just part of the process. I want to do well in Rio and I’ve got a hard road ahead of me these next few weeks.

“Now it’s not all about just being there and having the Olympic experience, I actually want to do well there.”

The Katarina Johnson-Thompson story...

DATE OF BIRTH: January 9, 1993.

AGE: 23.

place of birth: Woolton, Merseyside.

EVENT: Heptathlon, also pentathlon and long jump.

PERSONAL BEST: 6,682 pts.

CURRENT RANKING: World No 99.

CLUB: Liverpool Harriers.

COUNTRY: Great Britain and England.

NEXT BIG EVENT: Rio 2016 Olympics.

MAJOR COMPETITIONS: London, 2012 Olympics - 15th; Moscow 2013 World Championships - 5th; Beijing 2015 World Championships - 28th (heptathlon) and 11th (long jump).

OTHER BIG ACHIEVEMENTS (heptathlon unless stated): Brixen 2009 World Youth Championships - 1st; Barcelona 2012 World Junior Championships - 1st (long jump); Tampere 2013 European U23 Championships - 1st; Sopot 2014 World Indoor Championships - 2nd (long jump): Prague 2015 European Indoor Championships - 1st (pentathlon)

FORMER SCHOOLS: St Julie’s Catholic High School in Woolton and John Moores University in Liverpool.

HEIGHT: Six-foot.