With the Olympics just over a month away, Sheffield heptathlete Jessica Ennis Hill talks to Gabrielle Fagan about how motherhood has impacted on her career.
Jessica Ennis-Hill is effortlessly switching between discussing the problems of trying to feed her toddler son, Reggie, and her plan to win Olympic gold at the Rio games in August. She appears totally relaxed, but admits it’s easier managing her intensive training programme than dealing with a sometimes uncooperative 23-month-old.
“I’m a perfectionist, you have to be as a world-class athlete and I’m like that as a mother sometimes. I have to rein myself in because every mother learns babies do things at their own speed,” she says, “Being a bit of a control freak, I want to do everything for him properly and I put pressure on myself. Like every mum, I just want to be the best I can be and give him the best start in life.”
The 30-year-old has already proved she’s proficient at juggling motherhood and her career. The latter began when she was 10 years old and her mother, Alison, took her to a summer sports camp in Sheffield, where her natural talent was immediately spotted. Since then, Ennis-Hill has become a sporting icon, winning gold for heptathlon at the 2012 London Olympics, and again last August at the Beijing World Championships when Reggie was just 13 months old.
“It was so hard getting back into shape and training after he was born,” she says. “It didn’t help that Reggie didn’t sleep through the night for the first nine months. We’ve always cared for him ourselves and not had a nanny, so at one stage I was sleep-deprived and questioning, ‘What am I doing? Do I actually want to do this at all now I have child?’”
Her will-to-win triumphed though. “I realised there was still this other side of me that’s fiercely competitive who wants to achieve and so it’s about trying to balance that with wanting to spend as much time with Reggie as possible,” she explains frankly. “One of the great things is that my perspective on life is different now. I’ve organised training around his needs.
“It’s a no-brainer that he’s a priority - so I go out in the morning, spend the afternoon with him, and then do another session when he’s asleep in the evening. One of the bonuses is, if I have a bad training session, I don’t dwell on it like I used to because I’m too busy rushing home to look after my amazing little boy who’s smiling and needing his mummy. It balances everything out and has benefitted my performance.”
While clearly besotted, she acknowledges that ‘guilt’ as well as joy is part of a mother’s lot.
“When he was born, my mum said, ‘You’re a mum now, you’ll feel guilty for the rest of your life’, and I completely get that,” she adds. “That can range from worrying I haven’t done a tiny thing right for him, to absolutely hating leaving him behind for two weeks to go to Beijing. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I felt I had to return with a medal to make it worthwhile.
“Mum told me while I was away he used to toddle up to the TV screen when he saw me and say, ‘Mama’. That just undid me and melted my heart. This time we’re planning for him to come with me to Rio which will be wonderful. My family will look after him and I just won’t see him on the days I compete.”
Surprisingly, Ennis-Hill says she’s not feeling the same pressure to succeed that she experienced in 2012.
“Although I’m going to Rio to perform my best and hopefully go out on a high, especially as it’ll be my last Olympics, I don’t feel as much outside pressure this time, which is making me much more relaxed. I’ve been fortunate to have had a great career so far and I just want to enjoy this unique situation which I’ll never have again in my life. It’ll be even more special having Reggie as part of it. It’s great that he’s growing up around sport and I hope it will be a natural part of his life.”
Jessica Ennis is supporting P&G’s nappy brand Pampers ‘Little Champions’ campaign.