New world champion beats mark set by Jessica Ennis-Hill
Solid displays on second day turned 800m into laps of honour
Finally. After so many injuries, heartbreaks, and self-eviscerations, Katarina Johnson-Thompson is the world heptathlon champion. A massive personal best of 6,981 meant she became the first person to topple Nafi Thiam, the Olympic champion and arguably the best female athlete in any sport, since May 2016.
If that was not sweet enough, there was even more icing on the cake as the 26-year-old athlete from Liverpool also beat Jessica Ennis-Hill’s British record of 6,955, set during the London 2012 Olympics, by 36 points.
Of course, this being Johnson-Thompson it was natural to fear some calamity or other might occur in the 800m, the last of the seven events, even with a 137-point lead. A trip or a fall, perhaps, or even a random act of God. But this time there were no travails or torments, just a time of 2:07:26 and elation.
Johnson-Thompson had laid the groundwork on the opening day, setting personal bests in the 100m hurdles and shot put to lead by Thiam by 96 points overnight.
If the Briton was nervous going into the second day it did not show. A massive long jump of 6.77m – her best in a heptathlon and well ahead of the Belgian’s 6.35m – extended her lead to 216 points.
The question now was whether Thiam could respond with a monster javelin throw. A heavily strapped arm to protect an injured elbow suggested otherwise, and the Belgian could only throw out to 48.04m – more than 10 metres below her best.
By now Johnson-Thompson was sensing victory and a javelin PB of 43.93m meant that Thiam had to finish nine seconds ahead of her in the 800m. However the Belgian’s personal best was eight seconds slower.
No wonder Johnson-Thompson looked elated at the finish. It is seven years since she burst into the public’s consciousness at London 2012, an eager young apprentice learning at the foot of Ennis-Hill. Most expected a smooth succession, the flame passing from one Briton to another, but instead Johnson-Thompson had to work, and work, and work some more.
Earlier in her career she would constantly visualise herself standing on the podium, the national anthem striking up and a gold medal round her neck, thinking that if she only believed enough it would happen.
If only. Instead injuries and ill-fortune got in the way. At the 2015 world championships she fouled three times in a row in the long jump while favourite to win. At the Rio Olympics she cleared 1.98m in the heptathlon high jump, only for an quadriceps injury to later flare up. Then, in front of her home crowd at the London 2017 world championships, she ruined her chances in the high jump.
It did not help either that she was up against Thiam of course. But she accepted the Belgian’s challenge, and pushed herself to be even better.
She also grew up. For years Johnson-Thompson was a self-confessed “mummy’s girl” who had most things done for her. But moving to Montpellier in early 2017 to join a renowned group that included the Kevin Mayer, the world decathlon record holder, changed everything.
When she first arrived, her coaches would call her “droopy” because she used to drop her head in competitions, while her coach, Bertrand Valcin, kept telling her to smile more. She was certainly obeying orders in Doha.