Rising heptathlete Emerson has parallels with me – Ennis-Hill

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Tokyo 2020 could see the continuation of a remarkable British sporting success story – a sixth consecutive Olympic heptathlon medal.

Denise Lewis started the medal streak in 2000 with gold in Sydney.

Kelly Sotherton continued the trend with bronze in both Athens and Beijing before Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill spectacularly bookended the run with London 2012 gold and a post-childbirth silver in Rio.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson is the stand-out contender to join the club having won world, European and Commonwealth titles in the last 18 months.

But given the breakthrough performances of Niamh Emerson – winning Commonwealth bronze and European indoor silver behind Johnson-Thompson – it is not too far-fetched to imagine multiple British multi-event medallists.

Jessica Ennis-Hill with Katrina Johnson-Thompson and Niamh Emerson

Ennis-Hill certainly believes Emerson has the raw materials to challenge the world’s best sooner rather than later.

“She’s so impressive,” said Ennis-Hill – whose first senior medal, like Emerson’s, was a Commonwealth Games bronze, in Melbourne in 2006.

“I think at this moment Kat is still at the forefront of everyone’s mind in heptathlon in Britain and globally.

“But Niamh is absolutely there just chipping away, chipping away and picking up medals. She’s going to be rivalling Kat soon.”

How soon is a fascinating question.

At March’s European Indoor Championships in Glasgow Emerson’s tally of 4,731 points to win silver was the best pentathlon score ever by a teenager. Emerson set a personal best in all five events – an “incredible” performance according to Ennis-Hill.

Emerson’s score of 6,253 points to win gold at the World Junior Championships in Finland last summer meanwhile was just 14 points shy of Johnson-Thompson’s British Under-20 record.

Such breakthrough performances have inevitably led to speculation about Emerson’s chances at September’s World Championships, and next summer’s Olympic Games.

100m hurdles personal bests
Name Time Venue
Jessica Ennis-Hill 12.54 London, UK, 2012
Denise Lewis 13.13 Talence, France, 2000
Kelly Sotherton 13.18 Beijing, China, 2008
Katarina Johnson-Thompson 13.29 Gotzis, Austria, 2017
Niamh Emerson 13.71 Birmingham, UK, 2018

Having only turned 20 last month, Emerson is understandably coy about talking about Olympic medals but is quietly confident a winter focusing on improving her speed will reap rewards – starting at this weekend’s Hypo-Meeting in Gotzis.

Emerson began her athletic life as an 800m runner and, while that natural endurance is a benefit in heptathlon’s last event, her resulting lack of speed is a hindrance in at least three of the others – 100m hurdles, 200m and long jump.

“I think speed is definitely an improvement I need to make but heading into the outdoor season I do feel a lot faster,” Emerson said. “We’ll soon see. Speed makes the basis of the whole heptathlon so by improving that I’ll improve everything I hope.

“Jess was really quick and Kat is really quick too. I don’t necessarily need to be as quick as Kat or Jess but I do need to get quicker.”

Ennis-Hill believes an increase in explosivity could deliver “massive gains” – an exciting prospect given that Emerson ended the indoor season ranked second in the pentathlon world rankings.

Outdoors Emerson added 240 points to her heptathlon personal best in 2018 – increasing it to 6,253.

A similar improvement in 2019 would put her firmly into the medal conversation.

At four of the last five editions of both the World Championships and the Olympic Games bronze has been won with a total in the 6500 point bracket.

Score to win bronze at the last five Olympic Games
Rio 2016 6653
London 2012 6599
Beijing 2008 6517
Athens 2004 6424
Sydney 2000 6527

Emerson could take a big step forward towards that mark in Gotzis this weekend. Not only is the Austrian venue known for its fast track, it is also highly-competitive given it regularly attracts the best multi-eventers in the world.

A personal best would only increase the hype, but Emerson is adamant she won’t be buckling under any increased pressure. Not again anyway.

As a teenager, Emerson suffered crippling pre-race nerves. The nadir came in a cross-country race aged 13 when Emerson had to stop during the race.

It proved to be a turning point. In her own words she “sports-psychologied” herself into changing her mindset – an early show of psychological awareness that she has taken into adulthood.

Emerson, as Ennis-Hill herself did, is studying psychology at Loughborough University and wants to work as a clinical psychologist when her athletics career is over. “Because I struggled with nerves so much when I was younger I now think “Niamh, you just need to get over it”,” she says.

“When I was a teenager I used to get so nervous about races that I would literally just stop in the middle and start walking. I still get nerves but I just use them to my advantage.”

Another advantage for Emerson is her 5ft 11in frame – a real asset, especially in heptathlon’s throwing events.

Ennis-Hill, 5ft 5in, admits to some envy about the 20-year-old’s “classic heptathlete physique” but is equally quick to point out size doesn’t always matter.

“She’s strong and she’s tall and she’s got a classic heptathlete physique although it’s not always about that because I was definitely small and didn’t have that same shape,” she said.

“Without doubt having that extra height is an advantage in the heptathlon and Niamh has obviously got that. But she was also telling me she has size nine feet and it’s hard to find shoes but that’s just one of the challenges of having a great heptathlete physique isn’t it?”

Big shoes to find – and even bigger ones to fill. Such is life as a British heptathlete.

“I do see some parallels between us. We both did psychology degrees and we both had a similar journey into athletics at the start of our careers. The Commonwealth Games was a really key moment for both me and Niamh stepping into senior championships.

“I definitely think she can (deal with the hype). She has kind of taken it all in her stride and has not got too carried away with anything at this stage.”

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women’s sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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