Although I knew it was coming there’s still a slight judder of shock when I read Jess’ announcement of her retirement. I guess I still cherished a hope that she’d compete in London 2017 and retain her world title on home soil. Not that I’m selfish or anything but it had a certain poetic symmetry that appealed to me.
Just what you’d expect. Humble, grateful and very, very grounded.
I decide to do what I always do when Jess is in the news. I call Toni.
“So, it’s real then?”
“Yep. We’ve known for a long time this day was coming”.
“It still feels strange though. Like when the dentist tells you it’ll hurt. You can’t really imagine what it will feel like until the drilling starts”.
Given Toni’s recent experiences with dentists I realise this wasn’t the best simile I could have used but he lets it slip.
“It certainly made me reflect”.
“Many sports people hold on too long. Jess has managed to avoid walking out of the stadium after failing a qualifying round. She’s walking out of the stadium by stepping off the podium. She’s one of our sporting greats. It seems fitting this way”.
“Remember that time Jess interviewed you whilst she was driving? Now she’s retired that seems more poignant than at the time”.
If you’ve watched the video you can tell immediately that there’s a depth of relationship on show that can only be established over time. I make the point to Toni.
“You’re talking 18 years give or take. There are very few athletes and coaches who have been together that long. It’s extremely rare. Marriages often don’t last that long”.
“Seeing the way you two banter I’m sometimes amazed you’ve lasted”
Toni laughs, “There’s lots to banter about. Like her blonde moments. I remember when we were in the EIS when I coached Ivona and she was asking what languages Ivona spoke, ‘What languages do they speak in Austria… Austrian, Australian?’ Err…German I think you’ll find”
“I remember a classic in Barcelona”.
“When she was talking about being ‘mentalled’ when she meant ‘mentored’ ?”
“Good work for someone with a degree”
We’re both quiet for a moment. I choose to state the obvious,
“It’s been quite a journey”
“If you want my take on Jess as an athlete, here it is.
For an athlete to work from the ages of 13 to 30 and then win an Olympic medal is considered a significant achievement.
For an athlete to come back from a serious injury and win a World Championship is classed as outstanding.
To win Gold at a home Olympics whilst carrying the expectations of a nation on your shoulders is celebrated as remarkable.
To have a baby and become World Champion a year later makes you one of a very small group of elite athletes.
To do all four in your career? Consistent doesn’t do it justice. It’s off the scale. The best ever? I’d say that’s more like it”.
“You’ve sold it to me. Blonde moments aside, what’s about working with Jess the person?”
“She’s humble, she grafts, she pushes herself hard and she never gives up. She’s funny. Despite all the fame and money she’s never forgotten where she’s come from – most of her friends she’s had from school days.
There’s a competitive streak too. And it’s driven by not wanting to let anyone down, including herself ”.
Toni pauses. He knows there’s only one ‘retirement’ speech. There will be no false dawns or comeback trails,
“Here’s a story to sum Jess up.
She came to the track one day to train and there was a big school sports day on. She was tired, under a lot of pressure in the run into London 2012 and had a lot to do. She sneaked in and made it very clear to me that there was ‘no way’ she was going to get involved in awarding medals or signing things on that day. She simply wanted to train and go home to rest. That was fine by me.
A few minutes later a teacher spotted her and sidled over. No prizes for guessing what happened. Not only did she agree to help out she apologized that the kids would have to wait until the end of her training session.
Come to think of it I don’t think she’s ever refused a kid an autograph – whatever has been going on”.
If you put it all together; performance, consistency, medals, returns from injury and pregnancy, how she’s represented and lifted the sport, the way she conducts herself away from the track, everything – in my opinion that’s what makes her the best ever”.
I’ve witnessed similar and chip in,
“I remember her signing autographs mid-competition at Manchester earlier this year when other, less accomplished athletes, spent most of their time ‘in the zone’”.
“If you put it all together; performance, consistency, medals, returns from injury and pregnancy, how she’s represented and lifted the sport, the way she conducts herself away from the track, everything – in my opinion that’s what makes her the best ever”.
“No question. She will leave a big gap to fill”.
It’s time for some reflection of my own, “Her absence may well be as significant for the sport as her presence has been. Who else can offer what she has? Maybe they broke the mould with Jess?”
“Maybe they did”.
“Maybe they broke the mould with you too?”
Toni snorts, “ I don’t think could find a mould that would fit me”.
“What now Toni?”
“Me? I’m not retiring. I’m on the road to Tokyo”.
“A coaches’ work is never done?”
“You got that right”.
As one sporting partnership winds down, several others wind up. Have no fear, I’ll be keeping tabs on the new Team Toni. For now, it’s time to say goodbye to Jessica Ennis-Hill.
Jess, you’re one of the best athletes we’ve ever produced, you’re a role model that understands and accepts your responsibilities and a global representative of British sport that we can all be proud of. On top of all that you’re a lovely human being. Whatever you do next, enjoy it. But don’t be surprised if you turn round and Toni’s on your shoulder asking you how you could do it better.
Some things were never meant to change.