“It’s a lot different,” says Jessica Ennis, reflecting on how life has changed since winning Olympic gold, “a lot different to the way it was before the Games.” Only the other day, a bunch of schoolchildren wanted to hug her.
“I was like: ‘Why do they want to hug me?’” She laughs, in the confused but chuffed sort of way that befits the heptathlete who quietly embodies two extremes: the face of London 2012 and the girl next door who just happened to capture the imagination of a nation, shrugging off the incalculable weight of pressure and expectation on her petite frame to win gold at her first ever Olympic Games.
Touring the country to promote her autobiography, she has been greeted by queues of people, long lines snaking beyond the warmth of the bookshops and out into the freezing cold, all patiently waiting to meet athletics’ answer to the people’s princess. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before, meeting that amount of people. I just find it weird that people get really excited to meet me,” says the 26-year-old, reeling off a list of examples of gifts she has been presented with. The strangest thing, though, which she says she still can’t quite get her head around, are the girls who cry at the sight of her. “Yeah, properly crying!” she says. “I felt like I was [in] a boyband. I said: ‘Why are you crying?’ And they couldn’t even talk. Then I felt like I was going to cry. I was like: ‘Oh, you’re not sad, are you?’”
In the streets, at the shops, they call her name, loudly, quietly; some are discreet, some are excited. But everyone wants to have a look, or take a picture, or get an autograph. “The little kids call me ‘JessicaEnnis’,” she says, jamming first and second name tightly together in the way that kids at school like to do. “It’s always: ‘JessicaEnnisJessicaEnnis!’” She laughs. “But a lot of people, especially at home in Sheffield, they feel like they really know me so a lot of people just call me ‘Jess’. That’s quite nice.”
Somehow Ennis managed to shrug off the pressure and flourish in that stadium, trouncing the competition with the third-largest winning margin in an Olympic heptathlon, and a British record to boot. She says she coped by blocking it out, avoiding newspapers and the internet, and retreating to the holding camp in Portugal before the Games. “It’s only now that I realise that my mum and my dad and (fiance) Andy, everyone was pretty worried and stressed about me. They didn’t want to see me upset. They knew how much it meant to me, they worried a lot about how much pressure was being piled on me, but I was unaware of it at that stage.”