Jessica Ennis-Hill will not be seeking the limelight in retirement so it was perhaps fitting that she announced it last Thursday with only her dog for company.
After dropping two-year-old son Reggie at nursery, she was walking chocolate Labrador Myla in the woods near their Sheffield home and hit send on her phone, publishing an Instagram post and forgoing the fanfare of a celebrity press conference.
Thousands of messages flooded in and she began to well up. Husband Andy had warned this might happen.
‘There’s always time for tears,’ she says in her first newspaper interview since announcing her retirement. ‘The night before I put it out Andy said,
“Are you going to be ready for this?”
But I wasn’t prepared for that. It wasn’t just “good luck”, it was really lovely, deep messages that people sent and articles that were written and it gave me time to think about what these last few years have been like.’
Those who are closest to the 30-year-old realised her mind was made up as soon as she crossed the line in the 800m to win heptathlon silver at the Olympics in August.
‘I think deep down I knew,’ she says. ‘One of my closest friends Lorna said, “I wasn’t sure if you were going to be happy or not with silver but when I saw your face I just knew you were totally happy and it wasn’t fake”.
‘I might’ve felt different if I’d won or come fourth or fifth but it’s just the right time. That’s why I was so emotional because I thought this will be the last time I compete and that was a really weird feeling.’
Before she’d even returned from her walk, bookmakers were offering odds on Ennis-Hill coming out of retirement in time for Tokyo 2020. She laughs at the absurdity of it. Only close friends and family have been privy to the extent of her battle through recurrent injury since returning to competition following the birth of Reggie in July 2014. She is looking forward to finally being pain-free. Even the prospect of a home World Championships in London next summer was not sufficient enticement to carry on.
‘I know physically I could go on and get on the podium again if I gave it everything,’ she says. ‘But it’s that desire to want to do it. After 2012 my motivation wavered a bit and I had injury, I had a bit of time away to have Reggie and it felt right coming back then.
‘But now it just feels like the perfect end point even though London would be amazing. I’ve had a lot of pain for the past two years. I’m walking away saying I’ve never had an operation, which is a big thing to say as an athlete, but these past two years my achilles have been a nightmare. I tore my calf and then tore my other calf. It definitely gets harder as you get older. If I did push myself to old levels then I’d get injured.’
After more than a decade as an elite athlete she is now agonising about what to write in the ‘occupation’ box on any forms she has to fill out, but it will certainly not be ‘professional celebrity.’
‘I’ve been asked to do a couple of reality shows,’ she says. ‘I enjoy watching them but it’s not something that I really want to do. I love Ant and Dec and I’m a Celebrity but I just couldn’t do it, I’m too scared of spiders.
‘I still want to do things I’m passionate about and elements of that will keep me in the public eye but I don’t want to go into being a presenter or something where I’ll be on TV the whole time.’
In the near future she and Andy plan to have another child and next year she will lead Vitality Move, a series of runs to encourage people of all ages to get active. But she insists her bank balance will not dictate her future career.
‘It’s not about earning loads of money,’ she says. ‘I’m really comfortable in life and I want to have time to enjoy it. I want to spend time with Reggie and my future kids. I want to enjoy things and be passionate about what I do. I don’t want to be overloaded.’
Ennis-Hill retires as the most decorated heptathlete in history and probably Britain’s greatest sportswoman but her victory at London 2012 under the enormous pressure of being the poster girl remains her crowning glory.
‘When I came into athletics I always wanted to get on the top of the podium, make major championships and win medals,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be remembered as one of the great athletes. I never thought I’d have that moment like London. It spiralled beyond anything I could ever have imagined.’
She leaves the sport at its lowest ebb, haunted by the spectre of doping and with few obvious candidates to fill the vacuum she leaves in British athletics. One of them is Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who had a miserable time in Rio.
‘I wouldn’t want to force advice on anyone but if they ask then of course,’ says Ennis-Hill. ‘With Kat in particular after Rio I said she is amazing and just needs to work out her throws. But I spent years and it does take ages to get the right set-up, the right coach. I’d like to offer advice and stay in the sport in some way.’
Tales of sportspeople who have stepped away only to suffer an overwhelming sense of emptiness and loss of purpose are well known to Ennis-Hill.
‘You see it a lot because you train all that time and it’s very selfish and your life is so structured,’ she says. ‘A lot of athletes do get depressed but my life is so busy anyway. I’ve started doing yoga once a week and I go swimming with Reggie on a Friday and you can easily fill a week. I think I’ll look back and wonder how I did fit my training in.’
At Monday’s open-top bus parade in Manchester for the returning Olympians and Paralympians, Ennis-Hill was the star attraction and there was little evidence that she had overindulged during the last couple of months which included a family holiday.
‘My old training group started hill runs last week and I did hill runs with them,’ she says. ‘All these years I’ve moaned about doing hills and I went and did them anyway.’
But the sense of duty is no more.
‘I wake up and my achilles hurts and I have that moment of real dread,’ she says. ‘Then I remember it doesn’t matter any more.’
If you need reminding of how Jessica triumphed in London and Rio check out the video below.