Tuesday, 23 May 2017 17:06

Katarina Johnson-Thompson revitalised by move to France

The heptathlete says she has become more independent and decisive since moving to France last year and is working hard to enter this summer’s world championships in perfect shape

I probably shouldn’t admit this,” says Katarina Johnson-Thompson, as she contemplates just how much her life has spun in new and not always glamorous directions since uprooting to France in December, “but I mopped up and got the Hoover out for the first time ever a couple of months ago. And I fixed my internet by myself last week when it broke.”

Johnson-Thompson smiles, acknowledging how absurd this sounds given she turned 24 in January. “I didn’t realise how much my family did for me until I came out here,” she says. “It was also very easy to go to M&S and just get some pre-seasoned chicken and stick it in the oven. Here, I have to cook everything from scratch.”

Johnson-Thompson says she has grown up and “become “more independent and decisive” since moving to Montpelier. With this summer’s World Athletics Championships in London looming, she believes this new resilience will help her in the hot heat of competition – something that would make her a prime contender for gold, and all the glories that will follow.

Few dispute that Johnson-Thompson has extraordinarily widespread levels of talent. Her leap of 1.98m in the heptathlon at the Rio Olympics would have won her gold in the individual high jump while she also has a world indoor long jump silver medal and a European Indoor pentathlon gold to her name. Yet she has not yet smashed into the mainstream because of a combination of injuries and bad luck.

She was on course for gold at the 2015 world championships in Beijing only to foul three times at the long jump, the final attempt by millimetres. At the Rio Olympics she faded from second to finish sixth due to a quadriceps injury that only those in her inner circle knew about. “Even after I jumped 1.98m I thought the gold had gone,” she says, grimacing at the memory. “Which was so stupid, given it was only the second event. I regret that the most because it is never all over. The heptathlon is seven events. I would take bronze now.”

She never let on because she felt people would see it as an excuse. Instead she went to Miami to see Kanye West in concert and spent a month trying to “be human again”. On returning to Liverpool she made the most difficult choice of her career: splitting from her coach of eight years, Mike Holmes. She says she is sad it happened, but had grown tired of going into a heptathlon “not feeling ready, always having an injury, and not being able to put together solid training – I was crossing fingers, not knowing for sure what I was going to do.”

The move to France was the track and field equivalent of shock therapy. She had little grasp of the language or culture but knew she was moving to a world-renowned group that included Kevin Mayer, the Olympic decathlon silver medallist, and Nana Djimou, the 2012 and 2014 European heptathlon champion, who has since become a firm friend.

“Nana speaks very good English,” she says. “And she helps me learn French because she’ll speak the majority of sentences in English but add in a French word so I understand what it means. But she’s given me until August to learn French and then she’s not speaking any English to me.”

Johnson-Thompson looked fit and sharp as she rattled through a series of sprints while the Observer watched on last Wednesday, while in competition she has already thrown the javelin further than she did in 2016. Her coaches expect her to be much quicker over 800m this season too. “I haven’t trained or competed this much since I was a junior,” she says, looking her to his first big competition of the year, at the prestigious Hypo-Meeting in Götzis.

“The last couple of competitions I’ve still felt fatigued so it can only bode well. I’m excited to do a heptathlon instead of going into one thinking: ‘Is my quad going to go?’ or ‘my knee’s not quite right’. I’m not there yet, I’m not in the shape I want to be for London, but I’m excited.”

One of the keys to winning gold at the world championships will be facing down her weakness: the shot put. “It is about getting competition confidence,” she says. “Last year I had only three shot put competitions. I have had more than that in 2017 already. It is about not being afraid of the circle, or embarrassed about what people are going to say at my throws. It’s a big project, but I think I am getting my head around it.”

Her new coaches – there are three of them – repeatedly stress how vital it is she conquers the mental side of sport. “When I first came here, I got introduced to Jean-Yves Cochand, one of my coaches, and he said they had nicknamed me ‘Droopy’ because in the last couple of years I had been like this in competitions,” she says dropping her head. Her principal coach, Bertrand Valcin, keeps telling her to smile more and not appear as if the weight of the world is on her shoulders. Her body language suggests their approach is working.

It perhaps helps that she also admits to enjoying the odd croissant and glass of chardonnay earlier in the year, although with the season in full swing she is much more strict with her diet. Her coaches, however, have a more relaxed approach. “With Jean-Yves, if you went down to the track now he’d have a bottle of wine in his bag,” she says, laughing.

“He says he’s got three passions: athletics, wine and wine glasses – because if you put a good wine in a bad glass it ruins the good wine. It’s a different culture and there are loads of pastry shops. People eat lunch at about 11am. I’m someone who eats lunch when The Chase is on at 5pm. It’s very different but I’m settling in. The longer you spend here, the more it becomes the norm.”

But Johnson-Thompson admits that the move has not always been culturally easy and while many of the athletes in her group head down to the beach after training while she wants to put her feet up. “It’s difficult because in England there’s a culture of staying indoors and watching box sets while they do a lot of activities outside,” she says. “They just go to the beach, the lake, to Laser Quest or for meals out. They just do everything. At first I joined in, but as it’s competition season now I’m trying to slow down. But I’m more social here than I was at home.”

While she misses her dogs and her mum terribly, and confesses to being homesick for Liverpool, she knows it will all be worth it if she can fulfil her immense talent in August. “Last year Rio was all I could think about but at the moment I’m not thinking about London all that much – all my thoughts are on Götzis. But having a home world championships is definitely a big thing and you can’t deny that this is a really huge opportunity for any athlete who is British.”

Johnson-Thompson, for one, intends to make it count.

Sean Ingle | The Guardian

Katarina Johnson-Thompson will compete in the IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium this summer.