At last, Katarina Johnson-Thompson is the world champion. She finally beat her nemesis Nafissatou Thiam at Doha 2019 and reached the summit of her own personal mountain.
It has been a long road paved with slip-ups and heartache to get to this point, but it all seems worth it now. The Brit has done it, and she can bask in the glory of her achievement.
For the rest of us, it is worth remembering where it all began, and all the effort it has taken from Johnson-Thompson to get to the very top.
Bright BeginningsEmbed from Getty Images
When Johnson-Thompson finished 13th in the Olympic heptathlon at London 2012, she looked like the heir apparent to eventual champion Jessica Ennis-Hill.
She ran fast, jumped well and smiled broadly throughout the two days of competition. She even beat the older Brit’s height in the high jump by three centimetres (1.89m versus 1.86m).
Over the next two years, the Liverpudlian firmly cemented her status as a potential world beater. She came fifth at the 2013 World Athletics Championships in Moscow and then won gold with a world-leading score of 6682 at the only heptathlon event outside of major championships in Gotzis in May 2014.
Choppy Waters Ahead
Johnson-Thompson’s success in Gotzis catapulted her to the top of the heptathlon rankings and ensured she was installed as the favourite to take win the Commonwealth Games title at Glasgow 2014.
Unfortunately for the Brit, injury struck at exactly the wrong time and she was forced to pull out or risk long-term damage to her left foot.
“I was feeling so good in my preparation so this is a real blow,” Johnson-Thompson told The Guardian. “My season so far had really given me the confidence that I could come away with that gold medal but sadly it’s just not meant to be.”
The injury also ruled the Brit out of the European Championships, but she seemed unaffected by the lay-off when she returned to multi-eventing the following March.
At the 2015 European Indoor Championships, Johnson-Thompson broke the British pentathlon record with a score of 5000 points and annihilated the rest of the field during a totally dominant display in Prague.
It was a performance that seemingly set her up perfectly for the World Championships in Beijing five months later, where she was once again the favourite to win gold.
The Biggest Disappointment Of AllEmbed from Getty Images
Everyone who has followed the Liverpudlian’s progress at major championships knows what happened next. She recorded three fouls in the long jump, which left her with no score for that discipline and completely ruled her out of the running to make the top ten, let alone win the title.
It was a heartbreaking moment, and the sight of Ennis-Hill consoling a clearly distraught Johnson-Thompson will live long in the memory.
To the more experienced Brit’s immense credit, she did not let her teammate’s anguish distract her from the competition, and she went on to win her third World Championship gold.
However, without wishing to take anything away from Ennis-Hill’s success, it should never have happened. She performed very well (particularly when you take into account the fact that she had recently given birth to her first child), but the score she won with (6659) was lower than Johnson-Thompson’s total in Gotzis the previous year.
In fact, everything was set up for the Liverpudlian to win. Ennis-Hill had only recently returned to action and there were no other outstanding candidates to take the gold.
But it did not happen, and Johnson-Thompson now knows why it all went so horribly wrong in the long jump pit.
“I was so sure I was going to win, and then when it didn’t happen, I was literally like, what?” The Brit told The Telegraph in 2019.
“I can’t remember the competition. I can’t remember the long jump. I must have blanked it out because it was really traumatic for me. I don’t know what I was thinking or feeling during those jumps. It’s gone.”
Johnson-Thompson Makes A Life-Changing DecisionEmbed from Getty Images
Although that was her lowest moment, it took another significant disappointment at Rio 2016 (she finished sixth) to persuade Johnson-Thompson to take a giant leap (ironically not in competition) that would end up changing her life for ever.
That leap took the Brit 846 miles out of her comfort zone as she moved from Liverpool (where she had lived all her life up to that point) to Montpellier to work with renowned multi-event coach Bertrand Valcin.
“(After Rio) I didn’t train from August until November,” Johnson-Thompson told The Telegraph. “I was failing at major championships, just not being good enough. Everyone was talking about my throws. So I changed everything. I moved to France, I split up with my boyfriend, changed my coach. I changed my life! I felt like I was just repeating the same mistakes over and over again, (so) I wanted to get out of that cycle.”
She continued, “I wasn’t ever going to give up, but one of the reasons I left Liverpool was because my coach wanted me to be a high jumper instead. I always had the belief I was a heptathlete. I didn’t just want to give up having come this far. I knew that my throws weren’t great, but I knew I could win based on my other abilities.”
Good Things Come To Those Who WaitEmbed from Getty Images
Johnson-Thompson’s achievements since the big move serve as proof that she made the right decision.
However, her fortunes did not change immediately. She had another lean year in 2017 and finished fifth in the World Championships in London. But she she retained her faith in her new process, and her patience was soon rewarded.
In 2018, Johnson-Thompson won gold at every major championship which did not feature Nafissatou Thiam (the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham and the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast) and finished second behind the Belgian and the European Championships in Berlin.
It felt like a massive breakthrough for the Brit. She squeezed every bit of success out of the year and did not under-perform at any point.
She also finally experienced what it felt like to stand on the top of the podium at a global event, which is a feeling she must be getting used to by now.
Johnson-Thompson Scales The Mountain
After her superb 2018, Johnson-Thompson seemed both confident and relaxed heading into the 2019 season.
Furthermore, it was clear from the Brit’s performances that she was starting to reach her peak. She stormed to victory at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow in March and then set a new personal best (6813) as she won gold in Gotzis for the second time in her career.
Johnson-Thompson also managed her fitness brilliantly throughout the year to ensure she was in perfect shape for the World Championships.
This proved crucial, as it gave her a significant edge over Thiam, who was not at her physical peak in Doha.
With everything in place, Johnson-Thompson strode out into the Khalifa International Stadium and produced the best heptathlon of her life.
She immediately established a 40-point lead over Thiam with a personal best of 13.09 in the 100m hurdles. Then she maintained her advantage by clearing exactly the same height as the Belgian (1.95m) in the high jump.
Unexpectedly, the next event – historically one of the Brit’s weakest areas – became the scene of the champagne moment, as Johnson-Thompson obliterated her personal best in the shot put with her third and final throw.
It was one of those magical sporting moments you want to watch again and again. The Liverpudlian took a moment to visualise her throw, and then launched the shot 72 centimetres further than ever before.
Johnson-Thompson knew it was a special effort immediately. She clenched both fists and grinned broadly – almost as though she could scarcely believe what she had just produced.
Then, with the TV cameras following her, she walked into the position where she could see the distance when it was shown on the screen.
When it appeared, Johnson-Thompson jumped up excitedly and spun around to face her coach. Then she put her hands over her face and wore an expression that mingled delight with disbelief.
It is no wonder she was excited. That was the crucial moment in the whole competition. It put the Liverpudlian in prime position – just 51 points behind Thiam – to power into the lead with a strong run in the 200m.
And that is exactly what Johnson-Thompson produced. She ran 23.08 – a full 1.52 seconds quicker than the Belgian – to open up a significant lead of 96 points at the end of day one.
Although the first four events had gone about as well as the Brit could have wished, there was still a lot of pressure on her heading into day two.
In a shining example of her growing maturity, Johnson-Thompson handled the situation brilliantly. She leapt 6.77m in the long jump – her best-ever distance in a heptathlon – to extend her lead over Thiam to 216 points.
That was a big buffer, and the Brit would have needed every single one of those points if the Belgian had been at her best in the subsequent javelin.
However, due to her troublesome elbow, Thiam only managed to throw 48.04m, which is more than 11 metres short of her personal best.
This took the pressure off Johnson-Thompson, but she threw a personal best of 43.93 anyway. It was that kind of competition for the Brit – everything went well.
Respective performances in the first six events meant that the Liverpudlian had a lead over Thiam going into the concluding 800m for the first time in her career. Moreover, it was a big advantage (137 points), and when you consider that the Brit is a much better 800m runner than Thiam, the final event seemed set to be a formality.
However, as she explained afterwards, Johnson-Thompson never saw it that way, and anyone who has followed her career knew not to take anything for granted.
Thankfully, the Brit made no mistakes during her two laps around the track. She won the race and set another new personal best (2:07.26) – her fourth of the competition – to clinch her first World Championship title in supreme style.
“Everyone’s got their journey,” Johnson-Thompson told The Guardian. “It’s not been very straightforward for me. It’s not been easy. I had to move coach, move country, learn a new language and settle in. I tore everything up and started again and it’s worked.”
She continued, “The last two world championships have been heartbreaking for my mum and I. Mid-heptathlon, I’ve gone back to my hotel and cried and cried for hours when things have gone badly. It was after the high jump in London in 2017 and after the long jump in 2015 in Beijing. Those were the low points of my career. Rio Olympics, as well. I’ve had a lot of bad years. I’m just so happy that I came out in front for a change.”
Can Johnson-Thompson Get Even Better?
At the end of two perfect days in Doha, Johnson-Thompson was the proud owner of her first outdoor World Championship title and a new British heptathlon record of 6981 (she beat Ennis-Hill’s previous record by 26 points).
It was a remarkable achievement, but the 2012 Olympic gold-medallist believes the Liverpudlian can perform even better.
“To come back and deliver in this way with all these personal bests is incredible,” Ennis-Hill said on BBC Two. “You have to get to the lowest point, the breaking point.”
“She got to that and she made big changes and decisions and they are the reason she has gone on to improve and become the world champion now.”
The three-time world champion continued, “(In the past) she was so fixated on winning and breaking 7,000 points that it took away from her performance. Now she has put it to one side it will happen naturally.”
When you add into the mix the fact that Thiam has set her sights on breaking Carolina Kluft’s European record of 7032 points, the stage is set for what could be one of the best heptathlons of all time at Tokyo 2020.
Moreover, now that Johnson-Thompson has finally beaten the Belgian, perhaps she can do it again at sport’s ultimate showcase: the Olympics.