The rebirth of Katarina Johnson-Thompson

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Katarina Johnson-Thompson doing the long jump - The rebirth of Katarina Johnson-Thompson - GETTY IMAGES
Katarina Johnson-Thompson doing the long jump - The rebirth of Katarina Johnson-Thompson - GETTY IMAGES

In the shadow of the Bregenzerwald Mountains, deep in the verdant Austrian countryside, Katarina Johnson-Thompson is preparing to be reborn.

The physical scars, visible on both legs, run deep. So, too, the mental traumas. A patchwork tale of trials and tribulations, injuries and operating tables.

Buried somewhere within is the reigning world heptathlon champion; someone whose coach insists remains the only athlete talented enough to challenge a world record that has stood for 34 years.

So she is back, ready to start again. One final push to reach the elusive peak of an Olympic title.

“I have unfulfilled goals. That’s why I’m still here,” she said. “That’s why I continued after the Achilles rupture, which for many is a career-finisher. Against the odds, I’m still here.

“I still want to do it. I still love the sport, still love heptathlon. I still want to go to the major championships to recreate it all over again.

“I don’t want to retire before I should because I feel like I’m still capable of more. I don’t want to sit back, retire and then think: ‘Well, I could have competed for another two years.’

“This is the beginning of me getting back to the athlete I want to be.”

There is a sense of serenity when Johnson-Thompson speaks these days. The desire to succeed is as evident as ever, but chatting in the tiny Austrian town of Gotzis, the overwhelming necessity to prove herself, which appeared to paralyse her at times early in her career, appears to have subsided.

Almost three years have passed since her greatest moment when she smashed Jessica Ennis-Hill’s British record to win the world title. That she has not even managed to finish a heptathlon since tells a story.

Her left ankle bears a three-inch reminder of the Achilles rupture that so severely threatened her place at last year’s Olympics. Her right ankle has a smaller scar from recent surgery on persistent tendon troubles that contributed to the calf tear which dramatically ended her involvement at the Tokyo Games after she had fought so valiantly to make the start line.

 Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Team Great Britain receives medical attention as she sits injured during the Women's Heptathlon 200m heats on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES
Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Team Great Britain receives medical attention as she sits injured during the Women's Heptathlon 200m heats on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES
A calf tear dramatically ended Johnson-Thompson's involvement at the Tokyo Games - REUTERS
A calf tear dramatically ended Johnson-Thompson's involvement at the Tokyo Games - REUTERS

Aged 29, time is running out. But it is precisely that challenge which most excites her new coach Petros Kyprianou.

“The first time we met I said: ‘You’re probably the only one right now in the world that has [world-record holder] Jackie Joyner-Kersee potential,’” he recalled. “‘If there's somebody that could challenge the world record, given you’re healthy and everything’s good, it’s you’.

“I don't think there’s anybody else with that kind of ability. But unfortunately, she’s somebody who went through a lot.

“I would kill to have a healthy, young Kat. But if we can come off all the surgeries and all this bad luck together that’s going to be a lot sweeter than having an ultra-talented 21-year-old beast.

“I like to give analogies when I talk about athletes. She’s a Ferrari that went into a complete revamp of the super-powerful V12 engine. There’s a certain time to teach the engine when to function on high revs.

“She’s got a brand new Achilles on her jumping leg and that - whether psychological, physical and everything in between - needs some sort of adjustment.

“This is the beginning. She’s so hungry to see that light at the end of the tunnel, and I think it will start showing this weekend.”

It is more than 20 years since Kyprianou last came here to the Gotzis Hypo-Meeting, Austria’s unlikely mecca for multi-eventers, but he is back to oversee the newest addition to his group.

Following her departure from her former coach in France, Johnson-Thompson moved to America to train under Kyprianou at the start of this year, renting a bungalow five minutes from the Florida track that she trains on every day.

Her body, she insists, feels better than it has for a long time, but she laughs when told that only four of the 23 women competing this weekend are older than her.

“That feels right to be honest. It’s how my body feels!” she said. “I’m joking… no I’m not.”

Tempering any thoughts that she might capitalise on the absence of double Olympic champion Nafi Thiam, who has also been struggling with injury, Johnson-Thompson says her overwhelming ambition in Gotzis is simply to complete her first heptathlon since 2019: “I’m going to finish no matter what.”

'I knew it was going to be a challenge when I accepted working with her'

Kyprianou’s modest target of 6,400 is almost 600 points below her British record, but he insists what he really wants to see is her “just have fun” after an Achilles rupture that he describes as “arguably the worst injury in track and field”.

Only then can the serious aspirations materialise: the defence of her world title in July, another World Championships next year and the Paris 2024 Olympics. Three years to cement the legacy that her talent warrants.

“If it comes earlier it will be very welcomed,” said Kyprianou. “But I knew it was going to be a long challenge when I accepted working with her.

“Don’t get too excited when it doesn’t matter. The competitions that matter are in July of the next three years.

“If we end this year with something positive at the World Championships, that would be huge building into the next two years. Come 2024, that’s really what we’re working towards. It’s a long process.

“I think she’s at the point where she’s at peace. I think she’s ready to have fun, and a person like that having fun is going to end up with something good.”

Whether there is life on the track beyond the Paris Olympics remains to be seen. “I’ll only be 31, so who knows?” said Johnson-Thompson. “I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far, but I want more before I retire.

“I’m in the mindset where I just want to try and squeeze everything I can out of the next two years.”

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