ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, world heptathlon champ Katarina Johnson-Thompson had previously always been the bridesmaid rather than the bride on the big occasion outdoors. Yes, she had taken the ’18 World Indoor pentathlon title and had also won the Euro 5-event indoor gold medal in ’15 and ’19, but outdoors—whether it was her relatively weak throws, catastrophes such as her poor high jump at the ’17 WC or merely the specter of her Belgian nemesis Nafi Thiam—she had neither fulfilled her potential nor gotten the gold medal her talent arguably deserved.
And it seemed that the cards were unlikely to fall her way in Doha either.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph, analyzing her pre-Qatar disappointments, commented, “Victory was something few people had deemed a realistic prospect. Not only was defending champion and Olympic gold medalist Thiam expected to prove far too good for any of her rivals, but Johnson-Thompson had flattered to deceive many times in the past, missing out on global medals in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and earning her a tag as someone seemingly destined to fall short on the biggest stage.”
However, KJT—as she’s popularly known—confounded many people’s expectations and put together 4 lifetime bests in Doha as part of a PR tally of 6981. Even if her total was a tantalizing 19 points short of the magical 7000 mark, she added 36 points to Jessica Ennis-Hill’s British Record (set when the latter won at the ’12 OG) and shot up from No. 18, having a previous PR of 6813, to No. 6 on the all-time world list. For stats fans, into the bargain her 304-point winning margin was the biggest at the World Champs since JJK won in Rome 32 years ago. She also inflicted Thiam’s first heptathlon defeat since the ’16 Götzis meet.
“It doesn’t feel real. I have had good scores before but never all those personal bests in one heptathlon. It has all come together at the right time. It is amazing,” KJT reflected after the final event, at a press conference close to midnight.
Shortly after crossing the line following two laps of the Khalifa Stadium—and after embracing her mother Tracey, who was also in the stadium—the tears started to flow. “I think it’s relief, going into my fourth World Championships that something bad hasn’t happened again,” she explained. “I knew I was in good shape but, in the past, I’ve been in good shape and it hasn’t always come off. It was just about not letting myself get carried away until the last minute. I didn’t want to cry but it was definitely good tears. I’ve cried enough now to last me a career. From now it’s just going to be smiles, hopefully.”
She continued, “The hurdles was the biggest surprise. I never dreamt I could run that fast, 13-zero [13.09], when I’ve been stuck at 13.3 for as long as I can remember, that set me up for the heptathlon as soon as I saw the clock stop at that time. I was there at London 2012 to witness [Ennis-Hill] break her own British Record and get the Olympic gold medal, so it’s unbelievable to me that I’ve just passed that score.”
The icing on the cake was winning the 800 in a PR 2:07.26. KJT could have cruised round to clinch the gold medal but decided to dig deep with a massive point total in sight. “I love the 800, funnily enough,” she said. “It is one of my strongest events. I have been training very hard for it this year. The light show before it got me psyched to go [for the NR]. I train very hard week in, week out for it so all that has to be for something. Seven thousand points wasn’t meant to be but hopefully I am on a roll now for the future.” (Continued below)
The question now, is will she be able to keep rolling all the way to the top of the podium next summer in Tokyo? “For me,” she says, “even though I’ve won this time around, it’s one of those things, I know that I’m capable of winning now. It has given me confidence for the future, but I know what it’s like to come 2nd I know what it’s like to feel like you’ve under-performed, so I’m fully expecting Nafi to go away and have an amazing winter and come back with a different sort of motivation.”
In Japan she will be aiming to follow in the footsteps of fellow Britons Ennis-Hill and ’00 gold medalist Denise Lewis and admitted in an interview with the BBC that both former champions have been a direct influence, providing direction on the road to Doha gold. “Both Jess and Denise have been vital in my development and motivation and inspiration to do those performances.
“Denise traveled to France when I was looking for a coach in 2016, we travelled to different countries trying to find a coach together. And obviously with Jess, I was there in 2012 when she got that British Record. That inspired me beyond belief. I was only 19 years old at the time and to see that happen first-hand was a huge inspiration, I was like, ‘I want that in the future,’ and I’m just happy and grateful that I was able to put those results down on the track.”
The 26-year-old from Liverpool credits much of her success in Doha to her French coach Bertrand Valcin, who is also the mentor to deca WR-holder Kevin Mayer.
In early ’17, after having fallen well adrift of a medal in Rio, she cut her ties with her long-time coach Mike Holmes, who guided her to World Youth (U18) and Junior (U20) gold medals, and uprooted herself to join Valcin’s group based in Montpellier, France. After taking her time adjusting to her new environment, 2019 saw everything fall into place.
“This year I had no injuries and with confidence and continuous training I was able to get PBs. Bertrand’s demeanor in competition is very calming, I feel like our personalities match really quite well. It’s just week-in, week-out, doing good things in training, going through all the different events each week.” ◻︎