They were ready. They'd been ready for four years. Every Union Jack-waving, face-painted, bewigged expectant British fan who'd been lucky enough to score a ticket to Saturday evening's track and field session in Olympic Stadium -- and pretty much the rest of the nation watching on the BBC -- settled into their seats knowing that their Jess was, at last, about to deliver.
And their Jess was ready as well. By the time -- just after 9 p.m. on a delightfully cool, clear London summer night -- that Jessica Ennis went to the line for the start of her heat in the 800 meters, the final event of the heptathlon, she had built a commanding 188-point lead over her nearest competitor, Austra Skujyte of Lithuania. She needed merely to stay within about 13 seconds of Skujyte over the two-lap race to secure the gold medal, a veritable stroll in the park given that Skujyte's best time ever was nearly eight seconds slower than Ennis'.
"It was a great way to go into the last event," said Ennis, who nonetheless did anything but stroll. Taking it out hard in the lead, as a deafening roar and a wave of camera flashes followed her around the stadium, she then kicked home fiercely off the final turn to win the race in 2:08.65, her best time of the year and enough to give her a final total of 6,955, breaking her own British record.
After dropping to her back on the track, hands over her face in what she would later say was wonder and relief, she rose and jogged over to the stands, from which came sailing a Union Jack. She scooped it up, unfurled it and held it high above her shoulders. Across the red white and blue was emblazoned JESSICA ENNIS/LONDON 2012/OLYMPIC CHAMPION!
That was the image, that was moment: the long-anticipated redemption and fulfillment of the host nation's Olympic darling, the proverbial poster girl of the London Games. Jessica Ennis has been called that so often and so universally that she could be, well, the poster girl for poster girls. The original phrase could not have been more apt, though, as throughout the long run-up to the Games Ennis's undeniably photogenic face and form were on seemingly every billboard and magazine cover in the U.K. She had a half-million-dollar contract with Adidas, as well as promotional deals with Olay and Aviva. She wrote a column for The Times of London. At 26, she was in her prime, attractive, charismatic and brilliantly talented, and the arc of her athletic career seemed perfectly scripted for a glorious climax at London in 2012.
Born in Sheffield to a father from Jamaica and a mother from Derbyshire, she began competing in track and field at age 10. Under the tutelage of coach Toni Minichiello, she established herself as one of the top junior multi-event athletes in the world. After a bronze medal in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and a fourth-place finish at the 2007 world championship, she was poised for an Olympic year breakout in 2008. What she got instead was heartbreak, when three stress fractures in her right foot sustained in a meet in Götzis, Austria, in May forced her to withdraw from the Beijing Games just weeks before the opening ceremony. She famously cried for seven days (a symbolically fitting harrowing for a heptathlete) before Minichiello told her it was time to get on with life.
Which she did, with the pluck and success and style that played perfectly in a country that was now all about looking ahead to 2012. She won the 2009 world title in Berlin and the European title the following year. In 2011, however, she finished second at worlds to Russia's Tatyana Chernova, despite beating Chernova in five of the seven events. The loss only made her hungrier and upped the drama quotient in the British media. Then, in May, when she smashed Denise Lewis' 10-year-old British record with a score of 6,906 points, beating Chernova by 132 points, all the elements seemed in place.
So perfectly packaged had the buildup been, so ubiquitous and so glossy, that it was almost a shock to see Ennis in the flesh on Friday morning when the track and field portion of the Games opened at Olympic Stadium. Yet, even with the crowd of 80,000 seemingly cheering her every move, she made it clear from the start that she was more than equal to all the hype.
In the first event of the competition, the 100 hurdles, Ennis uncorked a run that stunned the field, flashing across the line in 12.54 seconds. The time was a personal record by a full quarter of a second, set a new heptathlon world record and matched the time run by Dawn Harper of the U.S. when she won the gold medal in the 100 hurdles in Beijing.
At 5-foot-5, Ennis is hardly imposing alongside many of the top heptathletes. (Chernova, for instance, is 6-2; Beijing Olympic champ Nataliya Dobrynska is 6-0.) But she has great speed and surprising strength for her size that she has learned to marshal in each of her events. (In May she famously laughed off a British athletic official's suggestion that she was fat, saying, "I see my body as a training tool," adding, "I'm comfortable being naked.") Capitalizing on her start in the hurdles -- "The momentum rolled into the other elements," she would say -- and on the oceanic support of the crowd -- "They lift you so much" -- she rolled through the high jump and shot put and closed the first day with another personal best in the 200 (22.83) for a total of 4,158 points and a lead of 184 points over Skujyte.
Day 2 began with the long jump, the one event that truly worried Ennis. "I'd been up and down in the long jump all year," she said. "I was really worried that I was going to come in and throw it all away with three no-marks." But she was clean on all three and after her third sailed high and long enough for 1,001 points, she bounded from the pit with a smile and a very photogenic wave before flashing a double thumbs-up to the TV camera in front of her. (Who's got two thumbs and is about to win a gold medal? This gal!) The jump, she would say, "was a massive, massive relief."
Another personal best that afternoon in the javelin -- the event that had been her undoing at the worlds -- and she was able to rest and gather herself for the 800 and all that she knew would come with it.
After it was over and she had received the gold medal -- the first of three in a row won by British athletes (with Greg Rutherford taking the long jump and Mo Farah the 10,000) -- Ennis was finally able to take a breath and put not just the previous two days, but the past four years into perspective. "'I can't believe I've had the opportunity to come to my first Games in London and that I won an Olympic gold medal. "
Believe it, Jess. That was exactly how it was supposed to happen.