Jessica Ennis triumphs against school bullies

Golden girl: Are Jessica’s athletic achievements the ultimate revenge? © Getty Images

Picked on for being small at school, Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis wowed the world at London 2012. Bullying didn’t hold her back: could it even have spurred her on?

Before her competitions, the Olympic champion heptathlete Jessica Ennis gets a text from her mum. The message is always the same: ‘Don’t let those big girls push you around.’

To the rest of us, Ennis is the face of the London 2012 Olympics; the friendly countenance and high-performance body whose triumphs made the whole world rejoice when she took the gold medal in August.

But her mother’s messages, which Ennis spoke about this week while promoting her new autobiography, hint at something else: when the five-foot-five, 26-year-old champion was in primary school, her small size and interest in athletics attracted unwelcome attention.

'I was just different,’ the sports star told an interviewer this week. ‘I was such a scraggy little thing. And there were these two big girls who just used to pick on me.’

An active child, she was introduced to athletics at the age of nine when her parents wanted to stop her getting bored in the summer holidays. After trying other sports she decided to concentrate on track and field: at the tender age of ten, her talent was spotted by experts. Even now, when her trainers are asked what makes Ennis so successful, they say she probably has as much natural talent as any other top sportsman or woman on the planet.

But it takes more than talent to succeed: much of it is sheer hard work. Ennis has twice daily training sessions six days per week, year in, year out. That has meant sacrificing other things that young people enjoy – socialising, for example.

And, as Ennis admits in interviews, the family of a top athlete has to take the strain. The dedication and single-mindedness needed to keep to the training schedule, let alone meet your goals and win medals in international competitions, can sometimes seem like selfishness when it conflicts with the needs of relatives.

The new book implies something more was involved in her success: that the way young Jessica refused to be cowed by the bullies played a key role in producing an Olympic champion.

Tempered steel

Ennis was born and brought up in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield, where she still lives. It’s a place whose fortune was made by perfecting the art of steelmaking. Some will read about the young sportswoman’s childhood bullying and conclude that this adversity perfected her as a competitor: forging a resolute, steely character with the necessary competitive edge.

‘Romantic claptrap!’ say others. There must be as many whose experience of bullying harmed their later life as those who were spurred on to success. And besides, what gets Ennis over the hurdles and the high jump and sends her whizzing round the track is muscle-power, pure and simple.

You Decide

  1. ‘Nothing good ever came from bullying.’ Do you agree?
  2. Which matters more, talent or motivation?

Activities

  1. Write a short profile of Jessica Ennis: include your own reactions to her life story.
  2. Research the heptathlon events, choose one and have a go at it.

Some People Say...

“Everyone gets picked on for something.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So if I have problems at school, I can dream of greatness too?
Steady! Everyone has some gift or aptitude that they can work hard at and make the most of. Taking that to the limits in the manner of an international star like Jessica Ennis is pretty extreme. She says she’s delighted to inspire young people to develop their own talents, but she also has a warning about commitment and dedication: ‘You have to be totally up for it and motivated otherwise you just wouldn't win.’ That doesn’t just apply to sport.
OK, and what about the bullying, then?
Well, Jessica doesn’t make a big deal of it. But her life story shows that being ‘different’ can mean you have a unique contribution to make. Don’t take chances with your own safety if you feel threatened, but don’t be intimidated either. And if you are bullying someone else, stop it! It only makes you look like a small person – and not in the Jess Ennis sense of small, either.

Word Watch

Steelmaking
For centuries, the main industry in Sheffield, a city in Yorkshire, was metalwork: making metal instruments, from cutlery to agricultural equipment. But it is most famous for its steel, which became a speciality in the early 18th Century and remains an important source of local employment and income.
Adversity
Difficulty, misfortune, hardship or other obstacles.
Heptathlon
A challenging competition made up of seven separate track and field events, which was introduced as a women’s outdoor Olympic sport in the 1980s. It comprises: 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin, 800m.