The “no-fuss” approach which helped dispel the doubts and turn KJT back into a heptathlon force to be reckoned with on the world stage
Katarina Johnson-Thompson could feel the doubts starting to creep in. Three events into the heptathlon in Budapest and she sat fifth, feeling particularly unimpressed about her performance in the shot put.
This was a tipping point. Would she choose to allow the negativity in or opt to fight back?
The 2019 champion knew the route to gold but it had been such a long time since she had been at the peak of her powers. A ruptured Achilles not long after that golden moment, followed by a calf tear that halted her Tokyo Olympic ambitions and needed surgery, mean that just getting back on the start line took huge reserves of fortitude.
Johnson-Thompson was looking for more than that, though. She wanted to be a genuine contender, not just another participant. The ultimate low of finishing eighth at last year’s World Championships without ever being in medal contention, albeit salved slightly with a Commonwealth title in Birmingham, was hugely demoralising and made her question her future.
Her opening day marks in Hungary across the 100m hurdles, high jump and shot put had been almost identical to Oregon and the alarm bells had started to ring.
“I was really down after the shot put but, coming out for the 200m, I think it was the crowd [reception] but I just thought: ‘I’m really up for this’,” she said. “One of the thoughts I’ve had has been ‘don’t go out like last year’. I’m building again and just proving to myself that I can do it.”
Her 200m time of 23.48 was fastest overall and nudged her into second place overnight on 3905 points, 93 behind Anna Hall. It was at this point that her coach Aston Moore, the man with whom she has been working since early summer last year after leaving her Florida set-up under Petros Kyprianou, began to sense a gold medal might be possible.
The deficit was then overturned by Johnson-Thompson leaping out to 6.54m in the long jump before landing a PB throw of 46.14m in the javelin. With just the 800m to go, her advantage over Hall was 43 points, which equated to a buffer of around three seconds. The 22-year-old’s best was just about four seconds faster than Johnson-Thompson, though. This was going down to the wire.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson (Getty)
When the gun went, the US champion shot off like a woman possessed, quickly establishing a gap on Johnson-Thompson and crossing the halfway mark in a searing 58.59. Behind, there was no panic – even when that gap had grown to a distance that looked to have breached that three-second margin for error.
But just when Hall was applying the pressure at its fiercest, instead Johnson-Thompson showed an inner steel and started closing in. She was still closing, in fact, as Hall hit the line first, producing a championships best of 2:04.09.
That time was ultimately not enough, though, as Johnson-Thompson delivered the run of her life to take almost two seconds off her personal best with 2:05.63 which meant she finished with a total of 6740 to beat Hall by just 20 points.
What might have surprised some did not surprise Moore. It was a run built in Loughborough.
“Wednesday was always a day of trepidation because there was going to be a lot of pain on the track because of the work for the 800m,” he said. “She did that all winter so there was no danger she was going to die. It was just a question of sticking with the job, which she did.”
KJT with Aston Moore (Getty)
“That was the easiest race,” said Johnson-Thompson. “I was looking at the times, 27 [for 200m], 58 [for 400m], thinking ‘this is fast’. Normally I’d be like ‘this is fast, you’re going to die, slow down’ but I just went with it. I thought I could run 2:05 in 2019 but I didn’t think I could run it [this time]. It’s been a dream time of mine.”
Moore is a former UK record-holder in the triple jump and medallist at the Commonwealth Games. He has enjoyed coaching success with athletes like Ashia Hansen, Phillips Idowu and 2006 Commonwealth heptathlon gold medallist Kelly Sotherton.
His wise counsel and calm demeanour have clearly worked for Johnson-Thompson and he has enjoyed bearing witness to some psychological changes
“Kat is back to where she’s hunting for something,” he said. “She’s not a spectator. Last year she was in a really bad place for her, where she was just looking at other people picking up medals. This time she was actually hunting for one. That changes your psyche.
“It’s been a tough journey for her and I think a lot of people probably thought that it wasn’t possible for her to come back. But you never know what’s possible until you’ve actually done it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly given his own laid-back demeanour, a key part of the approach has been going back to basics, with the minimum of fuss.
“With my way of doing things, I actually don’t think an athlete should go out there with bluster, going: ‘Yeah, I can do this. I can win this. I can whatever…’
“I think you should show inherent respect to the other competitors around you. They are just as good as you, they’re working as hard as you.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson (Getty)
“I think you should be quietly confident about the job that you’re going to do, which is basically what we did here. We knew that the job was possible and we just quietly got on with it without any fuss.
“I’m just a believer that you get into that zen moment and just do process, process, process. Follow the process directly, you will get what you want.
“The first day is a little bit ‘okay, let’s see if I still got this’. And I think by the time we’d gotten past the shot put, she thought: ‘Okay, right. This is business, now let’s get on with it’.”
What this heptathlon competition also did was to whet the appetite for next year’s Olympics. Hall, who had a ligament injury to contend with in Budapest, will be back with a vengeance. So, too, should be Belgium’s two-time Olympic champion Nafi Thiam who missed Budapest through injury.
Moore, however, believes Johnson-Thompson has more to give as well.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson (Mark Shearman)
“Kat’s got to step her game up but this is just one of the steps on that journey and coming back,” he said. “It’s good that the comeback has brought about a world champion but we still have a fair way to go yet. She’ll be one of the favourites but let’s see what happens.
“She should take a lot from this and the confidence she should carry from that 800m should take her all the way through to next year. Because that was a different athlete out there. That was an athlete who wanted it and said: ‘This is mine, and you’re not gonna take it from me’.”
» This feature first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine
» Special Offer: Subscribe today and get your first three months for just £24.99 here