Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“I didn’t really know what the heptathlon was”: Niamh Emerson on being hailed a rising star, British heptathlon success and a better junior record than Jess Ennis-Hill

Posted on 6 April 2018 by Nick Friend

Denise Lewis, Kelly Sotherton, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Katarina Johnson-Thompson – it is quite the line of succession. British sporting royalty one and all, following that quartet of heptathletes comes with a level of expectation unrivaled across the all-encompassing sphere of track and field.

For Niamh Emerson, however – comparatively embryonic as an 18-year-old among a field of Commonwealth athletes – stepping into the breach once filled by some of Great Britain’s most decorated competitors comes with a proud prestige that she cannot wait to replicate.

“I think it’s so exciting,” the Derby-born Emerson gushes of the greats whose footsteps she is retracing. “Everyone watched Jess Ennis in 2012 [at the Olympics], so I do think it’s better being involved in a sport like that, where there is a certain amount of history.

“It means that there’s a natural motivation and that I have someone’s footsteps to try to follow.” There is a bouncy excitement in the teenager’s voice as she discusses Ennis, whose achievements at her home Olympics went far beyond engraving her own name among a pantheon of sporting legends. Emerson readily acknowledges that the two-time Olympic medallist and triple world champion provided much of the enthusiasm that powered her early years in multi-eventing.

“She inspired me massively,” Emerson says. “Just how she executed her events and how she coped mentally with the pressure used to amaze me. And then obviously, she was good at it as well!”

The teenage heptathlete laughs as she recalls her only meeting to date with her sporting heroine. “I met her when I was around 12, but I didn’t really know what it all meant. I was like: ‘Oh my God, get a picture!’ I didn’t really know what the heptathlon was.”

Six years on from a chance star-struck encounter, Emerson prepares for her Commonwealth debut – if not among the favourites for a medal – certainly as a dark horse. Only Johnson-Thompson and Canada’s Nina Schultz bettered her top performance in 2017.

Her mark of 6013 came in the Tuscan city of Grosseto as Emerson narrowly missed out on a medal at the European Under-20 Championships. The disappointment of finishing just a single place away from the podium was tempered, though, by her overall numbers. Only her Commonwealth teammates Johnson-Thompson and Morgan Lake have ever reached Emerson’s heights at her age. At the World Junior Championships – also in Grosseto – in 2004, Ennis came eighth with 5,542 points.

Nevertheless, for all of Emerson’s bubbling enthusiasm, she refuses to read too much into comparisons with her predecessors.

“I don’t know how much it means really,” she admits in reference to her junior advantage over Ennis. “It’s obviously good but at the same time, it’s more about senior events. It’s so important for me to keep progressing. I think Jess definitely peaked later in her career. She made really big improvements as she got older. I think it’s just really important for me to keep on actually improving.”

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A runner since the age of nine alongside her mother, who herself competed competitively in her youth, it is in the throwing events where Emerson confesses that her skills still require some refining.

“My hardest event is the javelin,” she explains. “I think it’s finally clicking. I think it’s a case of sometimes just needing a few years to throw and learn the actual technical skills. Because we do the pentathlon first, we don’t actually do javelin until you’re 14 or 15.

“It forces you to not really think about the javelin and then suddenly you realise that you’re doing the heptathlon and then you have to start learning the javelin all of a sudden. I think that may be why the javelin isn’t as strong as the other events for me.”

As well as running, an early interest in gymnastics and dancing lent themselves to the jumping disciplines, with a nine-year-old Emerson spending her weekends practicing the high jump before returning to the track on weekdays.

“I pick up skills quite quickly, but I also have a few bad habits that are quite hard to get rid of. I think the thing is with events like the heptathlon is that it’s such a developmental discipline. You just gradually go through and learn as you go along. Because I started the high jump and running from an early age, they come very naturally to me.

“I think that if I’d only been running from an early age, I reckon it would have been harder for me to pick up the skills.”

The speed of Emerson’s progress, though, has been remarkable. It was, she laughs, only last year that the Commonwealth Games even crossed her mind. “I genuinely hadn’t even thought about it,” she says, all with a mature modesty that will stand her in excellent stead as the starting pistol is fired on her Gold Coast adventure.


Featured photograph: Niamh Emerson