Progress can be measured in many ways, and for Katarina Johnson-Thompson the numbers on the results sheet can tell a misleading tale.
After all, it’s now four years since the Briton was reduced to tears – and not the happy kind – in the wake of her first European indoor title, her 5000-point tally in the pentathlon in Prague leaving her 13 agonising points shy of Nataliya Dobrynska’s world record.
Fast forward to last Friday (1) night in Glasgow, the opening day of the European Indoor Championships, and Johnson-Thompson couldn’t have cut a more contrasting figure after regaining her title with the fourth best performance of all time: 4983 points.
Progress? Maybe not on paper, but to see it you need to know where to look.
If there was one chink in Johnson-Thompson’s all-round brilliance over the years, it was an occasional lack of composure at key moments, and in that department Glasgow represented a giant leap forward.
“I need to stay in the moment, focus on my technical cues and it just comes – I don’t have to put enormous pressure on myself,” she admits. “I was a bit nervous coming into it, but I was able to make that mental switch and turn on for the major championships.”
That ability to compartmentalise distractions and maintain a trance-like focus for five events spread across one exhausting day was in evidence throughout Friday’s competition.
“I’ve really learned a lot from the strength events, especially in the build-up to the championships which went horrendously,” she says. “I was happy I was able to put it all together when it mattered and switch mentality for the competition, for major championships.”
There had been some high-profile failures over the years, most notably at the IAAF World Championships in 2015 when she fouled out of the long jump and was last of the finishers in the heptathlon.
Adjusting to new training environment
In a bid to bulletproof her mental strength, Johnson-Thompson has spent time working with renowned British psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters in recent years.
“Not regularly, but I do speak to [him] sometimes – I don’t like saying that in case I have a mental breakdown and he gets [the blame],” she says with a laugh. “But my coach and I have a better understanding now that I’m learning a bit of French and his English is better. We can communicate better and he gives me huge confidence.”
Though there was just a handful of points separating her European indoor gold-medal-winning tallies, the intervening four years have seen much change in the life of the 26-year-old. After the Rio Olympics in 2016 she split with long-time coach Mike Holmes to move to Montpellier, France, to train under Bertrand Valcin, whose charges include decathlon world record holder Kevin Mayer.
A long way from Liverpool, in many ways. But after an inevitable bout of homesickness and a commitment to learn the local language, she now feels right at home.
“It’s great,” she says. “I can’t thank my coach and my training partners enough. They’ve given me this confidence and I’m just so happy that I’m progressing and showing my training is paying off.”
From the outset on Friday, her winter of hard work in the south of France was in evidence. She began with an impressive 8.27 in the 60m hurdles before soaring over a pentathlon championship best of 1.96m in the high jump. That left her well in front but it was in the shot put, her weakest event, that she made the biggest leap forward.
‘She’s strong, she’s cool, she comes from Liverpool’
A personal best of 13.15m earned her 737 points and left her – for once – in command of the leader’s gold bib entering the evening session. “Normally they give it to me after the high jump then I’m giving it back after the shot,” she says. “I won [the pentathlon] in the shot.”
At that point talk was rife that Johnson-Thompson could set the world record, but the long jump proved her undoing. She fouled her first attempt, registered a safe 6.53m in the second effort (leaving 14.5cm behind on the board) before fouling her final attempt.
“I needed the long jump,” she admits. “That was where [the world record bid] went wrong. I needed to carry on my focus but it’s a very long day to do that and the pentathlon is really tough. It’s very high-level stuff when you’re going for a big score and you can’t afford any mistakes but it’s what sport is. Next time I hope I can get more jumps in.”
Going into the 800m, she knew the gold medal was secured once she got around without any mishaps, but before the race her coach sat her down with some timely advice. “I’ve only got another three 800 metres until Tokyo so my coach just said, ‘what’s the point in holding on to someone’s shoulder? Just go for it.’”
With in-field photographers obscuring the trackside clocks, Johnson-Thompson was unable to see just how fast she was running, but she powered ahead on the final lap and hit the line in 2:09.13, carving more than three seconds off her indoor PB.
Up in the stands, the voices of a group of her friends from Liverpool continued to soar as they had all day, inside the stadium and out, in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in the adjacent Celtic Park: “KJT, KJT, she’s strong, she’s cool, she comes from Liverpool, KJT.”
Next up, a two-week break
“Today has been magical with all my family here to support me, so I’m not going to cry,” she said with a laugh, referencing her emotions after her first title in 2015. “I learned a lot from Prague. I didn’t get to enjoy that moment, so I’m definitely going to enjoy this. I’m proud of myself.”
What made it even more special was the realisation that teammate Niamh Emerson had won silver, the 19-year-old netting 4,731 points to continue the production line of British female multi-event success.
“I’m Niamh’s biggest fan and I’m really, really happy for her,” said Johnson-Thompson. “I’m glad I’ve a teammate to come to these championships with me. She’s good company and a great athlete.”
Up next for Johnson-Thompson: a two-week break from training. But far from retreating to a sunny destination to restore her energy, Johnson-Thompson is relishing the chance to spend it at home with her family. After that she will return to Montpellier and map out the path to the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019 with her coach.
“I’ll see what my body is like, but I’ll hopefully do Gotzis and then have a break and then slowly build into it.”
And given her current form, does she believe she’s ready to challenge world and Olympic heptathlon champion Nafissatou Thiam when she gets to Doha later this year. “I don’t know,” she says with a laugh. “It’s in October!”
All to be considered in good time, but for now Johnson-Thompson is luxuriating in the present, of being champion of Europe once again. Stronger than ever, mentally and physically.
“It sounds stupid because I‘m obviously 26 but I’m still learning all the time,” she says. “I’m excited for the summer.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF