There was a fleeting moment when it looked as though it might all go wrong.
Spectators in the stadium and fans following the live stream had been gripped by the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018 heptathlon duel for two days, watching Britain’s Niamh Emerson and Austria’s Sarah Lagger produce a stunning series of performances across the first six events.
Emerson had led since the second event, but defending champion Lagger had closed to within two points of the Briton going into the final discipline. In 800m terms, it meant that the Austrian had to finish 0.14 ahead of Emerson to retain her title.
And now, as if the contest hadn’t already been dramatic enough throughout the previous 36 hours, heavy rain started to fall before the third and final heat of the heptathlon 800m.
The scene was set.
The first lap was covered in a swift 1:02.90. Emerson then moved into the lead with about 250 metres remaining, but Lagger was by no means done. In fact, for a brief second it looked as though she was making up ground on her rival and was poised to strike.
But Emerson, who started out in athletics as an 800m runner, dug in as she came off the final bend and held on to cross the finish line first in a lifetime best of 2:09.74 to win gold with a world-U20-leading PB of 6253, the third-best winning score in World U20 Championships history.
Emerson then collapsed to the ground, her body completely spent of every ounce of energy after being pushed to its limit in seven disciplines. The heavy rain continued to pour, but the new world U20 champion didn’t mind one bit.
“The race was solid and I quite liked the rain,” she said in the aftermath. “I was trying to speed up every 50 metres and I just kept thinking, ‘please don’t come close, stay away!’”
Before the competition, most of the focus had been on Lagger and Ukraine’s Alina Shukh, the European U20 heptathlon champion who had won the individual javelin title just two days prior. But Shukh picked up an injury before the heptathlon and was unable to start.
“You don’t want anyone to pull out because being injured is not nice, but at the same time it was a bit of a confidence boost as she was the world leader,” said Emerson. “I wish she had been able to compete because you want to compete against everyone but it’s unfortunate.
“Pressure isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes it’s better if it’s not on you.”
An equal PB of 1.89m in the high jump, the second event of the heptathlon, was the turning point for Emerson. Not only did it move her into the overall lead, but it marked the end of a two-year period of tendinitis problems in her knee.
“After the first two events, I started to think about the possibility of winning,” she said. “But I’ve never been in the lead that early in a heptathlon so I was a bit worried but I just wanted to hold on to it. As the competition went on, it became a bit more real.
“It’s a massive confidence booster,” she added. “My points total, my place, the competition – just everything.”
From cross country to heptathlon heir
Emerson’s first taste of athletics came as a nine-year-old. “I just wanted to run everywhere,” she says, “so I started out doing cross country and the 800m.”
She won regional cross-country league matches and county 800m titles in her early years but then started to try out shorter track events and field disciplines.
In 2012 she entered her first combined events competition, the regional schools championships, and finished 11th. Little more than two months later, she watched Jessica Ennis-Hill – whom she had met in person two years earlier – strike gold in the heptathlon at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
From then on, heptathlon became Emerson’s main focus in athletics.
Just three years later, she represented Great Britain at the IAAF World U18 Championships Cali 2015 and finished 13th. She improved to the bronze medal at the European U18 Championships in Tbilisi one year later and then cracked the 6000-point barrier for the first time at the 2017 European U20 Championships, just missing out on a medal with 6013 in a high-quality competition.
It set her up well, though, for her final year as an U20 athlete which started with a 6043 PB and bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games and ended with her triumph in Tampere.
Her success in the Finnish city has thrust her into the spotlight as the next in a long line of successful British combined eventers, following the likes of 1972 Olympic pentathlon champion Mary Peters, 2000 Olympic heptathlon champion Denise Lewis, 2012 Olympic champion Ennis-Hill and world indoor champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson.
Emerson, however, takes it all in her stride.
“On a day-to-day basis, my life hasn’t really changed since winning the world U20 title,” she says. “My days are very similar and training is equally as hard. But it has provided me with more opportunities like attending BBC Sports Personality of the Year, which was so cool!
“I’m so grateful for the success at the competition and it’s an amazing memory looking back. I like to use it as motivation to keep improving.
“I’m motivated by improvements and my goal is to compete at as many major international competitions as I can,” she says. “Staying injury free is a big part of this.”
Doha via Götzis and Gävle
With the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 being held in late September and early October, this year will be a long one for many athletes and Emerson is no different in that regard.
She opened her 2019 campaign on 6 January and set PBs of 8.76 in the 60m hurdles and 13.38m in the shot put.
“I was really happy with those performances,” says Emerson, who is coached by David Feeney. “I knew had the ability to hit 13 metres but I just had to do it in competition and that’s the hardest part.
“Winter has been good and we’ve worked a lot on keeping it simple, especially with the throws. Hopefully I’ll have it drilled in come the summer. We’ve altered my running sessions and made them more sprints focused. Our aim was to improve my speed to help the long jump, hurdles and the 200m. I’m excited for indoors and summer 2019 definitely.
"The World Champs is definitely my aim," she added. "I’m going to base my season around that. We usually peak in July, but with the World Champs being later in the year, we’ll change my training a little bit and hopefully it will all work out as it means a longer time to prepare."
She will contest a full pentathlon at the Combined Events International Match in Cardiff on 26-27 January, where her aim is to achieve a score good enough to earn an invite to the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow in March.
Her main goal for the season, though, is the World Championships in Doha.
“I’ll try to get the World Champs qualifying standard in Götzis or at the European U23 Championships,” she says. “I feel that having more of a speed focus to my training will help me across all events in making a mix of small and bigger gains. I think the throwing events will always be a long-term focus of mine so I’ll just keep going at them.”
With 2019 being Emerson’s first year as a senior athlete, the 19-year-old’s steep learning curve is set to continue. But inspired by esteemed compatriots such as Ennis-Hill and Johnson-Thompson, and spurred on by talented rivals like Lagger and Shukh, Emerson has plenty of motivation for this year and beyond.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF