When Jessica-Ennis Hill crossed the finish line at her home Olympic Games in 2012, claiming the first of three gold medals for Team GB in the space of 46 minutes, it’s unlikely that her mind wandered into the realm of what she might do when she retired.
A little more than ten years later, the three-time heptathlon world champion has transitioned to life after athletics as seamlessly as she once did between the high jump and shot put, or the javelin throw and the 800 metres.
As well as occasionally appearing as a pundit on the BBC’s athletics coverage, the Sheffield-born 37-year-old now runs an app that helps women understand the impact of their menstrual cycle on their workouts, and regularly uses her platform to highlight the unique challenges facing female athletes.
In truth, much of what Ennis-Hill does today has been shaped by her own experiences as a competitor. Two years after that famous night at London 2012, she gave birth to her first child, Reggie. Two years later, she was back on the podium, this time receiving a silver medal, at Rio 2016.
Female athletes had given birth and returned to action in the past – Australian tennis great Margaret Court won three Grand Slams in 1973 after having her first child in 1972 – but it was hardly a well-trodden path when Ennis-Hill took her own break from athletics.
“When I was going through pregnancy, I didn’t really know anyone, personally, that was doing that,” says Ennis-Hill, speaking exclusively to SportsPro from the Laureus Sport for Good Global Summit in June. “I didn’t really know what to expect or how to find my way through that really unique journey. So me and my team had to just find our way through it ourselves.”
Starting a family mid-career has long carried many unknowns for female athletes, whether it be the impact pregnancy has on their bodies and future performance or what implications time out of the spotlight would have on their earning potential.
Ennis-Hill, though, is one of a growing number of athletes who have proved that it is possible to take time away and get back to the top. Some other high-profile recent examples include 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who returned after pregnancy to reach two US Open finals, and track-and-field great Allyson Felix, who won a world title just ten months after a difficult premature childbirth. More recently, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, arguably about to enter her peak years at 25, announced that she is expecting her first child.
“I think now, I feel that I see it more,” Ennis-Hill continues. “I feel that there’s more athletes from a range of different sports that now think that they can continue with their career, start a family and then come back. I think that’s quite an incredible thing.
“As an athlete you’re so motivated, so passionate about what you do. To then add that layer of being a mother on top of it, it just gives you this even larger drive and motivation to create amazing opportunities and changes.”
Ennis-Hill believes there should be more support for athletes returning to action after pregnancy
As more female athletes choose to start families during their careers, Ennis-Hill has spoken publicly about the need for sports to do more to support those going through pregnancy. But she does acknowledge that things are improving.
The Brit namechecks World Triathlon, which freezes a triathlete’s ranking when they go on maternity leave. Nike, meanwhile, altered its pregnancy policy in the wake of a public fallout with Felix, who accused her former sponsor of refusing to guarantee salary protections in the months following her pregnancy, alleging that the company tried to pay her as much as 70 per cent less. The US sportswear manufacturer’s contracts now promise pregnant athletes not to apply any performance-related reductions for 18 months, starting from eight months prior to their due date.
As more employers and sponsors start to provide clarity, it should give female athletes the confidence they need to start a family without fear of the financial repercussions.
“I think for me, at the time, major brands that I worked with were really great and supportive of me,” Ennis-Hill says. “But it was still quite a grey area, and from a sponsorship, financial and funding perspective, there was nothing set in stone.
“Whereas now, I think there’s much more awareness around how to support athletes. It’s all these small steps that make it easier for you to return, so that when you return and have your child, there’s no great pressure to rush back to performing straight away. Because that can be quite damaging physically and mentally.”
It was that desire to help female athletes better understand their bodies that stirred Ennis-Hill to create Jennis, a fitness and hormone intelligence app that offers women of all athletic abilities access to workouts and expert lifestyle and nutritional advice that is tailored to their needs.
For all the progress that has been made in women’s sport in recent years, there remains a chronic lack of research and investment into some of the physiological and medical challenges unique to women athletes, including the impact of female hormonal health and fluctuations on performance.
Jennis, which launched in 2019 and raised UK£1 million in funding in late 2021, represents a step towards addressing that. Ennis-Hill originally had the idea based on the physiological and hormonal changes she experienced when pregnant, but later realised that there are various phases that women encounter at different stages of their life. To that end, the platform initially focused on menstrual cycle mapping and more recently evolved with the launch of a perimenopause programme.
“There’s a real lack of understanding and education around these phases that we go through,” says Ennis-Hill, who is a member of the Laureus Sports Academy, a group of athletes supporting the work of Laureus Sport for Good. “And also, a lack of understanding around how, if we know our cycles better, we understand the four phases of how our body changes and how our symptoms change, then we can actually move our bodies and exercise in a way that’s kind of fighting against them.
“I think that applies to everyday women who just want to be active, but also athletes who want to correlate their hormonal data and that understanding of their menstrual cycle to all the other data they capture around their performance as well.
“It’s an area that still needs so much more time and investment, but it’s an area that’s so important.”
When she was competing, Ennis-Hill says talking about periods “very much felt like a taboo subject”. However, more female athletes have since felt emboldened to speak publicly about how they are affected by their menstrual cycles, including British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, who has previously pulled out of competitions with period cramps and has called for more research into the issue. England’s Lionesses also successfully lobbied to switch the colour of their playing shorts from white to blue amid longstanding concerns from players about wearing white during their periods.
“Sport is quite a male-dominated environment and it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have,” Ennis-Hill notes. “And you kind of just [used to] accept and just get on with it and don’t want to draw too much attention to it.
“But I think there are definitely more female athletes that have now highlighted it while they’re still competing and making it a normal conversation. And then having products like Jennis to help more women understand and support them, that’s an amazing change to create.
“Hopefully for young girls coming into sport, that conversation is completely normal, and they can use products, different tools to understand their bodies in a better way than older athletes have [been able to].”
Some elite athletes struggle after calling time on their competitive careers, but it’s perhaps no surprise to hear Ennis-Hill describe her move into retirement as “relatively smooth”. She bowed out of athletics on her own terms and has since landed on “another passion that connects with my sporting life” and challenges her “in a different way”. All that while raising Reggie and her daughter Olivia, who was born in 2017.
Whether there’s space to add further challenges to that mix remains to be seen. Right now, like when she was competing, Ennis-Hill is just focusing on what’s in front of her.
“At the moment, I feel really fortunate, I really enjoy the work that I do with Jennis and I love being an academy member with Laureus,” Ennis-Hill considers. “With the BBC, I love being part of that incredible team, being able to be on the other side of the track now and still be part of it but being able to talk about it in a different way.
“So I feel very balanced. I’m doing things that I really enjoy and obviously am very passionate about as well.”
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