She is getting there. Slowly and painfully Katarina Johnson-Thompson is getting there. She is even feeling some excitement now, but only after an awful lot of tears and pain.
Here, on this cold evening in Surrey, she is looking ahead to the opportunities of a new year. To a new coaching partnership in Florida, to the World Championships in Oregon in July and to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in August.
All being well, and what an assumption that is, she will defend the heptathlon gold medals she won in the most recent editions of each.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson has opened up on her agony after her Tokyo Olympics injury
All being well, and what an assumption that is, she will defend the heptathlon gold medals she won in the most recent editions of each. ‘They are only two weeks apart but I think I can give it a good go,’ she says. ‘I know what I am capable of and I know I have things to look forward to.’ And that’s important, because looking backwards to the recent past doesn’t do her so much good.
She doesn’t talk about positives around the Tokyo Olympics because as she sees it there weren’t any. There were plenty in what she overcame to get there but not on the ground. Not in the way her Olympics ended, weeping into a hot track and pushing away that wheelchair.
So no, she doesn’t want to lean on those old cliches, about emerging stronger in 2022 from what didn’t kill her in 2021. About growing from the adversity of a ruptured achilles, from which she gradually recovered across eight months, only to then wreck a calf just as the most extraordinary of Olympic medals was coming into sight.
She doesn’t talk about positives from the showpiece because as she sees it, there weren’t any
No, she doesn’t want to spout any of that guff now that she is ready to talk. It took months before she could have this kind of conversation without welling up so she wants to do it honestly. She wants to explain what it is really like when it all goes so brutally wrong. And more so when the temptation is to think of how different it all might have been.
‘I disagree with that whole concept about “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”,’ she tells Sportsmail half an hour into this interview.
‘I used to really buy into that. But what doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. It just breaks you and makes you more vulnerable and makes you more resentful of what happens. I guess you just have to accept it, move on and live. It doesn’t make you stronger. It makes you more prepared for the next time something bad happens in your life, sure.
‘But stronger? No. I felt vulnerable and resentful because something terrible happened to me on the biggest stage of my life.’
Speaking to Sportsmail, Johnson-Thompson has explained what it’s like when it all goes wrong
The words just hang there a while, heavy and raw. She turns up her palms and what else can you do?
An Olympic Games is always a tale of those who got what they wanted and those who didn’t and when Tokyo 2020 was postponed by a year it was inevitable that some would suffer from vicious swings of misfortune.
Was anyone from the British cohort more negatively affected than Johnson-Thompson? In 2020 she was fit and ready, a world champion on the wave of three major gold medals in two years. In 2021, she wasn’t.
And of course she thinks about it in those terms. Anyone would, even if they wouldn’t necessarily admit it. But Johnson-Thompson has always been more of an open book than most, wearing her vulnerabilities closer to the surface after so many hard moments in the earlier years of her career.
In 2021, she was fit and ready at the top of her gam, but the next year, she suddenly wasn’t
If there is a sad irony it was that those difficulties seemed to be behind her. After all that time in Jessica Ennis-Hill’s shadow, and those injuries and capitulations in major championships, Johnson-Thompson was flying between 2018 and 2020. A serial winner. But then, in December 2020, the achilles went on her jumping leg, the left, and as Johnson-Thompson reveals, it could have ‘been a career-ender’.
That she somehow made it to Tokyo was impressive. Far more so was what initially played out in Japan with the second best performances of her life in the 100m hurdles and shot put either side of a solid high jump. That after a handful of low-key warm-up events and barely a few weeks of full training.
‘After the high jump I honestly thought I had a chance,’ she says. Not just at a medal, which would have been absurd in its own right, but gold. It would have been a comeback for the ages, but what happened next was the brutal bit, with Johnson-Thompson moving into the lead of her 200m heat only for the calf on her right leg to ping. Seven types of athletic talent and no luck whatsoever.
Months after crying into the night, she is shaking her head. ‘The truth?’ she says. ‘I won the World Championships in Doha in 2019, I was in the shape of my life, and then Covid happened. Games go back a year and I ruptured the achilles on my jumping leg. Come back from that and my calf goes. I spent a while trying to process all that and the way life could have been and yeah…
She won the World Championships in Doha in 2019 and says she was in the ‘shape of her life’
‘It was s*** luck. No other way to describe it. I am not dwelling on it but it wasn’t a positive experience. Look, the whole experience of getting there in the shape I was is a big thing.
‘It genuinely gives me confidence going forward to know what I could do in such difficult circumstances because it was a seriously hard time after I did my achilles. But I didn’t learn anything from Tokyo other than it was s*** and hard work didn’t pay off.’
She adds: ‘I am an emotional person and it took me a long time to talk about Tokyo without welling up. It is why I needed that time away, to not look at athletics at all. It didn’t sit well with me that I couldn’t finish. Even finishing last, I just wanted to finish the event because we put in so much work (after the achilles rupture) and I couldn’t get any result out of it.
‘My value was always that hard work pays off and sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes life isn’t fair and that is what I was dealing with.’
Johnson-Thompson believes she didn’t learn from Tokyo because it was ‘s***’ and hard work
There were a rough few months after Tokyo, seeing out a year in which she ‘spent more time on crutches than off them’. The calf injury, which transpired to be three separate problems, including a recurrence of an issue first sustained at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, required surgery.
Another major adjustment came on the coaching side, with Bertrand Valcin, the architect of her success, taking a new post with the French Athletics Federation that meant he could no longer oversee her day-to-day training in Montpellier. After five years with Valcin, Johnson-Thompson is now working with Petros Kyprianou in Florida.
‘It feels like a new chapter,’ says Johnson-Thompson and, in light of recent traumas, that is probably a good thing. ‘It is sad that the chapter had to come to an end with Bertrand. He was a perfect fit for me at a time when I needed him the most. He changed my character, he changed my outlook on life.
‘Now I am a different athlete and I have taken that on. I go forward with someone who has a different personality, a different approach and he can push me in a different way for this cycle.
After five years with Bertrand Valcin, Johnson-Thompson is working with Petros Kyprianou
‘It is a bit reinvigorating. It isn’t a case of, “Here we go again, pick yourself up”, it is about new environment, new challenge, new voice. It is definitely helpful to me getting back into it and starting the process again.’
As ever with Britain’s most talented athlete, the intrigue will be in where it leads.
On her day she can beat the great Nafi Thiam, the double Olympic champion, and that could be the prize showdown of the World Championships in July, before the challenge of a second heptathlon immediately afterwards in Birmingham.
Johnson-Thompson, 28, confirms she will then skip the European Championships at the end of the summer.
She has confirmed that she will skip the European Championships at the end of the summer
Beyond that, and only then, will she allow her thoughts to drift to Paris 2024 and another shot at winning the only medal to elude her. She will be 31 by then.
‘I don’t want to look at the Olympics yet,’ she says and at that it is almost time for her to go. She is at a gig to promote Muller and that means smiling for cameras on the back of hard chats.
‘It was a difficult year,’ she adds. ‘But I know what I am capable of and I know I can achieve what I want in my life if I am healthy. I have things to achieve and chase but it is all a different timeframe to what I thought it would be. Now I have to respect the past but not dwell on it. I have so much to look forward to.
Katarina Johnson Thompson, a Mullerlight Ambassador, was speaking at an event to promote the Müllerlight Smooth Toffee.