Katarina Johnson-Thompson: World champion on getting in the “best shape” for the Tokyo Olympics

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In a bonus episode of the game changers podcast, reigning world heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson discusses her preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, her female role models, and learning to handle the pressure after losing her love of the sport.

At 28-years-old, Johnson-Thompson is a long-established name on the athletics circuit. She earned a gold medal at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, but her first major competition was the London 2012 Olympic Games, where she placed 13th.

Johnson-Thompson explained how she dedicated her life to earning Olympic gold following London 2012, but missed out on a medal at Rio 2016 after finishing sixth. She described this period as “a very tough time” and revealed she “did lose the love for the sport a little bit”.

The heptathlete showed incredible resilience to pick herself up from this low point. Her recovery was aided by the courageous decision to leave her life in England behind and move to France.

“I didn't know what was going wrong,” Johnson-Thompson said. “I didn't know. I knew I had the talent. I knew I was capable of winning these medals, but I didn't know what exactly was breaking down. So I just tore up my health, my whole entire life and started again. I didn't know what was right and what was wrong. So I just thought I'd just get rid of all of it.

“And then I moved to France, post-Rio. So I left my house, left my family and my two little dogs with my mom and yeah, I moved here, to France and haven't looked back since.”

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Johnson-Thompson was also guided by new coach Bertrand Valcin, who she described as a very “chilled out person”. Valcin helped transform Johnson-Thompson mentally and physically into the world champion she is today.

“So I train the most, maybe eight times a week, one rest day, and it's very little and it's very often, but you know, it all adds up and it made my body adapt to the heptathlon more… I feel like I'm a heptathlete now, instead of a jumper who's good at running, I feel like I'm an all around athlete now,” Johnson-Thompson explained.

"I used to be under some illusion that, if I'm not crawling away from the track every single day, and I've not killed myself and put my body through pain, then I'm not training. Whereas now I just have different focuses and we do have sessions like that, you know, on Wednesdays and sometimes on Saturdays, but it's not the main focus of every session.”

Aside from Valcin, Johnson-Thompson has been supported by a number of female role models in her life. This includes former heptathletes Jessica Ennis and Denise Lewis, with Johnson-Thompson calling the latter “a sounding board throughout my whole career.” She also credited her mum for her success.

She is the strongest woman I know. And you know, she's been such an example to me and she's like the most caring person ever. So she's had such an important role in my upbringing.

Johnson-Thompson is now facing a race against time to get back to full fitness for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. She suffered a serious Achilles injury at the end of last year and has only competed once in 2021 so far. Her next competitive opportunity will be at the British Grand Prix on July 13th.

Before her Achilles injury, Johnson-Thompson had another setback to overcome. In March 2020, the Olympic Games were pushed back by a year as the COVID-19 pandemic caught pace around the world.

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“It was a tough blow for me to take and for all athletes as well,” Johnson-Thompson said of the postponement. “I think that the time that it got announced, we were, you know, semi-expecting it.

“But you know, when things started to unravel and we were in that sort of limbo, where we were still training, but having to shelter, and facilities were getting shut down and then we had to adapt and, you know, the timeline was the same but the circumstances were different.

“But once it got cancelled, it was just sort of reset and refocus like all athletes do; they adapt. The timeline now has changed.

Everyone's got an extra year. Some people have used that very well. Some people haven't, you know.

Some may have doubted Johnson-Thompson's ability to recover from injury in time for the Games, but the heptathlete revealed she is determined to be in the “best shape” possible.

“It's just going to be one of those things now, we've been waiting for, for so long now, like it's been five years and so much has happened in the last year. Never mind the last four years of my life. And everything I've built in the last four years has been leading into these Games.

“So I'm just astounded that it's only, maybe just under two months away. And I think I just, week by week, I'm just trying to get myself in the best shape I can. And I'm just excited when it will finally be there, just see what's going to happen. Because I can't take this suspense anymore.”

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As the episode came to an end, Johnson-Thompson shared her advice to emerging female athletes.

“I think the advice that I would give any female athlete or the advice that I give myself is that, you know, everyone's journey is different and don't compare,” she said. “Comparison is really never a productive thing. So no, just focus on yourself and don't put too much pressure on yourself as well. Just everyone's journey is different.”

This article was produced in partnership with the game changers podcast, which is supported by Barclays. You can listen to the full episode with Katarina Johnson-Thompson here.

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