It’s hard to imagine the strain the body goes through when competing at the highest level of athletics. Especially in something like the heptathlon, which consists of seven events. Imagine throwing the javelin, shortly after jumping over a bar higher than your own head, and just before an 800-meter race.
Imagine doing that all just over a year after giving birth. Now, imagine doing it—and winning gold.
Jessica Ennis-Hill just did that at the World Championships in Beijing over the weekend—a feat that has never been done before and should go down as one of the all-time great performances in athletics. If you missed it—and you probably did with all the noise over Usain Bolt’s victory—here are the highlights:
The British athlete gave birth to a son, Reggie, in July 2014. Speculation as to whether she would be able to compete at the highest level of sport again—let alone to triumph there—began immediately. “Only a handful of women have celebrated a world title after giving birth, and the majority of those have come in endurance races, where pregnancy may confer some benefits,” a writer for The Guardian noted. “But in the heptathlon? Never. In fact many sport scientists I spoke to after Ennis-Hill announced she was pregnant last year privately doubted that it could be done.”
As recently as July, Ennis-Hill didn’t know if she would compete in Beijing, let alone win. Her training schedule began in October, just three months after her son’s birth, but only entered a serious phase in February, months behind her competitors. Toni Minichiello, her coach, said he wasn’t sure she’d manage it.
Yet the Beijing triumph places Ennis-Hill at the very forefront of the sport. Her final score of 6,669 was a season’s best—her long-jump just short of her personal best.
Minichiello added that if she gets pregnant again, he’ll know better how to handle her training. (That’s unlikely. Ennis-Hill said she’d likely wait until retirement to expand her family.) But before that, there’s the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Few women have come back from childbirth and retained their Olympic titles, which is the next challenge for Ennis-Hill, who won gold in London in 2012. Only two people in history—hurdler Shirley Strickland in 1956 and triple-jumper Françoise Mbango in 2008—have ever done it, according to The Guardian. And again—none in the hepthalon.
But after this weekend, don’t count Ennis-Hill out.