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Olympian Katarina Johnson-Thompson On Motivation

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When Katarina Johnson-Thompson was competing in the heptathlon in the 2012 London Olympics, her mates were in Magaluf on a girl’s holiday watching her on the hotel screen. Katarina has just turned 23 and can jump 1.9 metres up, 6.92 metres across, throw a javelin 42 metres and run the 100m hurdles in under 14 seconds. She was ranked the world’s best athlete in 2014 and is the golden girl of Team GB heading to the Rio Olympic Games this summer. But she still goes running out her front door in Liverpool and around the park, listening to Kanye West and Nicki Minaj, and admits that the first 10 minutes of any run are the hardest. So she’s just like the rest of us then…

Brought up in Liverpool, Katarina Johnson-Thompson (mother Johnson, father Thompson) was all set to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a dancer when she inadvertently broke a 29 year old record for high jump in primary school – with no training. Katarina always preferred football to dancing, telling Refinery29 that the closest thing she had to role models growing up were Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen. It’s one of the most interesting things about her, which comes up again and again throughout our conversation: that she motivates herself. She doesn’t wait for somebody else to inspire her but instead sets her own goals, and relies on herself to achieve them.

The star showed just how strong you have to be to withstand the painstaking pedantry of sporting at this level last summer at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Beijing, when, despite jumping 6.90 metres (which would have won her gold) in the long jump, she made a slight indentation on the plastic marker on her third attempt, meaning the jump was disallowed, and Jessica Ennis-Hill took home gold. There’s a video on Youtube of Katarina being interviewed by Phil Jones on the tracks at the end of that day, in which she says:

“Right before my first throw [in the javelin] I saw Neil Black come down to my coach and I just had to know, I couldn’t compete thinking ‘what’s the decision’ so I just went over and said ‘what’s the deal?' I was a bit deflated at that point – to say the least. […] This is the last place I wanted to be right now.”

It’s a humbling moment. Achieving something so incredible as a 6.90 metre jump while representing Great Britain at the World Championships, and then bearing the no doubt unbearable disappointment live on TV, with such grace, is the thing that makes this extraordinary athlete relatable. And it’s why the entire country will be shouting her name at the Rio games this summer. As Chumbawamba put it: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

At the end of 2015, Katarina launched a 16-minute work out programme entitled 'Runner’s Strength and Balance' as part of the Nike+ Training Club app, which also features advice and training sessions from the likes of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Truth be told, I hero worship anyone who can do the splits, and have profound respect for all those capable of cartwheeling, so chatting to one of the fastest women in the world was a huge privilege. It was also the best motivational speech I could hope for in the midst of my measly 10K training. Read this and by the end you'll be charging up a hill that you’ve dedicated to anyone who’s ever doubted you, listening to Kanye West sing:

"Let's have a toast for the douchebags,
Let's have a toast for the assholes,
Let's have a toast for the scumbags,
Every one of them that I know
Let's have a toast for the jerkoff
That'll never take work of
Baby, I got a plan
Run away fast as you can..."
Hi Katarina! How’s your day so far?
Busy! I got picked up at 7 for a work out this morning. Then I went to Nike Town and got some new leggings that I adore – in pink and black.

What does your morning workout involve?
I don't usually train in the mornings, but when I do it's a technical session, so hurdles, shot put, javelin, long jump and probably a run at the end. Usually I train in the evenings, because I live in Liverpool, and I don't always have access to the track, so I often have to wait until after 4pm to start training.

Do you still live in Liverpool?

Yeah! My boyfriend lives in London so I come down quite regularly, but I spend most of my time in Liverpool.

How did you find growing up in Liverpool? How do you think the city shaped you?
Anyone who grows up in Liverpool knows that we support our own. So when someone from Liverpool goes on X Factor for example, everyone gets behind them. I love my city. It taught me the importance of family values.

Do you support Liverpool FC?
Yes, my grandad wouldn’t let me support any other team! I go to matches when I can.

What sports did you play growing up?
When I was very young, I did a lot of dance – ballet and tap – because my mum’s a dancer so she kind of forced me into it! I didn’t like it at all though. Mum said as soon as I could talk I was asking for shorts; I was always a tomboy, always playing football with the boys and wearing football kits.

What did your school friends think of your sporting talent growing up? Were they jealous?
I went to an all girls school. It was never a problem... I was training at that point, so actually I didn’t put a lot of effort into PE because I wanted to save my energy for training. When I went into year 7, I started to become more girly – I learnt how to put make up on and plait my hair... I don’t think my friends ever envied me going to the track after school on a rainy day! It’s all paid off now though. When I went to the Olympics, all my friends were in Spain watching me on a big screen in the hotel.

Did you feel like you were missing out?

Na. Look what I did when I was 19, I competed in the Olympics.

What do you find the most challenging event in the heptathlon?
Shot-put is very hard for me. When I started athletics I was just a high jumper, then I started adding more and more events on, and shot put was the last one I picked up, at about 15/ 16.

What’s the feeling like before an event? How do you manage the adrenaline?
It's different for every event. So for me, the scariest part is right before the hurdles, which is the first event. More things can go wrong in the hurdles – you can fall over a hurdle or do a false start – so that’s the most nerve-wracking. As soon as the hurdles are out of the way, I settle into it – I’ve got six more events to concentrate on. So the hurdles are the scariest, the high jump is my best scoring event so I have to do well in that, the shot-put is my worst event, then the 200 is difficult because you’re so tired by that point.

Do you have any mantras or things that you say to yourself before a race to psyche yourself up?
I just think about what I need to do: run towards the first hurdle and try and get a fast start. Before the event I look up pictures of the track and imagine myself on the start line. And I imagine it going well; that’s important for me.

What advice do your managers and trainers give you, psychologically, to manage the pressure?
They don’t really give me advice and I don’t have a psychologist, but my coach thinks you can do a full training session sitting on your couch – imagining throwing a shot the right way or going over the high jump the correct way. You can train mentally.

Who or what helps you stay motivated?
Probably myself, I keep myself motivated. The next big competition is Rio, so I always think about that, that’s my goal, and it’s what keeps me going in every session.

Who are your role models?
Growing up, I didn’t really have role models in athletics; I just sort of started it and enjoyed it. I guess my role models were footballers, like Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.

It says on your Twitter bio that you’re "chronically indecisive", which seems a strange trait for someone as successful as you. What are you indecisive about?
Er... I dunno! I just put it in my bio because I’ve got seven events and two surnames, so I can’t decide on anything.

So you're a Nike athlete, what was your experience of Nike growing up? For me it was those 'Impossible Is Nothing' adverts...
For me, it was the football adverts! The Brazil versus Portugal advert; we all used to do it as kids, when you nutmeg someone and go "wheeeey!"
Do you use apps when you train?
Yeah, it’s useful to set goals. When I’m going on a random run, it’s really helpful to look at the data of the run afterwards.

Where do you run?
Out my door! My warm up track is in the middle of a park.

Do people recognise you on your runs? Doesn't it distract you?
In Liverpool, yeah! It doesn’t distract me though because I just run past them!

Do you listen to music when you run?
I have to. I couldn’t just run with my thoughts. I listen to Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Lady Leshurr...

What do you think about when you’re running?
If I’m just going on a jog, it’s relaxed, but if I’m on the track in a session, I think “where am I, am I running at the right pace, how tired am I” but I have to keep going and get through the session, so I just think about getting through it! I steer my thoughts towards motivation. So if I’m doing a hill run, I like to dedicate each hill to something, like, I’ll think about the time when I was injured and should have done this, or when I was younger and used to be beaten by a competitor, so I'll think about that and tear up the hill.

What advice would you give to women wanting to be more active?
The same as what I say to myself: think about why you’re doing it and keep that in mind. When you’ve got no energy or you’re too tired, always remember the end goal, and continue towards it.

Out of interest, at what point in your run do you get tired?!
Haha, at the end! It depends if I’ve been training hard the day before. Actually the first 10 minutes are always hard for me, but then I just push through.

Are there ever times when you just think “I can’t be bothered, it’s too cold” ?
No, I couldn’t train in a warm climate, I’d be too sweaty and too irritated. I like training in the cold. I like getting all my Nike gear on and doing the run, you get warm running anyway.

So how are you feeling about Rio?
It’s crazy that it’s this year. It’s what I’m training for, but I don’t really think about it until I start to compete. It’s the ultimate, it’s the pinnacle, winning an Olympic Gold is what I do athletics for – it’s my main aim in life. So I’m just trying not to get too overwhelmed at the moment.

How do you console yourself if things don’t go as well as you’d like? How do you deal with disappointment?
It’s hard. Especially in the Olympics because it only comes around every four years, but you just have to use it to motivate yourself. There’s always another competition and always another year. You’ve just got to take it on the chin.

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