At the end of 2016, Katarina Johnson-Thompson packed her bags and moved from Liverpool, where she’d lived and trained all her life, to Montpellier, France. FS caught up with the British heptathlete during her first return to home soil since the big move.

Her taxi driver from Manchester Airport was a Scouser. “I was listening to every single story he was telling. I was like, ‘I miss Liverpool so much!’ He had funny stories for days. I miss home and I miss people from home; even when I landed and I saw a grey sky, I wasn’t sad to see it. I just thought: this is home.”

Her mum has been over to France a couple of times, and although she misses home comforts, “it’s OK with my family, I can always text them or phone”. It’s the dogs, Chorizo and Bronx, she misses the most. “They don’t really respond on FaceTime.”

Being far from friends is tough, but is nothing new. Since she was young she’s missed out on “normal teenager stuff” like holidays and festivals. “If I didn’t do athletics it would be nice to just chill in the summer, you know?” she says.

But on this point she recalls 2012. “All my friends went to Majorca Rocks,” she says, “and during the Olympics they had me on the big screen watching me compete. At the end of the year I looked back, and I was gutted that I didn’t go to Majorca, but look what I achieved at the end of the summer. I’ve always had the bigger picture in my head.” That same pragmatism drove her to move.

In Liverpool, under her old coach Mike Holmes, Johnson-Thompson’s routine had stopped yielding results. “I had to change something,” she says. “I tried to change some things in training. But it was never fully changed, if that makes sense? I tried to adapt, to change in Liverpool, but it would always go back to the same stuff.”

Rio proved the tipping point. “I just needed out. I needed a new perspective on things, a different way of training, a new way of looking at the events.” Greg, her agent, adds that being the only elite athlete in her group in Liverpool, “she was having to run with the guys for the sprints and still beating them”.

In Montpellier, the facilities are little different. “It’s pretty much just a track,” says Johnson-Thompson. But now she has Olympic decathlon silver medallist Kevin Mayer and two-time European heptathlon champ Antoinette Nana Djimou Ida for company.

Both have traits that Johnson-Thompson can feed off. She says she’s picking up habits from Nana Djimou, particularly “in the throwing events and hurdle events, because she’s phenomenal at them. It’s good to just be around her”.

Mayer, meanwhile, who won silver in Rio after seasons riddled with injury. “He is experienced in how to manage his own body and how to get the best out of himself,” she says. “I do like the shared experience. It’s definitely helping me.”

Under her new coaches, Bertrand Valcin, Jean-Yves Cochand and Bruno Gajer,  Johnson-Thompson now trains more than ever before, up from three days a week to four, typically in both the morning and afternoon, practising each of her seven events at least once a week, every week, since December. “It’s definitely heavy,” she says. “For me to do back-to-back training is unheard of. I’d never done that before.”

As well as more frequent, the sessions are harder. Previously, the longest she’d cover in a running drill was 300m. “This year has completely changed. I do 600m, 500m and stuff.” This goes for the gym, as well. Normally she’d lay off the weights for a month before a heptathlon. Ahead of Götzis this year, she was doing sessions until four days before. “I definitely felt tired, even the Thursday before,” she admits. “I felt like I’d been training a lot. It felt like non stop.”

This had her in the dark as to how she would perform in her first full outing under her new regime. “I honestly didn’t know if it was working,” she adds. “You never know. It’s something I’ve had to dive into. I made a tough decision and fingers crossed it’s going to be the best approach for me personally and physically.”

This is why, despite having just passed through four countries in less than a week, despite little sleep, despite finishing fourth at the weekend, Johnson-Thompson is happy.

“That heptathlon has given me so much more confidence now. I didn’t feel 100%. It was my first competition with my new coach and I got a PB: my first PB since 2014.

“I feel like there’s a lot more to work on as well. I’ve definitely got confidence coming away from that. And the fact that I got through it as well. No disasters, no injuries. It’s all good.”

Johnson-Thompson admits that, after Rio, she considered packing in heptathlon and focusing on the high jump. She couldn’t walk away. “There’s no way I could live with myself at the end of my career [knowing] that I’d just give up on my dream.” Going through seven events, building a score, crossing the line with nothing left in the tank, “just feels better”.

The scoring in Gotzis suggests this year’s London World Championships will be a slugfest, and you should expect Johnson-Thompson to be at the heart of the battle. “My coach didn’t make me peak for [Götzis],” she says, pointedly. “I only got one personal best in the competition and I was still with them, even though they were all getting PBs.”

The priority is squeezing the most out of her best events – high jump and long jump (she hasn’t ruled out competing as an individual in those disciplines as well). The latter is something she still “definitely needs to work on”. She has a more relaxed attitude to other events, like the throws, which she believes “eventually will sneak up and up”.

Though parts of her new life in France are testing – her limited French vocab is “athletics-based rather than day-to-day” – the novelty her new surroundings means “it feels like a training camp that‘s there to train and get the best out of yourself”. She’s not in Liverpool, but Johnson-Thompson’s says she is “really happy, the place I’m in at the minute”.

Which is fantastic. She is right now Britain’s great combined events athlete. In April she was brought to tears watching Anthony Joshua win the world title. She herself has a chance to become a world champion in front of 60,000 British fans in August. Now enjoying a new lease of fitness, she is brimming with excitement as to what she can achieve when properly prepared.

“[After Götzis] I was a bit taken aback, but now I feel like it’s something I can do as well,” she says.

“I didn’t get the memo that that was going to be the best heptathlon competition in history! I was just taking it as my opener! Now I feel like I’ve got the memo, I can be ready for London.”

 

 Text and photography courtesy of FS Magazine, August issue out July 18.