British track and field star Jessica Ennis was born on January 28, 1986 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. She was raised by father Vinnie Ennis, a Jamaican-born, self-employed painter and decorator, and mother Alison Powell, a social worker.
Ennis developed an interest in track and field at a young age, when her parents took her and her younger sister Carmel to a track event at Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield, England. She took to the sport immediately, drawing attention for her near-perfect hurdle technique at just 10 years old. She soon met her future coach, Toni Minichiello, and joined the Sheffield Athletic Club, winning the high jump competition at the National Schools Championships at the age of 14.
In addition to the hurdles, Ennis tried her hand at the heptathlon, a grueling race combination of high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin, 100-meter hurdles, and the 200-meter and 800-meter races. Throughout high school, she devoted much of her time to training, and continued while studying psychology at the University of Sheffield, where she graduated in 2007.
Ennis first established herself as one of Britain’s top young athletes in 2003, at the AAA U20 Championships, where she won both the indoor pentathlon and outdoor 100-meter hurdles. That same year, she began competing internationally, with the 2003 World Youth Championships in Canada, followed by the 2004 World Junior Championships in Italy and the 2005 European Athletics Junior Championships in Lithuania. In 2004, at age 18, Ennis won the 60-meter hurdles at the Northern Senior Indoor Championships—her first senior tournament.
Over the next few years, Ennis continued to dominate track and field, eventually finishing fourth at the World Championships in Japan, and second overall in the World Combined Events Challenge. In 2008, however, she faced major disappointment: a stress fracture in her right foot caused her to miss the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and sit out the rest of the 2008 season.
Following a 12-month break from competition, Ennis made a comeback in 2009, winning the world championships in the heptathlon and world indoor pentathlon title the following year. She shocked spectators when she won the 60-meter hurdles at a five-team international meeting in Glasgow, beating out indoor champion Lolo Jones. Under the guidance of her coaching staff, cleverly titled “Team Jennis,” she continued her success in the following years, competing in her first Olympic Games in London in 2012.
At the 2012 Olympic Games, Ennis wowed audiences in the 100-meter hurdles (the first of her heptathlon events), setting a British record of 12.54 seconds. The time was the fastest any heptathlete had run the race since Jackie Joyner-Kersee‘s 12.69 seconds in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. After a 1.86-meter high jump, a 14.28-meter shot put, and a 200-meter personal best of 22.83 seconds, Ennis established a solid lead. Almost 36 hours after her first event, she finished the competition with the 800-meter. She secured the gold medal with a time of two minutes, 8.65 seconds, and became the new Olympic heptathlon champion.