Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s powerful words on overcoming an ‘identity crisis’

I first met Katarina – or KJT as she’s known to her supporters and the sporting media – on the eve of the Rio Olympicsin 2016 and Kat will admit that she was a shadow of the person she has become.

Eventually finishing, injured, in sixth place in her 7-part event, the heptathlon KJT realised she needed to completely change her mindset and soon moved from her hometown of Liverpool to the South of France to join a new trainer who transformed her game and her mind.

Walking the runway for the Nike Forum 2020 in New York and kickstarting New York Fashion week in the process is not something Katarina Johnson-Thompson would have taken in her stride a few years ago.

Now she sits before me as a World Champion after smashing the British Heptathlon record set byJessica Ennis at the Athletics World Championships in Doha last year. On the verge of the Tokyo Olympics, talking backstage at the Nike show, Kat reveals she has undergone quite the internal transformation.

“I am a completely different person I can’t even watch videos of me from back then as I just want to shake me! At my first Olympics in 2012 I was just buzzing to be there, I wasn’t even concentrating on my event,” the 27-year-old says. “At the 2016 Rio Olympics I didn’t even want to be there. I was injured, had low confidence and was getting beat. I have changed that person and I have changed my relationship with the sport. I want to compete, I want to win, I don’t want to lose.”

Now, despite being the UK’s – and the world’s – greatest all-round female athlete (the Heptathlon sees her competing across the 100 metre hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 metres, long jump, javelin and finally the 800 metres) anyone who meets Kat can attest to the fact that her true talent is modesty. KJT takes everything in her stride and despite all the jumping is one of the most grounded and kindest people you could meet.

This is no more evident when you ask her about her influence. “I still don’t realise it,” she says bashfully and when it comes to talking up Tokyo 2020 as one of Team GB’s leading hopes Kat simply says, “training is going well. After winter training you always question if you are going to get back on track, it’s the same every year,” in her distinctive Liverpool accent.

However, the forthcoming Olympics are never far from her mind, “It’s been on my mind every day for the last four years, ever since I moved to France,” Kat tells me. “I have tried not to think about it, and when it gets close to the comp – as always – I put the track that I am going to be running down as my background.”

Manifestation is one of the many ways she has got herself into golden form. Now with her eyes firmly on the prize, Kat details the literal hurdles with body image and self confidence that used to trip her up and how now she literally leaps over them…

You have just walked the Nike show, looking banging! How much would it have helped younger you to see someone like yourself walking a show like this?

I grew up when size zero was a thing so it would have helped so much. I wouldn’t have been ashamed of my muscles and I would have been able to see being strong as beautiful instead of just skinny as beautiful.

You are such a great role model for a positive body image, for being strong not skinny. How has your own relationship with that changed?

When I was very young, I wasn’t very confident. When I was stood at the starting line at the London 2012 Olympics at 19 years old, I had 80,000 people in the stadium, I had millions of people at home watching and I wasn’t comfortable basically being in the crop top and knickers. In those moments I wasn’t thinking about doing the high jump I was thinking about what people thought of how I looked. I wasn’t bothered about the long jump, I was just bothered about perceptions of other people, and if I didn’t perform well, I worried people would think it was because of the way I looked.

Being seen as strong when you’re trying to grow up and attract boys, was hard, too. I went to an all-girls school and then in the sixth form when the boys come in, I remember being in a class one day some guy said, ‘your calves look hectic,’ which means, ‘your calves look thick.’ At that moment I was just mortified. I think if I wasn’t as strong minded that’s something that I could have just left the sport for.

I wouldn’t have won all the titles because I was insecure about thinking nobody’s going to like me. But now I’ve just tried to learnt to be proud of my body and I need my body to look like this in order to jump and to run fast. I don’t care anymore, but it’s definitely a problem for young girls in school and not wanting be seen as unflattering.

How did you overcome that struggle with body image?

I honestly don’t know but I think it changed for me in 2014 when I started seeing my body as something I need to look after and fuel opposed to looking at it and seeing it as something I didn’t love. I can walk around in sports kit and people can comment but if that happened when I was younger, I was worried people thought I looked like a man. I used to look for it on the internet for a little bit too, I used to look at the photos of myself competing and critique myself. I don’t do that anymore.

Now you are a World Champion – what was that winning moment like for you after all those years of trials and tribulations?

When you cross the line or look straight to the score board, it’s like, ‘no I don’t actually believe this is,’ because it’s been a lifetime trying to be at the top. When I got that gold medal that’s when it started to sink in.

How did you get into the winning zone? Did you work on manifesting it?

The past I tried to manifest a winning performance and that hasn’t worked, you can have certain scores and certain personal best in different events, but it doesn’t always come together on the day. I look back at events like my first Olympics at 19 years old was a home Olympics in London and I was an athlete but at the same time as a spectator cheering Jessica (Ennis) on in the same event.

How much of an inspiration has Jessica Ennis been for you, has she provided a benchmark that you have always aimed for?

At the time, yes. The 2012 Olympics was my first ever senior international comp and she was beating everybody. She was such a help to me and calmed me down even though she was trying to win. When we did the victory lap together, I remember thinking, ‘this is what I really want to do.’ That was the moment for me as although I was already on that path, I decided to focus entirely on sport, so I quit university. I was nervous but I wanted to just train and be an athlete.

What has your journey with confidence been like?

It’s been hard and to be fair it’s not a journey that I can remember because I just had so many low moments before I even met you just before Rio and since. At that point we were still a little bit optimistic but going into Rio that was one of the lowest points in my career and the year before, I had come down to the world championships in Beijing and for the whole year I was injured. I was going onto the start line and I didn’t know the shape I was going to be in and then there was a big thing about how I couldn’t throw.

I remember going into the high jump and my confidence was really at it’s all time lowest which was hard to deal with as it was on the world’s biggest sporting stage. Now it’s actually helped knowing that I have experienced that low and that now I am ok and that those performances don’t represent me as a person, it doesn’t make me a bad person. I’ve got myself a little life. I moved to France. I Just sorted through my life.

How have you used disappointment to empower you?

After Rio 2016 a lot of people were saying negative things about me, but I didn’t want to use it as fuel because I didn’t want to be fuelled by negativity. I wanted to do was be fuelled by the thoughts of my mom and family, my supporters and the people who want me to do well. I wanted to prove to them that they were right, instead of proving to others that they were wrong. Failure is not easy, it’s a learning experience. Everything that’s gone wrong has gone wrong and now I know how to handle those situations and I don’t let them happen again.

How has your relationship with your inner critic changed?

I think you have to con your mind to be honest. I work a lot with a psychologist called Steve Peters and he has a thing called ‘The Chimp paradox.’ It’s a little thing in the emotional side of your brain that always holds onto stress, will always be negative and will always think of the worst possible things that could happen. But you need to calm that part of your brain down and focus on the human side where your reason is. You have to say to yourself, ‘no that is not going to happen because of these three reasons.’ So, as I go in the hurdles I think, ‘you need to come out of the blocks and do this and do that.’ I don’t think, ‘oh god I could fall, oh god my heads not going to get better.’ The fact is I am a big girl and if I fall, I can get over it or if I don’t win, it’s okay because I tried my best. The thought always has to be, ‘do your best.’

How do you look after yourself and your well-being?

I had a big Identity crisis not so long ago. I didn’t know what I was. I think self-care is trying to find what you enjoy, what you like doing, what calms you down and make the time for that. I train maybe six hours a day sometimes and six days a week. Now I think, ‘okay I am going to read on this bench for an hour,’ and those routines help you and give you space.

You are such a great symbol of hard work, determination and talent. How have you dealt with the idea of being a role model?

I still don’t realise it and I haven’t felt pressure of being a role model. It’s funny getting DM’s on Instagram from little kids saying, ‘you’re just such an inspiration.’ It is weird because I know what it’s like to be that kid, looking up to role models. I’m proud of my journey now and I do want to be a role model and I want to show people that nothing worth having I easy. You have to sometimes lose. You have to have injuries as every journey is different. I want to be a role model for people who don’t and won’t give up.

You are part of such a strong sisterhood in sport now, but you have always been part of strong sisterhood personally too, as you grew up with our queen, Jodie Comer. How amazing is it to be coming up together at the same time in two very different fields?

It’s amazing. When she won the Emmy, I was in such a good mood that day. We have known each other since year 7 and she’s absolutely smashed it. She’s always been tested with her greatness and I’m just so happy that people start to recognise just how talented she is.

How has your relationship with beauty changed?

It’s definitely changed, I feel more beautiful now. I didn’t know how to do makeup, I played around a lot with hair colours, I literally used to look like Ronald McDonald basically. There’s another time I was in a competition and I had a high ponytail and it whacked the bar off and I said never ever again!

When I was younger, it wasn’t allowed to have makeup in school, but I had fairly bad skin. I got my mom to write me a letter to the school saying, ‘she’s allowed to have foundation cause of this.’ But the foundation was from Superdrug and it wasn’t my skin tone, it was sort of orange, you couldn’t blend it at all. I wasn’t comfortable going into a store and finding make up. I would compete with it on at the beginning and it would just run into my competition kit.

What was that like growing up, being woman of colour in school? Was that difficult for you?

I was clearly the only black person in the school. I didn’t notice at first, I just thought I was the same and then I moved from primary school to secondary school. I think I was lucky going to an all-girls school. One thing happened to me, I went home and told my Mum and she said she wouldn’t tell anyone at school. But she must have done as the next day I got bought into the classroom and the teacher said, ‘you’re Roman Catholic just like us!’ That’s the one thing that stuck with me.

What would you say to someone who is dealing with similar self-confidence issues that you have dealt with?

Beating yourself up is just unhelpful, un-useful and it’s not needed at all. You need to try and help yourself. You need to remember if you have a voice in your head that is saying, ‘that’s not possible, you can’t do that,’ that it’s stupid and it’s not you. Listen to your reason, try to change those thoughts and that will transform your confidence. It’s not been an easy process for me to be confident. It’s been a slow process, applying these new techniques and ways of thinking.

I found someone to lean on and for me that is my coach now. I joined his training group when I was at my lowest and they built me up so much. They sort of gassed me by saying, ‘yeah, you can win, you can do this, we believe in you,’ and that made me believe in myself too. But it’s just been a long slow process. You need to remember that’s not you talking to yourself, that’s something that’s hijacking you.

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