Incredible Women

Incredible Women Of 2024: Olympic Athlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson

Next up in our Incredible Women of 2024 series – in which we celebrate the trailblazers whose talent, energy and impact are defining the year – is world heptathlon champion KATARINA JOHNSON-THOMPSON. With preparations on track for the Paris Olympics this summer, the British athlete speaks to VICTORIA NEWTON-SYMS about overcoming obstacles, the power of perspective, and the female forces that inspire her

Katarina Johnson-Thomson

“I am so sorry I’m late,” says Katarina Johnson-Thomson. Our call was set for 5pm and it’s now 5.01 – barely late, and more than forgivable given the demands of her rigorous schedule, but the apology is a telling sign of her steadfast self-discipline. After all, every second counts in the life of an Olympic athlete.

As a multi-eventer, Johnson-Thomson, 31, is perhaps best known as a heptathlete – the seven-event contest that encompasses the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter sprint, long jump, javelin, and 800-meter run – while she also competes in indoor pentathlon and individual events. Making her Olympic debut for Team GB at the age of 19 back in 2012, she has since amassed numerous world, European and Commonwealth medals while concurrently setting multiple records. In August last year, she clinched her second world championship title, a remarkable achievement made all the more impressive given a tough couple of years marked by formidable challenges: a ruptured Achilles in 2020 and a calf injury at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, which resulted in her withdrawal from the competition.

“I am proud that I’ve pushed myself to my absolute limits,” she shares. “What I put myself through to get onto that start line [in Tokyo], it’s something I then took a long time to get over.” But her biggest takeaway on the road to her rebounding comeback has been learning to give herself grace. “You try to control everything as an athlete, and when you get an injury, you feel stuck in time. What I’d tell my younger self is that you’ve got more time than you think. Learn from it and try again… Everything can be added to your experience.”

It is undoubtedly Johnson-Thomson’s resilient attitude that has propelled her toward success, a mindset she attributes to the transformative power of therapy in her life. “I used to [see] sports psychologists, and it was too singularly focused on me as an athlete. Whereas now that I do [more general] therapy, I feel like a more rounded person,” she says. “It’s not just Katarina the athlete, it’s Katarina the person.”

I missed the development of my youth, because I don’t feel like I got the chance to be a young athlete and just find my way. It was very tough in those [early] years, but I’ve learnt to be my own athlete now…

In recent years, there has been a welcome opening of conversations around mental health in sports, and though there is still progress to be made, she has observed a notable shift in attitudes and awareness. “I don’t know anyone who’s not had an issue with it within the sporting world. I feel like the way it’s being written about is [getting] better and, in turn, people are less afraid to talk about it.” A pivotal moment was witnessing gymnast Simone Biles withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics, citing mental-health concerns. “I remember watching Simone in Tokyo and thinking, wow, that’s incredible,” says Johnson-Thomson. “That definitely has opened doors for people to say, ‘This is what I’m struggling with’. She’s one of the greatest athletes of all time.”

Community is also a vital cornerstone of support, and Johnson-Thompson attributes a significant part of her journey to the impactful presence of fellow British athletes Denise Lewis – “she’s been a rock throughout my career” – and Jessica Ennis, who was not only a role model but a competitor. How did she deal with the pressure of comparison from a young age? “I’ve said in the past that I missed the development of my youth, because I don’t feel like I got the chance to be a young athlete and just find my way,” reflects Johnson-Thompson. “It definitely was very tough in those [early] years, but I’ve learnt to be my own athlete now.”

Maintaining a healthy sense of balance beyond athletics is paramount. A self-described homebody with a keen passion for interior design, she has dedicated years to renovating her house in Liverpool, where she spends her downtime with her boyfriend and two dogs. Reading helps her to switch off from the demands of training, while a typical night in at the moment involves Nintendo Switch and Netflix’s Love Is Blind.

Sports were ingrained in Johnson-Thompson’s Liverpool upbringing from an early age, encouraged by her supportive mother. Today, she channels her passion for her local community into making positive change. In 2020, she established the KJT Academy, an initiative offering opportunities to aspiring athletes from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the north-west of England, and she serves as an ambassador for the LFC Foundation and a patron of the Barrie Wells Trust, both of which focus on providing experiences and opportunities in sport for young people.

“I’m looking after myself a lot more now,” she says of dividing up her time. “Having things to do on the outside, knowing everything’s going to be OK if you don’t win, that’s important because [then] it’s actually enjoyable and, like, ‘Oh my god, I get to do this weird thing where I jump over hurdles and over bars and into sand pits, and that’s my life…’ You know, it’s really strange when you look at it from that perspective – and it’s actually really fun.”

With just over four months to go until the Olympics and her sights firmly set on a medal, Johnson-Thompson is feeling “surprisingly very chilled”, she laughs. “I don’t know how long that’s going to last. I just try to take things very slowly. It’s the only way to cope when you’ve been working your whole life towards a single moment… So, I’m just thinking about next week.”