Months of recovery from an achilles injury were ended by a twang of the right calf in the 200m and took hopes of an Olympic gold to go with her world title with it
She was the third quickest to react to the starter gun. She led into the bend. She finished to acclaim, 68.4 seconds after seventh place had finished. In between, Katarina Johnson-Thompson pulled up in her 200m heat, took the weight straight off her right foot, collapsed to the floor and writhed around in agony.
Track-side assistants lingered tentatively as a photographer rushed up from the finishing line. This, for him, was the shot to get for the biggest story. Katarina Johnson-Thompson, a name synonymous with the heptathlon had fallen out of the reckoning and out of the Olympics.
Had the left achilles gone again? The one that ruptured at the end of 2020? The kick in the teeth after a World Championship in 2019 felt like a marker of potential not just being realised but fulfilled. A marquee title ahead of her third and most high-profile Games.
In a way, it was worse that it wasn’t the achilles. Doctors confirmed later into the Tokyo evening this was the twang of a right calf. There is no need to rush any diagnoses or recovery though. Now, there is nothing to rush for. No expectation to bear. No dream to realise. No strict timelines to pick herself up from rock bottom and somewhere back to her peak. Just as well given how much lower she will feel.
When the achilles injury was sustained, Johnson-Thompson assembled a team of doctors, physios, coaches and confidants to insulate her. External messages were few and cloudy, but internal ones raw and to the point. They told her the Olympic Games were not off the table but the route to them would be arduous, and with no guarantee. She only heard the first part.
The 28-year old told them, simply, “get me to the start line.” And it was at that start line in the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday morning where she started what looked like being a productive first day of competition.
The promise to her medical staff and coaches was that, once they got to the line, Johnson-Thompson would summon something from that concealed well all world-class athletes possess. One that fills up with fight once triggered by the bright lights and countless million eyes. In the opening session, she kept that promise.
She sat third after two events, winning her heat of the 100m hurdles in a time of 13.27, then registering 1.86m – a best of the most challenging of seasons. Defending Olympic champion Nafissatou Thiam flexed her spring to clear 1.92 and moved the Belgian moved into first and, officially, their battle was on.
Thursday was the day Johnson-Thompson was supposed to cash in, even if not “PB fit” as she put it a couple of weeks ago. Yes, she was not at that 6,981 national record level in Doha, where no one in the field had matched her stride or engine in the 800, nor the leap of her long jump. Nor the charge of her 200. Certainly the last few weeks has involved Johnson-Thompson tempering our and her expectations. Even so, there was reason to believe two or three notches below her best would still put her in medal contention.
Her shot put of 13.31m was nothing special but kept her back in fifth but close enough for the top four to feel her presence. It helps to have a name that sticks out on a leaderboard in more ways than one. With the final event of Wednesday’s evening session, she aimed to be back amongst it.
Athletes say achilles injuries are the worst to recover from. Not only can you feel the pain, you can measure it deep into rehabilitation. It is there in the extra seconds in every watered-down run, every lowering of the box jump, every kilo off the squat rack. The under-par 6.10m she achieved in the long jump at the British Grand Prix last month was the first time she had jumped off her usual 19 steps since the injury, and a reminder of how far from best she was.
The tax it asked of her emotionally was evident. A media engagement a few weeks ago lacked the usual bubbliness but featured plenty of frowns when “rehab” became a recurring topic of conversation. She dismissed the need to talk about it and later complained to her inner circle. All that was behind her. Now came the stuff that she was here for.
There would have been a moment of peace as Johnson-Thompson knelt in the starter block. Knowing that she was 24 seconds away – 23-and-a-bit if she pushed it – from putting together a day that seemed far away, ahead of another with an opportunity that looked impossible even a couple of months ago.
A strong race to lift her from fifth and back to the podium, or that little bit closer to it. Then onto a restful night sleep, where she already had techniques ready to calm her expectations and retain focus to awake on Thursday and know what challenges lay ahead, what levels need to be hit and what she would need to achieve to make the pain worthwhile. An Olympic heptathlon medal of any kind vindicating not just the last year but everything she has had to sacrifice.
She knew as she was in the bend that she was done: face grimacing as the calf seized, the physical pain hitting her first before the emotional pain numbed it. She sat up, tears in her eyes, with assistance on hand to lift her into the wheelchair behind her.
She didn’t dare look at it, instead fixing her gaze ahead to the finish line. Dismissing any help, she got herself up, took a few tentative steps, hopped on her left and then broke into a jog, her right foot splayed out to bear as little weight as possible.
Hobbling down the track will have brought her some peace. The pride of a track athlete is to finish a race you started. And after the effort to get to the start, reaching the other end will have something. Perhaps not glory, but power and strength, at a time when her spirit was vulnerable and body weak.
She was applauded by those in the media gantry which runs alongside the track. Fellow competitors who watched her finish embraced her before leading her to the comfort of anywhere else that was not the track.
As she crossed the line, a time of 1:33.97 flashed on screen before a disqualification was confirmed to save her blushes of a five-digit time. The misdemeanour? Straying out of lane four as she tossed and turned in the nightmare she was living.
A neat snapshot of one of the most important years of her career: even as she tried to recover on her terms, it was not to be.