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Thursday, February 22, 2024

How Liverpool have inspired Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s Olympic ambitions

Journalist and broadcaster John Morgan could not believe what he was experiencing as he stood in front of the Kop at Anfield on an April afternoon in 1964.

Morgan was filming for the BBC documentary programme Panorama. The episode aired two days after a famous 5-0 victory for Liverpool over Arsenal, which secured Bill Shankly’s home team the domestic title.

Archive footage shows a buoyant and brimming atmosphere, where thousands of fans are heard singing along to She Loves You by The Beatles. Sixty years on, the video feels culturally significant in a lot of ways and captures a special moment in time.

For two-time heptathlon world champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson, it is personally significant too, because it captures her late grandfather, James Johnson. As the camera zooms in on the crowd, Johnson — who was known as Jimmy — sways briefly into view.

Johnson-Thompson excitedly tries to find the screengrab on her phone as we talk.

The three-time Olympian adored her grandad, who she credits as the person who made her such an avid Liverpool fan.

Attending matches since his passing some years ago is not always easy for the 31-year-old athlete, who is currently preparing for her fourth Olympics, in Paris this summer.

“I have been invited onto the pitch (to show off medals), I’ve met (the club’s iconic former player and manager) Kenny Dalglish and all these different ex-players who my grandad idolised,” she tells The Athletic. “It’s always bittersweet but it’s a huge honour, too.”

Johnson-Thompson’s belief in her football team is something she has frequently tapped into during an impressive sporting career of her own, which has at times been cruelly marred by injury-related lows.

“What inspires me about Liverpool is this idea of never giving up,” says Johnson-Thompson, who made her Olympics debut aged 19 at the London Games in 2012. “Istanbul, 2005 – that comeback is in my DNA.”

Johnson-Thompson is referring to Liverpool’s Champions League final victory over AC Milan in that Turkish city 19 years ago this May; an unfathomable comeback led by captain Steven Gerrard saw the team overturn a 3-0 half-time deficit before taking the game to extra time and then winning a penalty shootout.

“That’s the thing with sport, you just never know. You never give up — because anything is possible,” she adds.


Liverpool famously fought back to beat Milan in the 2005 Champions League final (Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

Johnson-Thompson has enjoyed some improbable comebacks of her own.

In the Hungarian capital Budapest last August, she had to stay within three seconds of America’s Anna Hall in the 800m run (the final event of seven in the heptathlon) to retain the World Championships title. The pressure on Johnson-Thompson was enormous. But she dug deep and stuck with Hall to make sure when she crossed the line, she was 20 points ahead of her rival — and a back-to-back world champion.

She also credits another famous Liverpool comeback, against Barcelona in the 2018-19 Champions League semi-finals, having lost the first leg in Spain 3-0 — en route to the club’s sixth European title — with helping inspire her first World Championships gold medal in Doha, Qatar, four months later.

“Time and time again, that team shows me how to be a better sportsperson. I always say when Liverpool are doing well, I do well. So I’m glad they are doing well now and are top of the Premier League.”

After last year’s World Championship win in Hungary, Johnson-Thompson returned home to Liverpool almost immediately. A banner was draped from the Town Hall to greet her, just as it had been four years earlier. But even though her fellow Liverpudlians are fiercely proud of her accomplishments, they often play it cool.

“Nobody really wants pictures or autographs, like in other cities,” she laughs. “They just go, ‘Oh, well done — saw you on the telly’ and that’s it.”

Johnson-Thompson is currently based in Loughborough, in the English Midlands, but returns to Liverpool every Friday, singing along to Beyonce songs on the two-hour drive to the place she will always call home.

An ambassador for the LFC Foundation, the club’s charity arm, she is committed to not only creating her own track and field legacy but also ensuring young athletes from diverse communities in the north west region Liverpool is part of have the chance to do the same. The KJT Academy runs in partnership with the LFC Foundation to support athletes aged between 16 and 21.

“Track and field has created my whole life. It’s my whole career. It’s all I’ve ever known,” Johnson-Thompson says. “And the fact that I had so much help during those years, it’s really nice to give back to someone who can potentially create a similar life for themselves.

“I had so much help back then, and I don’t think I would have made 2012 or had the career I’ve had off the back of it if I didn’t have the help at that age.

“It’s at that age (when) people drop out. I feel like because of the cost of living crisis and the pandemic and everything, it is so difficult to turn a hobby into a career. Not many people have the time or the means to do it, or the advice and help as well. I want to help people to break through — people from where I’m from and with similar backgrounds to me.”

Johnson-Thompson on the pitch at Anfield (Photo: Getty Images)


Johnson-Thompson on the pitch at Anfield in 2019 (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

Among those to help Johnson-Thompson heading into those first Olympics 12 years ago were the family of Liverpool-born boxer Natasha Jonas (who also became an Olympian in London), and in particular Jonas’ father, Paul: “He’s one of the handful of people who helped. I used Paul’s gym, that’s where I first started doing gym work. He let me use it for free — and I needed to use it for free at the time as well!

“We look after our own,” she says proudly. “And he is one of those people who looked after me when I was coming through. So props to him. It’s a small world, Liverpool.”

So small that Johnson-Thompson is best friends with award-winning actor Jodie Comer, of Killing Eve fame. The pair attended St Julie’s High School in the Woolton district together and have remained close.

“She’s an incredible actor and friend,” Johnson-Thompson says. “To see her pushing the boundaries and doing things she’s passionate about in such a phenomenal way and for the whole world to see… I’ve been a witness to it my whole life and I’m just so happy the world is finally seeing the brilliance we have. She really does make me proud and inspires me to be a better athlete.”

A lot of people seem to inspire Johnson-Thompson.

The hope is she is also aware of just how many she has inspired, no matter the outcome at Paris 2024.

(Top photo: Kirill Kudryaavtsev via Getty Images)



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