Katarina Johnson-Thompson's Journey from Imposter Syndrome To World Champion

How hard-work and a move to France helped KJT fulfil her potential
13:12, 04 Oct 2019

Prior to this year, the World Athletics Championships has consisted of tears, despair and heartbreak for British heptathlon star Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

The Liverpool-born athlete has been labelled as one of the country’s most talented athletes ever since she broke Denise Lewis’ junior record back in 2012. The expectation placed upon her shoulders are relentless. However, when it came to the top two major international outdoor events, Johnson-Thompson was without a medal until this month. Finishing fifth at two previous World Championships (2013 and 2017) as well as the 2016 Olympic Games.

"The last two worlds have been heartbreaking," Johnson-Thompson said. "The last two World Championships, mid-heptathlon, I've gone back to my hotel and cried and cried for hours when things have gone badly.”

During those dark days, she suffered from imposter syndrome despite her talent and abilities. It is a psychological condition where a person casts doubts on their own achievements and fears being exposed by others as some sort of ‘fraud.’

The run of heartbreaks and mental battles continued until this week in Doha, venue of this year’s World Championships. Like previous major events, she entered the competition as one of the hot favourites. Destined for a tough battle with the formidable Nafissatou Thiam, who was the defending champion. However, this time, Johnson-Thompson lived up to and even exceeded expectations.

Throughout the two-day event, she smashed a series of her own personal bests in four out of seven events. Doing so in the 100m hurdles, shot put, javelin and 800m. The performance saw her earn a total of 6,981 points. A new British record and the sixth-highest score in history. To put the tally into perspective, the score would have won eight out of the past nine Olympic heptathlon events that have taken place.  

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“It’s just been unbelievable and I can’t believe this is the result. It’s just been so many attempts to perform at this stage. I’m just so, so happy,” Johnson-Thompson said during an interview with BBC Sport.

I could’ve done without [the disappointments] it’s traumatic enough, not gonna lie. I’m sure it would have been sweet in 2015 but here we are.

"The low moments have obviously helped me come back and make the move. Try to look within myself. I’m just so happy,” she added.

So how did Johnson-Thompson managed to turn her fortunes around? One key to her revival was the decision to move to the French city on Montpelier back in 2017. As well as getting to grips with a new language, it was there when she trained work some of the world’s best athletes. Including decathlon world record holder Kevin Mayer.

“Moving to France has paid off,” she explains. “It has been such a long road, I am glad I am coming into my best in these next two years.”

The fairy-tale hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who the 26-year-old idolised growing up. Former athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill remembers how the new champion was left ‘broken’ following her disappointment in Rio three years ago and even contemplated walking away from the discipline for good.  

“She’s had some tough, tough year’s coming into 2019. She’s had so much expectation as a young athlete to deliver. We’ve (the public) looked at her individual results and were like ‘she is bang on for a big score’ (in the Heptathlon),” she said.  

Ironically, Johnson-Thompson’s triumph will undoubtedly intensify the pressure placed upon her with the Tokyo Olympic Games less than 12 months away. Although this is currently the last thing on her mind.

"This a dress rehearsal for next year but I don't want to think about it, I just want to have a break and reflect," she states.

Johnson-Thompson joins Dina Asher-Smith as the only British athletes to have won a gold in this year’s World Championships so far. It is the first time in history two women from Team GB has claimed the top prize at the same championships.

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