Jess Fox is a champion. At the age of just 22, her medal tally already includes, but is not limited to, six World Championship golds and an Olympic silver. Most recently, at the Rio 2016 Olympics, she brought home a bronze in the K1 canoe slalom event.
It’s not just Jess’ medal haul, however, that makes her a champion. It’s her attitude. Jess makes no bones about the fact she was a little disappointed with bronze (after all - she thought this might be her year for gold), but as she reflects on her performance over the phone from Sydney, still jetlagged having only flown home from Rio a few days earlier, she isn’t negative, self-effacing or bitter. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Your bronze at Rio was quite a dramatic affair – what with you leading the pack and then getting penalized for hitting a gate – how does it feel looking back on it all now?
There were a lot of emotions that day. I was happy when I crossed the line, then I was nervous seeing the asterix came up, and when the touch came on I was gutted. But that’s the sport, you need to expect that sometimes the penalties might come on late. I was really happy for Maialen [Chourraut, Spain], who won. We’re good friends and I said that if it wasn’t me I’d like it to be her.
At the same time I was a bit frustrated. I didn’t paddle the way I would’ve liked to and the way I was in training. I was the fittest I’ve been. But with the wind, I felt like I had to hold back to make sure I got on the podium. I’m really proud to win another medal, but I feel a little bit like I have unfinished business. I mean, I could’ve ended up fifth or tenth and it can go any way on race day, so to get another medal is great.
Did anyone give you any words of advice or encouragement after the race?
I gave my mum a big hug afterwards and broke down in tears [laughs]. It was just the big emotional vent after a massive campaign. We celebrated and it was really nice to share it with mum, dad and the rest of the family.
Do you think not winning gold has made you even more determined to get it in 2020?
Oh yeah, for sure. For the first time, I really believed this year that I could do it. It only makes me hungrier, knowing that I was close. I’m only 22 and the woman who won was 33, so there’s still time.
I’m more motivated than ever. That’s why I’m going overseas again to compete in the last two legs of the world cup series. I’m ranked third currently, based on the last three events, and I feel like I can give it a good crack.
Four years to wait until the next Olympics must seem like such a long time for you guys – how do you keep the motivation going and avoid burnout?
Motivation’s not such a big deal for me. I’m always trying to evolve my technique or to do my best and challenge the other women on the world scene. The good thing about my sport is that it’s always very different and there’s always variety in my training. It’s never boring.
Over the next four years, there’ll be three world championship events and five world cups every year, so there’s a lot of races and potential for improvement, am testing new strategies. The C1 event will be included in the Tokyo Olympics, and that’s the other event I do. I’ve only been training in that once a week compared to the K1 which I do every day, so I’ll be increasing my training in that as well.
Cheesy question – but who in life or in sport do you draw inspiration from?
A lot of people I guess. Tony Estanguet is a massive role model – the guy you want to emulate in terms of his paddling style and technique. At the Olympics, it’s not just about the best athletes, it’s about the sportsmanship and leadership too. I think Kim Brennan, the gold medal rower; she’s a phenomenal athlete and friend of mine. They’re athletes I aspire to be like. They’re champions in more ways than just athletic.
Then there are my parents and grandparents – that’s where my determination comes from. My grandad, for example, he went to Machu Picchu just before the Olympics with my auntie. I just thought that was amazing.
What do you think your Rio 2016 experience has taught you?
When that penalty came on, I was gutted, but I realised I could react in a few different ways. I could spit my dummy, I could cry, I could get angry, I could be sour…or I could accept that this is what’s happened. I realised that showing a bit of humility and respect for everyone that’s around you, everyone who helped you get there and all the other competitors, that’s the biggest thing for me.
So when the touch came on, I went over to my New Zealand rival, Luuka Jones, who came second, and I gave her a massive hug. I was genuinely pleased for her. I found a way to separate myself from my disappointment and to appreciate what the other competitors had achieved. I think that’s the biggest part of the Olympics: being able to be happy for other people’s victories.