Jess Fox: Olympic champion hails impact of Youth Olympic Games experience after returning to the top of the podium

The Singapore 2010 YOG champion won gold at Tokyo 2020 in canoe slalom, to complete her set of Olympic medals. The Australian shared what it meant, following her win.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Eleven years after winning gold at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Singapore 2010, Australian paddler Jessica Fox made it back on top of an Olympic podium, as she clinched the first ever women’s C1 canoe slalom title in Tokyo.

Fox, who campaigned for the C1 discipline to be added to the Olympic programme to ensure full gender parity in the canoe events, bounced back after finishing third in the K1 event just two days earlier, to secure her second medal of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and her first Olympic title. The 27-year-old had previously won K1 silver at London 2012 and K1 bronze in Rio in 2016.

She shared with us what it meant, how she felt to see her event at the Games for the first time, and how her preparations and celebrations have been impacted by the Covid pandemic. Has it finally sunk in that you are an Olympic champion?

Fox: I’m still on a high. I’m just over the moon to have achieved a dream. To have these two medals here, it has been an amazing couple of days.

How proud are you to have won the first ever women’s C1 Olympic title, having campaigned for the event to be included in the Games?

It was really special to be a part of the event and I had a moment during my warm-up for the final when I could hear the times of the other girls going down, I could hear that it was quite a good final and that the girls were really paddling super well, and I just thought it was amazing to be there. I was just so thrilled that we made our debut, and we showed the world what we could do. Obviously, having been part of that campaign to get it into the Olympics, it was really special to then, in a way, be rewarded with the gold medal. I’ve put in a lot of hard work along the way and been really well supported, but it is special to be able to share it with everyone who helped us get to that point.

Did you have any doubts or concerns after finishing third in the K1?

Yeah, for sure. I think for any athlete your goal is always to do your best at the Olympic Games, in that moment when you really need to. And I felt like I didn’t quite get there with the kayak. I was still thrilled to get on the podium, given that it wasn’t my best run, but there were definitely doubts and a loss of confidence as well. It was a massive mental and emotional battle during those couple of days to get myself back out there in the C1. It was the first time that I’d had two events, so I hadn’t really dealt with that kind of emotional toll at an Olympic Games; it’s quite different to the world championships. So, it was very hard but also amazingly rewarding at the end of the day. I’m an experience athlete, I just needed to trust my skills and know that I can perform in the big moments, and I’m glad that I did that.

What did you do between the K1 and the C1 to get in the right frame of mind?

The last five years, I’ve worked really hard on the mental side of things and have consulted a number of people who have helped me. I love learning from other people’s experiences, I love leaning on other Olympians and hearing about how they dealt with things. I actually thought about [Australian cyclist] Anna Meares and her London experience, where it didn’t go to plan on the first day and her coach sat her down and then she came back and won a gold medal. For me, it was my parents who I leant on. And then I did some journaling. Some days before an event, there are three lines written in there. Before the C1 there were about five pages of self-talk. We all need to do the work that we’ve got to do to get us into the right mindset, and I think I managed to pull it around.

The mental health of athletes has been in the spotlight during these Games. Do you think athletes have been under more pressure than ever before?

Every athlete – and everyone in general – has been affected by the situation in the world in the last 18 months, so it has been a very different lead-in and a very different Olympics. Every athlete deals with the situation differently, deals with pressure differently. Personally, this was a very different Olympics for me because it was my third Games but the first where I was able to compete in two events, which was quite historic in our sport with the new C1 event for women. I definitely felt the load and the pressure and the expectation, but I was also prepared for that and I knew it would be that way. Personally, I can only speak on what I feel and for me it was just about having the right support network around me, knowing myself, knowing when I might need to speak to someone to offload, knowing when to take the time to do some mindful, Zen activities when I needed to. 

Is it disappointing not to be able to stay around for the rest of the Games and enjoy more of the Olympic experience, as you usually would?

Coming into these Olympics, I had a very different mindset to previous Games in that I knew that it would be different. I think all the athletes were ready for that and the mindset was just gratitude and happiness to be here for the competition; that was the most important part. That’s my job done, but I’ve also been able to enjoy the Village life while I’ve been here, to see the other athletes perform, to support them, to be in that Aussie Team HQ environment where we’ve got the big screen and we can cheer on the other Aussie athletes – I did get that experience, so that’s been amazing. I’m heading to Europe now, but I’ll still be supporting from afar. It is a shame, it’s not like another Games, but I think we were all ready for that and we were all just stoked it could happen. We’re very thankful to the organisers and the Japanese people.

The first time you were on top of an Olympic podium was at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in 2010 – how significant was that event in your Olympic journey?

I have amazing memories of the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. It was the first Youth Olympics, and no one really knew what to expect. I went in just keen to experience it and take it all in and I think it really helped me in terms of my preparation for London because I felt like I’d had that experience of Village life and of the Olympic processes. It’s an amazing event to be a part of; we’re seeing a lot of athletes from the Youth Olympics go on to compete at the Olympic Games and win medals, and you’re part of a YOG family that is quite special. Some of my Australian team-mates here in Tokyo were in the YOG with me in 2010 and it’s pretty cool to see our trajectory.

What would be your message to young children who may have been inspired by your performances in Tokyo?

I really hope we’ve brought some joy to peoples living rooms and some inspiration. I’ve been seeing these little videos of kids jumping up and down in front of the TV, or dressing up in green and yellow, or sticking two spatulas together and doing some ‘kayaking’ – that is just amazing, and I hope they are inspired to chase their dreams because they can come true.