"I call myself a citizen of the world because I've worked for so many teams in so many different places," says Doctor Jo Brown, the New Zealand physio currently supporting the Jamaican bobsleigh team as they take aim at qualifying for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Born in New Zealand, Brown got her first break in sports as a student when she began working with the Tongan rugby sevens team. From there, she has supported the U.S. ski team, Swimming Australia, Tennis Australia, Aussie speed skaters, among others.
More recently she has been responsible for keeping the Jamaican sprint team in tip-top shape, including five-time Olympic gold medallist and current 100m champion Elaine Thompson-Herah, three-time Olympic gold medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and double Olympic gold medallist Yohan Blake.
Now, having switched once again from summer to winter sports, Brown is working closely with the Jamaican bobsleigh team as they seek to replicate the famous group of athletes that inspired the hit movie Cool Runnings.
From New Zealand to Jamaica
Olympics.com: In 2001, you moved from New Zealand to Australia where you began your career in sport. What were your experiences like at that time?
Jo Brown: I'm still based in Australia officially at the moment, but I call myself a citizen of the world because I've worked for so many teams in so many different places. When I moved to Australia, the whole idea was there's more opportunity in sport. I was lucky because I'd already had some opportunities in New Zealand. When I was still a student I worked for the Tongan sevens (rugby sevens) team and then right out of uni I fell on my feet with a job with the U.S. ski team - just a random right place right time thing.
And if you can work on your feet and think on the go, you can make anything happen.
O.C.: You've adapted to so many sports, both summer and winter. How have you managed to have such variety in your career?
J.B.: It's all similar principles and similar values. What I tend to do is just take the learnings from one sport into the next. So let's say I'm working with elite dancers and they have a hip issue, I was working with beach volleyballers and they were having similar hip issues - you can match it up and say 'hang on a minute, that was the same as it was with the dancers'.
So it's about being adaptable and flexible and open to learning every day. I've been doing this for 21 years, I've pretty much been on the road for 21 years with 16 or 17 different sports, but every time I'm just learning, learning and learning.
O.C.: How did you get your initial role in Jamaica?
J.B.: I'd worked with a lot of Australian teams for a really long time and I just needed a break. The Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast were coming up and I wanted to be involved, but I didn't want to have a stressful role, I just wanted to be a part of it. I was going to be a volunteer and I had lots going on with Tennis Australia at the time, so I called them and said, 'Hey, I don't really want to be involved, I've got too much stuff on,' but they said, 'Hang on a minute, we've got you a list of the top 20 physios, we might have a different role for you.'
Out of the 4,000 physios, I was in the top 20 and those 20 were allocated to teams and I said, 'I only want to do it if I get a fun team'. And then about four days later, they called me and said, 'Jamaica wants to work with you.' And that was the moment that changed my world. I fell in love with the people, the culture, and they obviously fell in love with me as well.
Working with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah, Yohan Blake and more
O.C.: What were your initial experiences with the Jamaican team like?
J.B.: The first person I worked with on the Jamaican team was Alia Atkinson, the world champion swimmer. I'd worked with Swimming Australia, so she was like, 'Oh my god, someone that knows about swimming not just track & field!'
So that was this absolutely golden moment for her, and for me because one of their seasoned campaigners, medal-winning athletes, trusted me... and the next minute, I'm getting called by Elaine Thompson-Herah saying 'can you treat me?'
O.C.: What impact did COVID-19 have on your ability to work with the team?
J.B.: COVID left me stranded in Australia and that was a really tough time for me but I needed to figure out the ways that I could still help the athletes I had those relationships with. I started doing a podcast, teaching online, video calls, text messages... and that carried on right the way through to Tokyo.
I think people underestimate the value of great advice and I've learnt in my experience is that I don't need to be there in person to help someone.
O.C.: What's was it like working with athletes of the calibre of Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce?
J.B.: They're all such amazing, powerful, strong people and they have a presence about them. Someone who has competed on that level has this amazing presence.
I always remember Shelly-Ann coming to me for the first time. I saw her and she was like, 'Excuse me Doctor Jo, would you have time to treat my hamstring?' and I was like 'Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce!' (laughs).
So I love working with the best of the best because they respect you and what I find is the higher you go up the rankings, whether you're a sprinter, a tennis player, a swimmer, whatever, the top guys have respect because they know how hard you've had to work to get where you are, just as they have.
I have a really good relationship with Yohan Blake as well and he's such a giver, he gives back and that's a little bit of what I've tried to do with teaching in Jamaica.
The journey towards Cool Runnings 2
O.C.: Since Tokyo 2020 ended you've transitioned to working with the Jamaican bobsleigh team. What has that experience been like for you, particularly given the legacy of the Cool Runnings movie?
J.B.: There's definitely a sense that it lives and carries with us. There's the original sleigh [the sleigh used by the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988 Winter Olympics] that I met yesterday in a container here at Lake Placid. We have Pat Brown, the driving coach here with us this season, who is the original coach, and then Wayne Thomas, the push coach, is one of the guys that went to the 98 Olympics. Chris Stokes is our president and our leader and our funds generator in the background. So there's very much that sense of legacy. One of the guys has a lucky egg and there are all these things that they carry through.
There's talk of Cool Runnings 2 being made if they qualify, we've got a film crew following us around. Everywhere we go there are people wanting photos of the Jamaican bobsleigh team. The team's more famous than the American team and even the Canadian guys were telling us the other day, 'You guys put bobsleigh on the map, nobody knew what it was and then the movie came out and now everyone knows what bobsleigh is.' So they owe something to the team as a community.
O.C.: At the moment you're still based in Australia. Are you splitting your time between Jamaica and Australia?
J.B.: COVID has meant that it was hard for me to get into Jamaica for a really long time, so I haven't been back there since COVID. I've been able to come to the U.S. and Canada. So it's basically working within what COVID's allowing us to do. So all last season I was on phone calls with the bobsleigh team. They were in the U.S. and I was in Australia and we were just literally doing video calls, I was teaching athletes how to do stuff on each other because that's what we had to do.
It's that flexibility of being able to think on your feet and move with what's going on.
O.C.: What's the mood in the camp as the team takes part in qualifying events to try to make it to the Beijing 2022 Games?
J.B.: I think there's a really strong belief in the men's four-man team and that's really coming from that legacy and the guys that we know as Cool Runnings. They're a really tight-knit group and I think that they'll do really well...
There's a really good vibe going on at the moment and they're on course to qualify. They've had all top-eight finishes which is what they need, and the girls are doing really well as well. One of the girls has finished once around fourth and the other around eighth, so they're doing well on the track.
O.C.: Will you be accompanying the team to Beijing, should they qualify for the Games?
J.B.: The current planning is that if they qualify, I will go. And to me, that's really great to have that opportunity to follow through. The athletes trust me, so you've built those relationships, so they don't want anyone else messing with their mojo when they're about to race. So they know and trust me, and I know their bodies, so that is the current plan.
The Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 begin on 4 February next year, with the bobsleigh competition running from 13 to 20 February.