Jess Fox: "It's a big win for us to be on the start line in Tokyo"

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Jessica Fox of Team Australia competes during the Women's Kayak Slalom Semi-final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Jessica Fox of Team Australia competes during the Women's Kayak Slalom Semi-final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

The world's most successful paddler - who so far has one bronze to her name at Tokyo 2020 - has been "dreaming about that gold medal." In March this year, she spoke exclusively to Tokyo 2020 about her life in sport and what it means to see women's canoe make its Olympic debut at the most gender-balanced Games ever. 

Women's canoe's debut at Tokyo 2020 marks the conclusion of a long and hard-fought battle for the sport's inclusion at the Games. Previously, women had only been eligible to compete in Olympic kayak competitions but in Tokyo there is gender parity for the first time in the sport's history.

"It's a big win for us to be on the start line in Tokyo," said 26-year-old Jess Fox in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020. "It was a long time coming and it was a very important step and a very necessary step to take."

Tokyo 2020 is the most gender-balanced Olympics ever, with 48.8 per cent female participation. And for Fox – who cites her mother, the Olympic bronze medallist Myriam Fox-Jerusalmi, as her greatest influence – canoe's role in that development is something to be proud of.

"[I'm] very excited to be part of that and to have the opportunity to race in the canoe," she explained before the Games. "It'll be a historic moment for all the women lining up in that one event at the Olympics."

Born to the water

With a mother who won K1 bronze for France at Atlanta 96 and a multi-world champion father, Richard Fox, who finished fourth for Great Britain at Barcelona 92, it perhaps isn't surprising that Fox now plies her trade on the water.

However, one of the greatest lessons she learnt from her parents was the sacrifice it takes to reach the level required to compete at an Olympic Games.

"Having parents who were both Olympians, who were then coaching athletes that I saw every day that were going to the Olympics or the World Championships, sort of meant that I could see that pathway.

"But I also understood that it was very hard to do and I would have to work really hard and be determined and committed and disciplined to get there."

I was the youngest in that field, so I had nothing to lose and to win a silver medal just blew my mind.

Fox, whose birthday falls in June, had just become an adult when she competed at London 2012, picking up a surprise silver medal for Australia. But the world was witnessing the birth of a star who threw herself enthusiastically into the entire Olympic experience.

"I had an amazing experience in London. I was 18, fresh out of school, very naive and just excited to be there and so privileged and proud to represent Australia.

"I was the youngest in that field, so I had nothing to lose and to win a silver medal just blew my mind."

Expectations weigh heavy in Rio

Four years is a long time in sport and after her underdog silver in London, Fox had grown into a formidable athlete. But that didn't guarantee her success at the next Olympic Games.

"I was a very different athlete [at Rio 2016] and I had a lot more expectations," she said. "I'd become a world number one and won a world title. I wanted to medal and I was expected to medal."

But even though Fox did win a medal – a bronze to add to the silver she had won four years earlier – it was perhaps not the colour that some people were expecting.

"Every race you've got to go out there and deserve it," Fox explained. "You've got to perform, so you're only as good as your next race.

"I think I had a lot more expectations for Rio and a lot of things went wrong, a lot of things in the lead-up in terms of injuries and just distractions, in terms of equipment going missing, or like just the [Athletes] Village or the transport."

While things didn't go 100 per cent to plan in Rio, she can now look back on those Olympics fondly – proud of what she achieved in difficult circumstances.

"Hindsight is a good thing, that you learn from your mistakes and you can see what was good about the experience as well and how much I learnt.

"I was just so thrilled to still win a second Olympic medal and only five women in my sport have done that. So, yeah, still very special."

Rising to the top

If 2016 was tinged with 'what ifs', 2018 was an unqualified success.

Returning to Rio for the 2018 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, Fox finished the K1 final over two seconds faster than her nearest competitor to win her sixth world title.

It made her the most successful individual paddler of all time, with three C1 and three K1 titles to her name.

"Twenty-eighteen was just the most incredible season," she remembered. "I just started so well and I just kept building and building and really peaked at those world champs to win the double world title."

However, even though she now stands in a league of her own as a canoeist and remains the shining light of her sport, she's not resting on her laurels just yet.

"I got some nice titles, like becoming the greatest paddler. But again for me, it's something that I'll probably recognise at the end of my career, not so much now because there's still so much more work to do and so much more potential.

"And I feel like I can keep improving."

In the 90s it wasn’t all that common to be an athlete, have a baby

and then come back to the highest level and win an Olympic medal.

A family of pioneering women

Almost exactly 20 years before Fox won her K1 bronze medal in Rio, her mother Myriam Fox-Jerusalmi won the same colour medal in the exact same event at Atlanta 96. Now she guides her daughter along every step of her canoeing journey as her coach and mentor.

The significance of her roles as athlete, mother and coach is not lost on Fox.

"My mum had me and then went back into training and competition to prepare for the Atlanta Olympic Games. The pram was always on the riverbank and I was always sort of there following along."

And beyond being a trailblazing athlete, Fox-Jerusalmi – who also trains Jess's sister Noemie and won Coach of the Year at the 2018 AIS Sport Performance Awards – has become a pioneering trainer.

"Obviously she’s been an amazing role model for me, but also for a lot of women in my sport and a lot of athletes [and] coaches, because she’s a female coach and there are not many female coaches around," said Fox.

"She was one of the first. You know, in the 90s it wasn’t all that common to be an athlete, have a baby and then come back to the highest level and win an Olympic medal.

"So it really inspired a lot of people, it inspired me a lot. And as a coach she’s always really open to helping other women, to really mentoring, to cement the place of women in elite sport."

Jessica Fox of Australia reacts on the finish line in the final of the Women's C1 at the 2019 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Jessica Fox of Australia reacts on the finish line in the final of the Women's C1 at the 2019 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

Onwards to Tokyo

At Tokyo 2020, it would be easy to imagine Fox is feeling the pressure, as she looks to capture the one gong that has eluded her during her illustrious career – Olympic gold.

But it's clear that her success is rooted, not only in talent but a finely-tuned process.

"For me, it's about getting to Tokyo in the best possible shape, in the best mindset and the best physical, technical, mental and emotional state that I can, so that I can get on that start line and race to my potential," said Fox.

The postponement of the Games disrupted her meticulous preparation, but Fox seemed to take it in her stride with an attitude of "go back to the drawing board, let's plan this out, let's just take it as it comes."

And while she does admit to "dreaming about that gold medal", even that statement is qualified with logic:

"I think I really need to focus on that process and feeling and how I need to be to get to that top step [of the podium]."