Australia won’t have long to wait to see if one of its top medal hopes will make the podium at the Rio Olympic Games this month.
Jess Fox, winner of an unexpected silver medal in slalom canoeing at London 2012 at the tender age of just 18, will be hoping to go one better and secure a gold for Australia in Brazil. Slalom is one of the first sports on the Olympic program, good news for Fox’s followers back home who hope she can deliver on huge public expectations.
The omens are good. Since London, Fox has matured as an athlete, winning world titles at senior and under 23 level, and stamping her authority firmly on a sport where the margins between first and second can be tiny.
Slalom, which involves racing a kayak down a 300 metre course of boiling rapids, turning the boat on a dime to paddle backwards and forwards through gates without touching anything, is a finely tuned sport. Do it perfectly and finish in a good time, you’re in with a chance. Clip a gate, you incur a two-second penalty. Get your line wrong and miss it altogether, the time added will push you right out of medal contention.
It all adds up to a lot of pressure. But coping is all part of the game for Fox.
As a young Olympic silver medalist, Fox has become a role model for women’s sport in Australia, trained in the full glare of media attention and learned to deal with growing public expectations of a gold medal in Rio.
It was very different in the build-up to London when Fox was still attending school and studying hard. The silver medal changed all that and four years later, the focus is on building on that achievement. So can the ‘Silver Fox’ go one better in Rio?
“I just want to go out there and do the best that I can and hopefully that gets me on to a podium,” says a seemingly relaxed Fox. “Hopefully gold.”
Preparations for Rio have been by the book. In 2014 Fox made history by winning both the women’s K1 (kayak singles) and non-Olympic C1 (canoe singles) disciplines at the World Slalom Championships and in 2015 became the first woman ever to have won three kayak and canoe titles.
Coached by her mother, Myriam, herself an Olympic bronze medalist for her native France, Fox took another World C1 title in 2015, making her the first woman ever to win three consecutive titles in both K1 and C1. And this year Fox swept the field to win her third successive gold at the Under 23 World Slalom Championships in Poland recently, putting her firmly in the zone for a top performance in Rio when the women’s heats get underway on Day 3 of the Olympic Games.
The competition will be intense. Fox knows any one of the top eight women in the world is capable of winning on the day. Clean runs may decide the final placings and getting down the course without incurring penalties will require not just physical but mental focus.
Fox has worked with psychologists to fine-tune her approach and to understand how best to deal with expectations of an Olympic victory.
“Mental preparation is a big part of it because you have to visualise the course and you’ve got to do the mental rehearsal,” Fox says, adding that her focus is to paddle well without incurring penalties. If she can do that, she knows she’ll be in contention.
Fox may be doing what she can to take it in her stride. The public meanwhile is already one step ahead, visualising a gold for Fox. Will she make it? Next week all will be clear. But whatever the outcome, all are agreed: win or lose, this Olympic athlete is giving it everything she’s got to make it a memorable Games for Australian canoe slalom.
Jess Fox races in the women’s kayak heats on Monday 8 August.