After a tumultuous year on the sidelines, Jo Brigden-Jones is back better than ever.
2013 was a year of great achievement for Sydney paddler Jo Brigden-Jones. Unfortunately it wasn't in the area she probably expected to take great strides.
It all started off pretty well for the former world number two. She went to the Nationals in Perth and won the K1 200, setting herself up for a big International year which should have culminated in the World Championships in Duisburg. But then it all went bad. A terrible shoulder injury threw her 2013 dreams out the window. She knew it was bad because she'd been there before, back in 2010 when she was establishing herself as a world force.
"The last couple of years haven't been very smooth,"Brigden-Jones said this week in something of an understatement.
"Ever since my first shoulder operation in 2010 the next three years have been pretty interrupted years in my racing and training." But the great news is, Jo Brigden-Jones is back. And the glint in her eyes is back as well.
"I kind of feel like I've wiped my history, what's been, and now I want to start fresh, start from scratch, and pretend I'm a teenager again racing against the best, she said, as she prepared to race at the National Sprint Championships in Adelaide this week. "That way you don't have expectations.
"I've got to build myself up again, go out there and have fun and get the most out of myself on race day."
So by now you're probably wondering why 2013 was a year of great achievement for the Sydney 25-year-old. Because she kicked some big goals academically, and professionally.
She admits she got much better marks in some "pretty intense" subjects in her final semester, marks she probably wouldn't have got if she was also travelling the world with the Australian Canoeing team. She also dabbled in public speaking, which opened her eyes to the possibilities awaiting her when the day finally comes that she puts her boat back in the shed.
But all of that was last year. 2014 is all about what happens on the water, and Brigden-Jones isn't going to die wondering. "That's why I'm hungry, because I've got unfinished business and I won't be done paddling until I've achieved what I know I can," she said.
"I just want a clean run and be able to give it my best shot, and hopefully that will pay off in the pinnacle race, the Olympics."
"I haven't had any dramas in the past few months, I've had consistent training which has been good. I'm totally confident in my body. I'm feeling strong, I've kind of totally re-built my body so it now just comes down to the day. I've just got to remember where I've come from." Any athlete who's suffered serious injury just once, let alone twice, will tell you getting your confidence back is a major issue. Being able to trust your injured limb, and feeling confident it will withstand whatever trauma you apply to it, can be a major obstacle to a successful comeback. Brigden-Jones says she's cleared that hurdle already.
"I've already put what happened to me last year behind me," she said. "I really don't think about my shoulder very often at all, so I think that's a good sign that I've moved on from it.
"I still do lots of shoulder exercise and preparation before I have a gym session, because I realise that's the most important thing I have to do. If I don't have good strong shoulders than I won't be able to paddle.
So it's all about re-prioritising how I do things to make it work." While there can be no doubting Brigden-Jones' determination, there's no doubt her second enforced lay-off from the sport she loves has made her a different athlete. One with a far greater appreciation of what it takes to be an elite performer, and what it can do for her.
"I guess after last year with what happened, making the Australian team and winning titles and then everything coming apart within a split second, I kind of realise I can't take everything for granted any more," she said. "It's about going out and feeling excited again and feeling grateful that I can actually get on the water, which is an achievement in itself. Anything on top of that is a bonus.
"One day I want to be on that gold medal podium, but for now I'm going to be happy with every little step forward." The injuries haven't forced big changes to Brigden-Jones technique, although she's had changes to her coaching and support staff since her 2010 injury, so plenty of different influences on her style.
It's working, with Brigden-Jones candidly admitting she's been recording PB's in the lead-up to Adelaide. And when she allows herself to dream, she pictures herself, fit and healthy in Rio in 2016, maybe sitting in the front seat of the K4 500 team, or tearing down the course in the women's K1 200. "I'm kind of keeping my options open, and see what happens from there."