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Paddling upstream

Jess Fox
Jess Fox in competition.

21 Aug 2014

Sport and pressure go hand in hand. The ticking clock. The expectant crowd. The chance for glory.

The desire for gold.

But for Australia’s Jessica Fox, pressure has a whole new meaning.

Her father Richard claimed 10 world titles in kayaking during the 1980s and ‘90s, while her mother Myriam snapped up eight of her own in canoe slalom during the same period.  

‘It was tough,’ admits Fox about her sporting pedigree. ‘I knew I was tagged as “Jessica Fox: daughter of champions”. I was always going to have a huge amount of pressure and expectation on me.

‘But I also knew the sport had changed; it’s not the same as when my parents competed. I realised I needed to focus on my own journey; this is about me and being the best that I can be.’

Now with a world title of her own in the bag — not to mention an Olympic silver medal, a feat neither of her parents achieved — Fox is beginning to understand just what being her best means as she steers her way towards Rio 2016.

A family affair

For a woman who today boasts such prowess with a paddle, canoeing was never Fox’s sport of choice. ‘It was always part of the family lifestyle, but I never really enjoyed it,’ admits the 20-year-old with a laugh.

Instead, it was gymnastics — with a bit of swimming thrown in — that dominated Fox’s youth. But after she broke her arm in 2005, she began paddling regularly at her doctor’s suggestion and quickly became ‘hooked’. Then the dreams started forming.

‘I remember seeing the Olympians in Beijing doing so well and thought, “I would love to do that!” I became determined to make it happen.’
In 2009, Fox was accepted into the AIS squad under the guiding eye of (who else?) her mother. The results were almost instant. Fox claimed the junior world title a year later in Singapore and placed fifth at the world championships.

‘We have a strong relationship,’ she says. ‘The mother–daughter dynamic definitely hasn’t been affected by the coach–athlete side of things.

‘She knows me the best out of everyone; she knows what I’m like on and off the water and what I need to do.'

Surprise silver 

Myriam Fox-Jeruslami arrived at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 as the reigning world cup champion in the K1 event. A heavy favourite for the title, she bombed out in her race and ultimately placed 21st.

‘She took it way too seriously,’ recounts Fox. ‘She was totally focused on her race; she didn’t even go to the Opening Ceremony.

‘So when I went to London [2012], she told me to enjoy the Olympic experience and soak it all up. It’s about knowing when to switch off and when to focus. It was a really valuable piece of advice.’

The value could be measured in the unexpected silver medal Fox won against a fierce field, including Austria’s two-time world champ Corinna Kuhnle. It was an impressive result — women traditionally don’t reach their peak in canoe slalom until they are 30 — and signalled a promising future for the then 18-year-old.

‘When I arrived in London I wasn’t sure what I was capable of; I definitely surprised myself,’ she reflects.

It would have been understandable if Fox had taken a breather and basked in the glory for a bit. But last year saw her more motivated than ever; she won a world cup event in the K1 and added the non-Olympic C1 event to her competition schedule, nabbing a world title in the process.   

‘[C1] really helps me to prepare for the K1. It’s definitely having a really positive impact on my paddling.’
New challenges

While Fox is determined to go to Rio — and arrive as world champ in the K1 — she says any talk of a gold medal is premature.  

‘I can’t even think about a gold medal at the moment,’ insists Fox, who next week will compete in the fourth and final world cup event for 2014 in Augsburg, Germany. ‘Only one Australian girl can qualify, so just getting to Rio is my focus for now.’

Following the world cup, Fox will defend her C1 world title — and have a crack at the K1 hardware as well — at Deep Creek Lake, US, in September. It’s a busy couple of months, but Fox loves a challenge — and knows her competition will intensify as the AIS Sports Draft (which in 2014 will recruit for paddling sports) gets into full swing.

‘I enjoy new challenges; it keeps things fresh,’ she says. And as for 2020 and beyond, Fox is unwilling rule anything out. ‘I’ll ride for as long as I can; as long as my body and mind wants to.’

It’s certainly a prospect that will put fear into her opponents at home and abroad. With Fox’s pedigree and determination, she’ll be tough to knock off.  

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