• Olympic silver medallist Jessica Fox has taken out the C1 at the Oceania Championships in Sydney. (AAP) (SPORTSCENE)Source: SPORTSCENE
In a parallel universe where all sports are celebrated equally, Jessica Fox would be a bona-fide superstar. Silver medallist at the London Olympics in kayaking, Fox is a three-time canoe world champion, and has booked her ticket Rio as Australia’s lone female kayak competitor at the Olympic Games. All this by the age of 21.
Pete Smith

25 Feb 2016 - 9:59 AM  UPDATED 25 Feb 2016 - 9:48 AM

Need more impressing? Well, her parents are paddling royalty; father Richard is a ten-time world champion and mother Myriam is an Olympic bronze medallist. Quirkily, and perhaps uniquely, father and daughter can boast three successive world titles decades apart. Even teenage sister Noemie has impressed internationally at youth level.

Fox burst into the headlines during the 2012 London Olympics. Though having only just celebrated her eighteenth birthday at the time, the teenager from western Sydney became a somewhat unlikely sporting hero for an increasingly anxious Australian public amid the nation’s flagging Olympic campaign – a decline perhaps made worse by the success of the host nation.

Yet, indirectly, that achievement on London’s whitewater course may never have happened but for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Fox’s life-story has been shaped by a series of serendipitous events that would nicely slot into an improbable Hollywood script.

Her parents, both of whom come from strong canoeing families, met on the international circuit. Fox was born in France and lived in Marseille until the age of nearly four, at which point father Richard was appointed Australia’s National Head Coach in 1998. The family moved to Sydney and immediately starting putting down roots.

Even then, it could have all panned out differently. Richard played a key role in a worldwide campaign which was instrumental in preventing canoeing from being axed from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The result of Fox's campaigning was the construction of the Penrith Whitewater Stadium, the world-class facility at the base of the Blue Mountains which hosted events during the 2000 Olympiad, and which has been a home away from home for the Fox family ever since.

“It’s funny to think things could have been quite different,” Fox says. “We wouldn’t have been in the Olympics and I would have been living in France.”

“In 2005 I broke my arm when I was 12 doing gymnastics and my physio suggested I get back into it (canoeing). I loved competing and think I would always be in sport, be it swimming or kayaking or whatever. I did always think I would be a swimmer when I was younger.”

But perhaps it was always destined to be so. “My earliest memories are the smell of carbon fibre and other materials used to make kayaks,” Fox, a fluent French-speaker, says of her early childhood in Marseille, where her septuagenarian grandfather Bebert remains a leading active member of the local kayak scene. “Even now when I smell resin and araldite it reminds me of my childhood.”

Fox immediately excelled in the sport and by 15 she was competing internationally for Australia. She won a gold medal at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympics in style, and the transition to senior level was equally impressive. Then came the silver medal in London and suddenly Fox was known outside the small canoeing fraternity. A humble unassuming teenager was now the “silver Fox” according to the newspaper sub-editors.  

And so, remarkably, the bronze medal won by mum Myriam at Atlanta 1996 was suddenly no longer the most impressive Olympic achievement at the family dinner table. Quirkily, Jessica earned a dose of revenge at London over veteran Czech paddler Stepanka Hilgertova who had beaten Myriam to the kayak gold 16 years earlier.

Now, four years on, Fox is in a different mindset leading up to Rio. “After London I have a better idea of what to expect. I went to the 2010 Youth Olympics, which is obviously a different level, but we did have all those additional things like the Olympic Village.

“When I went to London I felt like I had already lived it to a degree and was able to adapt. Some other athletes at their first Olympics are overwhelmed and over-excited. I was able to take it in my stride a little and was able to make the transition. Going to Rio it will be similar, and even there will be things I experienced in London that I won’t let affect me.”

But heading down the whitewater course is a dynamic experience, one which lends itself to the unexpected, much more so than other individual events like athletics or swimming. “There are so many elements and things that can go wrong,” Fox says. “There is the weather, the whitewater rapids, the paddle, or if something breaks, so it is a dynamic sport in that sense. There are so many scenarios you potentially have to deal with.

“I’m world No1 at the moment, but I know that any of the top ten girls can win a race. It is not like in swimming, where if you have the best PB you know you have a good shot of winning. In paddling anyone can win on the day, it is more a case of who can deal with all the factors in the day.”

Intelligent and articulate – currently she is studying for a Bachelor of Social Science, concentrating on psychology and communications – Fox has a busy lifestyle, yet it is one she wouldn’t swap. “There is no such thing as a holiday,” Fox says with a smile in her voice that never seems to waver. She trains five times a week on the Penrith course, plus two flat-water sessions, and you can throw in a few runs and gym sessions for good measure.

But surely the lack of recognition for her commitment and subsequent achievement becomes frustrating? Absolutely not, Fox says, suggesting daily involvement in her passion is reward enough.

“Women in sport generally are not in the limelight,” she said. “We just go about our business, we do what we love and go about what we are trying to achieve and we work hard for that.

“If there is media attention we are happy to have it, but we don’t go looking for it. My sport is quite small, and I want to promote my sport and women’s sport.

“I see athletes in some other sports, where sport is their whole life. It shouldn’t be all-consuming because at one point in your career will stop and you need something to fall back on or go down a different journey.

“Olympic sport gets that attention every four years, which can be frustrating for some athletes. I think I have been really fortunate since London to have some great media experiences, and some sponsorship and those things.

“It has been a good journey but I wouldn’t say I long for fame. I’m happy to do what I do because I love it. We are doing it for a goal, not for money and it doesn’t feel like a job to me.”