Olympic kayaker Jo Brigden-Jones on how pressure – in sporting events and in her work as a paramedic – brings out the best in her. By Richard Cooke.


Balancing act: Jo Brigden-Jones, 29, kayaker

I can’t remember all my nicknames. My surname instantly makes people think of Bridget Jones, so comments about the movies get brought up a lot. From that I get Brigga, I get Jeggsy a lot. I get called Jo Toe by my schoolfriends because when I was in grade 11 I sliced my toe in half. I get called Goanna by my dad; I think the nickname started when I was five or six in Queensland. It’s Joanna the Goanna. Gypsy was because I lived in a caravan for a couple of months while my mum was renovating our house. Sometimes it’s just Joey. Or Jo-Jo.

I started in surf lifesaving. Like a lot of Australian kayakers. Paddling on a surf ski when you’re 15 or 16. And then some people transition across to the white-water kayaking, which is a really good sport to transition into.

Slalom kayaking and flat-water kayaking respect each other a lot. Slalom kayaking – obviously you need a lot of skills to manage your way down the gates and down the rapids. We’re kind of under the same umbrella with our sports, but they are so different. Paddling is very, very different. But we all get along well and often see each other around. We provide a lot of support for each other.

In flat-water, you need a large range of different skills. First of all you need good balance, because the kayaks are so narrow so they’re very tippy, and especially when you’re going at speed it’s even harder.

Pro kayaks – a beginner can’t even keep them upright. A lot of people think “Oh, yeah, I’ll give this a go, I’ve kayaked before and it’s a plastic kayak, it should be right.” But they quickly find that they’re not like that, shortly after they jump in. Even when I started – I started paddling when I was 13 – for the first couple of months I spent more time swimming than I did paddling, so it takes some people a little while to get their balance and get the knack of it.

You see other people paddling around and staying upright. So that’s your goal. You think, “Okay, well, I’ll just get back in and give it another try.” Eventually you get the hang of it.

Sometimes it does get frustrating. It comes around to the Olympics and people… You know, you think, “Oh, so now they’re interested.” It’s great that they watch and they’re really enthused about it. But they don’t see the background behind the scenes, what happens to that poor kid leading up to the Olympics.

It’s not just about the one at the Olympics; there’s so much more to it. There’s not much media coverage of kayaking, or it’s not on TV in Australia. In Europe, it is a lot more popular. So I guess a lot of people don’t understand what’s involved in the sport or have never seen us race our kayaks outside the Olympics unless they look it up online.

I don’t do it for that sort of a reason, though. So people recognise me. I do it for more personal satisfaction.

I’ve had a fish jump into my boat before. That was a bit scary. It’s more the abnormal feeling of, “Oh, there’s something splashing at my legs and I can’t see it.” Then you look down and there’s a little fish. I have seen a water snake as well.

I’ve wanted to be a paramedic since I was 10 years old. I was just drawn to the profession – I always got excited when I saw an ambulance driving past. I started working full-time as a paramedic last July. And yeah, that’s been pretty awesome. I kind of like the pressure. Sometimes pressure brings the best out of me.

It’s quite good that I have been competing as an elite athlete. Dealing with that pressure for numerous years. On a daily basis, I’ve been able to bring that into my work life.

It’s pretty similar to the adrenalin rush and the high you get after winning a big race. If anything, racing a little boat down a course and trying to race people to be the best in the world – it doesn’t really compare to what I do in medicine. Helping people when they’re in a critical situation.

I’m not very good at resting. I do like to keep busy.


This week’s highlights…

• NRL: Sydney Roosters v Brisbane Broncos

Saturday, 5.30pm (AEST), Allianz Stadium, Sydney

• Netball: Major semi-final – Melbourne Vixens v Sunshine Coast Lightning

Saturday, 4pm (AEST), Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne

• AFL: North Melbourne v Richmond

Saturday, 7.25pm (AEST), Etihad Stadium, Melbourne

• Super Rugby: Brumbies v Melbourne Rebels

Saturday, 7.45pm (AEST), GIO Stadium, Canberra

• Cricket: ICC Champions Trophy – Australia v Bangladesh

Monday, 10.30pm (AEST), The Oval, London

Soccer: Socceroos v Saudi Arabia

Thursday, 7.30pm (ACST), Adelaide Oval

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2017 as "Balancing act".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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