16 April 2020
By Linda Pearce
Jo Brigden-Jones moves between her contrasting but complementary lives as an Olympic sprint kayaker and a paramedic, the ability to perform under pressure common to both. Her philosophy: stay calm, think clearly, stick to the basics and trust your body to get the job done, however challenging that may be.
It took Jo Brigden-Jones 18 years to fulfil her dream to become a paramedic; the girl from Sydney’s northern beaches having, at the age of 10, developed a fascination with ambulances. In the past four years, her job has ranged from saving lives in emergency situations to showing compassion and lifting spirits during more mundane moments. Amid the current health pandemic, it also included transporting one of Australia’s earliest confirmed coronavirus patients to hospital.
Yet when the former registered nurse started with NSW Ambulance in 2016, five weeks after contentiously missing selection for the Rio Games, Brigden-Jones was ready to hang up her paddle for good. A 2001 world championships silver medallist, her career highlight had come in London, 2012 - making her Olympic debut in front of 20,000 in the K4 500, fangirling Novak Djokovic in the dining hall and walking thrillingly close to Usain Bolt at an unforgettable opening ceremony.
But she would not go to Rio. The end - or so it seemed.
Within months, Brigden-Jones was drawn back to the water to stay fit and exercise with her friends. Just once a week and for fun, initially, until a return to racing beckoned the veteran of 16 years of national representation and two shoulder reconstructions. Thus, after retaining her national title, an unexpected tilt at Tokyo 2020 was inevitably added to a to-do list that would be scary if it was not all so well planned.
“Even now I fully believe that if I didn’t have my job as a paramedic that I wouldn’t still be paddling, because the world of being an elite athlete can be quite intense,’’ she says. “You’re in quite a big bubble (and) if that’s the only thing you’re doing you get so caught up in it and everything revolves around your paddling and training.
“So I find that having my paramedic job is such a great balance... you realise that you can overtrain and do too much, so it’s taught me about having quality sessions and quality efforts, and just doing things a different way. So it’s four years on (from) when I was gonna retire and I’ve just qualified for the Olympic team (in the K4 500). It’s actually quite amazing.’’
Just as these are extraordinary times. For Brigden-Jones, that meant packing up her Sydney rental apartment in preparation for a move to a temporary training base on the Gold Coast before the Queensland border closed. By the following Tuesday, when the Games were postponed until 2021, she was staying home, rescheduling her retirement party by a year and working out what it all meant for her Olympic farewell.
“To wrap your head around the massive changes, it is pretty big, because you plan your life meticulously for everything to happen, it’s set out the way you want, and I think you’ve got to accept that that’s not gonna happen and make changes,'' says Brigden-Jones. "Everyone’s just got to work out a new game plan from here.''
Through it all, she has retained an enduring commitment to help others. Brigden-Jones is an AIS Lifeline Community Custodian - having last year become one of 21 elite athletes helping to raise awareness of suicide and mental health, reduce stigma and encourage vulnerable people to seek help. She will soon be announced as an ambassador for another of the Institute’s programs in the health and wellbeing space, as someone with close-up experience of issues that affect so many.
“The hardest thing is making that first step, making that first phone call,’’ she says, stressing that may be to friends/family or to Lifeline. “The person on the other end of the phone really might be able to make a difference and get the ball rolling to help you get through that difficult situation.’’
Brigden-Jones has experienced a few of her own. Yet by establishing a career she loves while pursuing a sport she jokes was never going to earn her “the big bucks”, the 31-year-old is confident that when the end comes next year in Tokyo, a dual Olympian will be well-equipped for a transition that, in some ways, has already been made.