Sunday, 05 December 2021

Fox with cunning plan to snatch gold again in Tokyo

Fox with cunning plan to snatch gold again in Tokyo

ROWER James Fox hopes that having an extra year to prepare for the Paralympics will pay off in Tokyo next month.

The 29-year-old won gold at Rio 2016 and had his sights set on replicating that success last summer before the coronavirus pandemic took hold and the Games and the Olympics were both postponed for 12 months.

He qualifies for the Paralympic team because of a congenital ankle condition, which restricts his
movement.

Not only does he want to win another gold medal, he and his mixed four crew hope to set new records in the process.

Fox is unbeaten in his senior career, winning the world championships five times, and comes into the Paralymics off the back of winning again at the European championships in April.

In his case, the additional time has been very useful. He had an operation on a long-term hip injury, which caused him to miss the entire 2018 season and took eight months for him to recover.

Since then, he has taken the bold decision to do no practice on an indoor rowing machine, or ergometer.

Although his coaches were not keen on this to begin with, Fox is glad to have made the change.

He said: “After my hip surgery, I decided not to use a rowing machine for training at all, which in rowing is unheard of.

“Between a third and half the programme is on the ergos, so to take a step back from that — and sort of accept defeat a little bit — is a big move for me but it has really paid off.

“I do most of my training on a bike now and since I made the switch I’ve not missed a day of training.

“In the past, I have struggled with injury and also over-training — quite a lot actually. I had glandular fever in 2013 and I’ve never really got rid of it. When the winter comes around and there is a lack of sunlight it really bothers me.

“I’ve had over-training syndrome almost every year but since the switch from the ergo to the bike, I’ve managed to eliminate that.”

Fox, who lives in Hart Street, Henley, has cycled a lot during the coronavirus lockdowns.

His ankle condition means he does most of his exercise on eithera static or an outdoor bike, which was particularly useful last year when crews couldn’t train on the water for months at a time.

Originally from Peterborough, where his parents Steve and Clare still live, he moved to Henley seven years ago to be closer to the training facilities at the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake in
Caversham.

Although he was disappointed that the Games were postponed — and that his family will not be able to fly to Japan to watch him in action this summer — he believes it was the right decision.

He said: “It took me a while to get my head around it. For a long time before it had been confirmed, people were saying, ‘You are never going to get to Tokyo’ and this was in the early days of the virus and I said, ‘Of course we will’.

“I think I was quite blind to it and I was really hopeful the Games would go ahead as planned. My close family all had tickets and had their flights booked. 

“If they had gone ahead last year, we would have stood a really good chance of winning so it was a huge shame, but we have to see it as an opportunity to go faster than we would have been. The last 12 months have obviously been a struggle for everybody and with the postponement it has been a bit of an odd time for us.

“At times, we felt we were without a goal, which is never a good situation to be in as an athlete.

“But I think there is a pretty pragmatic attitude, both among the squad and friends and family, that as long we get to race that is the main thing.

“It would be lovely to have the family there but you can’t have everything, especially in these trying times. As a professional, you just have to get on without that.

“They are brilliant though and I wouldn’t be where I am without them. There is a lot going on and it is good to have them to prop you up and keep you going.”

Fox, who rows for the University of London, fell in love with the sport when he was just 11 at Peterborough City Rowing Club.

He dreamed of being an elitel rower and idolised members of the GB team.

“I used to have posters on my bedroom wall,” he said. “I had the lightweight double of Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter. I also had the heavyweight four, which was Andrew Triggs Hodge, Steve Williams, Pete Reed and Alex Partridge.

“Pete is absolutely incredible. I know they say ‘Never meet your heroes’, but he is just a legend and such a nice person to talk to.

“When I met him for the first time, he was just as cool as I hoped he would be. I know I sound like a bit of a fan girl but he is such a great guy. It is people like him who keep the sport going.”

After school, Fox went to Brunel University in Uxbridge to study sports science and medicine.

However, a few months after he had started, he was involved in a car accident and fractured two vertebra in his spine.

Because of the crash, he was unable to train fully for two years.

Then Brian Young, his coach at the time, attended a conference where his current GB coach, Nick Baker, spoke about “invisible disabilities” and how people could qualify for the Paralympic team. Fox explained: “I had the crash in 2010 but the reason I classify is because of the ankle condition.

“The best way to describe my ankle is it would be like putting a piece of cardboard in a door hinge; you wouldn’t be able to open and close it as you would normally.

“Although it is congenital, it is definitely getting worse.

“I played rugby until I was about 15 but wouldn’t dream of doing that now. I would love to but I just couldn’t do it.

“I knew something was wrong from a young age; my feet and ankles have always been a little bit different.”

Fox is grateful to have had a career at a time when opportunities for disabled athletes have improved.

He said: “I always had my eyes set on being an elite rower. I got my first GB cap at the age of 16 and I got the bug for it.

“The crash was a huge blow for me. I had gone to university to progress my rowing career, as well as getting a degree, and to go from that to not being able to get in a boat at all was really tough.

“I got classified for the Paralympics in my second year at university and decided in my third year that I would love to take it on full time, so coming to Henley was the natural step.

“I have a different set up to everyone else. My seat is a lot higher and my feet are a lot lower. It means I can’t squat and it reduces my range of movement. It affects my walking, running, squatting too.”

Rowing made its Paralympic debut at Beijing in 2008 when Great Britain topped the medals table with two golds and a bronze for the mixed coxed four.

Four years later, at London 2012, GB won the mixed four event at Dorney Lake with Naomi Riches, the only surviving member of the crew from China, Pam Relph, David Smith and James Roe.

At this time, Fox was still a year away from his first world championship gold in South Korea. In fact, he enjoyed three consecutive world championship wins prior to Rio 2016. The first came in 2013 and his father made the 11-hour flight to watch his victory.

Fox said: “It was amazing, absolutely incredible. Considering what I had gone through with the car crash, I had taken a bit of a leap of faith in going to the Paralympic team so to win the world championship was absolutely huge.

“It was what I had dreamt of since I was a little boy and to do it was just incredible. I had a great time out there as they set up such an amazing competition.

“The Koreans did a great job and I couldn’t have wished for my first world championship to have been anywhere else, or to have gone any better.”

The following year in Amsterdam, when Grace Clough and Dan Brown came into the boat, GB won gold again, beating rivals USA by five seconds.

Fox’s third gold, again against the Americans, came in Aiguebelette, France, in 2015 and was achieved with the tightest margin of victory he has experienced during his adaptive rowing career.

“We won by a quarter of a second and were only ahead for three or four strokes,” recalled Fox. “In the para team we have a mantra that we want to train so hard that we are able to win on a bad day and that is what we had to do for that race.

“Unfortunately, we had an awful run-in with injury and illness and the races leading up to it weren’t great and we had to hang on for dear life.

“Thankfully, we managed to do it and it set us up really nicely for Rio. I think if we hadn’t won that year in France then we would have been up against it for the Paralympics.”

With a hat-trick of world championships, Fox and his team-mates — Clough, Brown, Relph and Oliver James — felt pressure to deliver in Brazil.

Fortunately, his parents were able to fly out to see their victory, which involved beating the USA again, this time by two-and-a-half seconds.

Fox said: “The world championships were incredible to be part of but as soon as you have been to one or two, you start to think about the Paralympics.

“If I went three years winning every world championship and then didn’t win at the Paralympics, I think I would still feel disappointed.

“Being at the Paralympics felt incredible and there is such a huge team behind you and the public also get behind you on TV.

“It is hard to put it into words. The first emotion that I felt when we crossed the line was relief. In fact, it is the first emotion I have for any race. We have a massive target on our back and it is just another race where we haven’t been beaten.

“If Tokyo had gone ahead and we had won, we would have gone a decade without being beaten.

“It is awesome for us because we have a lot of momentum taking us forward and we have a lot of good results behind us but it also has a downside.

“We are expected to win and if we don’t it would be a huge blow. Luckily, we haven’t been there yet but I think the key is not to become complacent.”

Family support has always been important to Fox, who has a younger brother, Adam, 27, who works in finance.

His mother is an English teacher at a school in Peterborough, while his father is semi-retired and still works part-time at a school, supporting disadvantaged children.

Fox added: “My dad has been really lucky and able to get to see all my wins. He came out to Korea the night before my final in 2013 and has been to every world championship and Paralympics since then.

“My mum hasn’t been so lucky in being able to get the time off work but she was in Rio. The events are often in obscure places and are hard to get to and I feel very lucky to have had them there with me.”

Fox was made an MBE in 2017 for services to sport and was accompanied by his family when he went to collect the honour at Buckingham Palace.

In the same year, he received a Freedom of the City of Peterborough award.

In what proved to be a memorable year, he followed up his success in Rio by winning gold again at the world championships in Florida, beating the USA again in their own backyard. In doing so, the GB crew set a course record.

Fox said: “I think the USA got a bit of a shock that year. One of the key advantages we had was that the length of the race had been changed from 1km in Rio to 2km.

“We have always been fitter than we are stronger and that means we are better at longer distances, so it made a huge difference for us.”

But he would have to wait two years for his fifth world championship gold medal because of his hip injury. Even without him, the GB crew won in Bulgaria, beating the USA once again.

Fox recalled: “The hip injury was more through wear and tear but I ended up not racing that year.

“I was getting pain and it was affecting my training but I didn’t think too much of it. Then I went for a scan and the damage was much more extensive than we hoped it would be.

“I was told I would probably make it for Tokyo but the chances of having a healthy hip after that were very slim.

“I decided to make the sacrifice of missing out on one world championship and have the surgery. It didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped and it took a lot longer for me to heal than I thought it would.  

“I had surgery four days before one of the guys in the Olympic team had the same operation and he was back two or three months before I was. There is a rehab unit at Bisham Abbey and I got there in the end but with a lot more time and effort.”

When he did return to action at the world championships in Austria in 2019, it was the same story as the GB crew beat the USA by 12 seconds. 

It was a special moment for Fox, having had to recover and earn his seat back in the boat.

He said: “I absolutely loved Austria. I was up against it after taking a year out and trying to recover from my injury but also fit enough to get back in the boat.

“I had to prove that I was faster than the guy who had taken my seat so to go to the world championships and win by a big distance was very special.”

At this year’s European championships in Italy, the mixed coxed four achieved a comfortable victory.

Fox, along with Ellen Buttrick, Giedre Rakauskaite and Oliver Stanhope, finished 13 seconds ahead of second-placed France.

He feels the team is back on course after a turbulent 18 months.

He said: “I think the key thing is that none of us is taking our eye off the ball and we’re not going for the win anymore — we’re trying to set a standard and records that others will struggle to beat. At the Europeans, GB as a whole topped the medal table and it is just so nice to be part of a squad that is really positive moving towards Tokyo.

“As a squad, we’ve been able to make the most of a bad situation. I think the best crews and the best athletes try to make good situations out of bad ones and that is what we’ve tried to do.

“Gold is the ultimate goal. In terms of preparation, I think the single-mindedness helps and I make no secret about why I row and why I am here. I won a gold in Rio and I’m really keen to do that again.

“I really enjoyed the feeling, but there are things I would have changed about the lead-up and the racing period and I would like to put them into practice.”

Fox feels as if there has been a shift in the amount of respect Paralympic athletes are given compared with when he first started, but still believes there is more work to be done.

He added: “Paralympic sport has moved on in general. I think that is great for the sport, but also for general society, because it encourages disabled and disadvantaged children to get into sport and that can only be a good thing.

“I feel like the Paralympic rowing team is treated as equals with the Olympic squad. We train side by side and when we are racing, we pat each other on the back when we do well and we share the hard times.

“When it comes to the perception of the Paralympics globally, I am not so sure. More people went to watch the Paralympics compared with the Olympics in Brazil, which I think is quite interesting and it was huge for the Paralympic movement.

“But I think the global view on the Paralympics still has some way to go. People still see us more as disabled people who do sport rather than sports people who happen to be disabled.

“In rowing, people put us on a level playing field but it would be nice to change public perception.”

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