Rio Olympics canoe champion Joe Clarke: ‘I don’t want to be the guy who wins just one medal’

Ben Bloom
Joe Clarke won an unexpected gold medal in Rio last year - Christopher Pledger

It is difficult to imagine how the owner of the numberplate “RIO JOE” might lay greater claim to it than Joe Clarke. It was in Rio de Janeiro that Clarke won his Olympic canoeing gold medal last summer and his name is – well, his name is Joe. It just works, doesn’t it?

With no precise plan, but these thoughts in mind, Clarke found himself knocking on random front doors in Hertfordshire late last year. His mission was to find that numberplate.

It had first appeared on his radar on the final day of Britain’s Olympic team trials, when he received a message from an old physio. “I think it’s a sign,” read the caption that accompanied a photograph of the numberplate in question. Clarke won and secured his spot for the Rio Games.

Almost 10 months later, on the morning of the men’s K1 Olympic final, his physio got back in touch after seeing the car again. “Another sign?” she asked. Clarke won gold.

When a second, unrelated person spotted the same car a few weeks on, Clarke decided to take matters into his own hands. “He sent me the location of where he had seen it in Hertfordshire, so I went over there and tried to find it,” Clarke recalls, during a break in training for this week’s World Championships in France. “I went and knocked on a few doors and asked if anyone knew whose car it was, but no one did.

Clarke is hoping to come away from Tokyo with a second Olympic gold medal Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“I really wanted that numberplate, but I never found the owner. So I ordered a new car and then my parents bought me a numberplate with XR10 JOE as a present. Whenever I go back to my home town, people always give me a toot as I drive past with a canoe on the roof, which is quite nice. I’d still like RIO JOE, though.” 

Pretty much everything in Clarke’s life has changed since the 88.53 seconds it took him to win one of Britain’s most unexpected gold medals of the Rio Olympics. In addition to the new car and numberplate, Clarke has a new house, a new girlfriend and a new-found confidence that is only natural when you are thrust into the spotlight as the top dog in a very small town – just 16,000 people live in his Staffordshire home of Stone.

When we last met at Lee Valley White Water Centre a few months out from those Rio Games, Clarke spoke of seeking advice from his more experienced team-mates after the “dream come true” of qualifying for the Olympics. His aim was straightforward: “To make the final.”

With the gold medal in tow, it is a rather different Clarke who arrives at Lee Valley this time around. No longer one of the junior members of the British squad, Clarke is the man, exuding confidence as he strolls around his manor, high-fiving and joking with team members along the way. There is no arrogance, just a clear recognition that his status has changed.

Clarke took time away from the sport after Rio 2016 Credit: PA

If any greater indication of that was needed, it can be seen in the White Water Centre’s recently renamed Joe Clarke gym. Try as he might to make light of the situation, there is a noticeable swelling of pride as he points it out – even if not all his team-mates might have been overly enamoured by the idea. 

“They wanted to put Average Joes on there,” he says, with a smile. “All the other meeting and office rooms were already taken and named after Etienne [Stott], Rich [Hounslow], Dave [Florence] and Tim [Baillie].

“Having spent so much time in the gym and with everyone trying to chase me with what I can lift, it was decided that it was the perfect room for me. I was pumped up to have it named after me. Rich has since come in and complained that I get a gym and he just gets a meeting room, but that’s all banter and it keeps you grounded.”

Aware of the fleeting nature of success in a niche sport, Clarke eagerly embraced the post-Olympic whirlwind when he returned from Brazil. Regular school visits and public appearances kept him occupied, while he achieved his mother’s ambition of appearing on Strictly Come Dancing’s Children In Need special. But nothing could have prepared him for the madness of his Stone homecoming.

Clarke is a man on a mission  Credit: Christopher Pledger 

Carried aloft in his canoe down the high street, Clarke was greeted by the sight of 12,000 people who had given up their afternoon to honour the town’s most successful sporting product since ex-Liverpool and England footballer Stan Collymore. What was billed as a humble parade turned into a scene usually reserved for global superstars. 

“As it turned out the high street was rammed. It was out of this world,” says Clarke. “I felt like a rock star. Even now I go into town and people ask for photos. I have to go into the shops with my hood up and sunglasses on not to be recognised!”

Life at his usual Lee Valley base in London is a more sedate affair. Outside the White Water Centre he retains his anonymity, which has allowed him to slot back into the daily grind of training since returning full-time at the start of the year. He says he is merely targeting the final in Pau this week – “If the wind blows in the right direction I could win a medal.”

After that, it will be business as usual. Television appearances will take a back seat and the quest to make history at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics begins. “I don’t want to be the guy who wins one medal and doesn’t win anything else because he’s too busy doing this, that or the other,” he says, resolutely. “Nobody in my category has won Olympic gold twice and that’s my motivation.”

That and a TOKYO JOE numberplate.

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