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In a performance oozing calm and confidence, Mallory Franklin claimed the silver medal in the C1 Canoe Slalom, on the first occasion women have been able to compete in this discipline at the Olympic Games.
It was a result that the 28-year-old from Windsor celebrated by jumping on to the podium, spreading her arms wide and drawing a smile across her facemask with her finger. And no wonder. In the broiling water of the slalom course, hers was a superb display of paddle control, beaten only by a searing turn by the Australian world No 1 Jessica Fox.
“I mean, it’s Jess,” said Franklin, currently placed No 2 in the world rankings, as she faced the press after her achievement, the silver medal hanging round her neck. “I’ve come second to her a lot of times. I’m pretty used to it.”
Yet, for much of this competition, it looked as if Franklin might win gold. She had qualified for the showdown earlier in the afternoon with the sixth fastest semi-final time. It meant she would go out on to the water fifth of the ten finalists. And she did so with an impressively relaxed demeanour. As she waited on the start line, a camera span round her, catching her eye as she waited, kneeling in her canoe. She smiled and nodded. As it moved, the camera took in the semi-industrial backdrop to the Tokyo canoe centre, which stands underneath a stack of motorway flyovers, a railway viaduct and – oddly – an enormous big wheel.
Some 200 metres of bubbling cascade has been built into concrete here, next to a container-shipping depot. The paddlers hurtle down the course, steering through pairs of poles that hang above the water. Sometimes a gate is behind the canoeist as they come down the rapids, meaning they have to paddle ferociously against the current to double back on themselves. It is like a sort of global warming ski slalom, with the piste melted into a raging torrent.
It takes courage and real skill not to roll at the first turn. Plus physical dexterity; the paddlers sway and weave in their canoes, their core under constant pressure. It was no wonder, as they crossed the finish line, that each of the finalists looked absolutely spent.
Her relaxed demeanour on the start line was an unusual one, Franklin admitted. She had worked hard in the weeks leading up to the event trying to control her emotions.
“In 2019 I’d been in tears before every race wanting to know the outcome,” she explained of her mental approach. “I had a little meltdown, but bounced back. I was able to go canoeing and enjoy all my sessions. I’m proud of myself. I could have been on the start line stressed out of my head. But I managed to persuade myself to make the most of the moment.”
She did that all right. Despite brushing the fifteenth gate with the top of her helmet – and thus incurring a two second penalty – she set a searing time of 108:68. It put her easily in the lead. After climbing out of her canoe, she was directed to a gazebo underneath which the fastest three finishers were gathered. Here they stood and watched as the others took off down the course one by one, swapping places if their time was beaten.
Franklin was atop the virtual podium from the moment she finished, watching the next competitors fail to catch her. After the Brazilian Ana Satila messed up horribly, she knew she was guaranteed at least a bronze medal. When the Czech Republic’s Tereza Fiserova fizzed over her time by several seconds, it was clear she had secured the silver.
It meant gold was down to a battle with the Australian Fox, who was due out last. This was an Ashes contest on the water. Though had a paddle been burned rather than a cricket bail, the urn would have necessarily been of substantial size.
Fox set off as if with an outboard motor attached to her canoe. Powering at speed, by the end of the second section of the course she had recorded a time four seconds up on Franklin. When she hurtled across the finish line, slapping the water with her paddle in delight, it was evident she was the best. Required to stand and watch, her chin on her paddle, as Fox bettered her time at every split, Franklin generously broke into applause when she saw her time. It was, as she recognised, the most legitimate result: Fox was the best paddler out there. Indeed, this was as good an advertisement for opening up the C1 category to women as could have been delivered.
“It feels like a rite of passage,” said Franklin afterwards. “The whole class has been building. It feels right. And to produce that kind of final makes you feel we deserve to be here.”
Now, with an Olympic medal to her name, a new world opens up for the self-effacing Franklin. Asked how she might cope with an invitation to compete in Question of Sport, she looked aghast.
“Well if they want an awkward person who can’t answer any questions and hides in her shell, I’m that person,” she said. “By the way, I’m not joking.”
She may describe herself as awkward off the water, but as she proved here in Tokyo, Mallory Franklin is more than fluent on it.
How Team GB missed out on world No 1 Fox
By Jim White
For Team GB, Jessica Fox, the gold medallist in the C1 Canoe Slalom, is the one who got away. Her father Richard was a member of the British canoeing team at the Barcelona Games in 1992. Born and brought up in Somerset, he finished fourth in the K1 slalom canoe category, knocked off the podium after incurring a time penalty for hitting a gate.
The French too might be lamenting the fact Fox decided to compete for Australia, given she was born in Marseille, after her parents had met on the European competition circuit. Her mother, Myriam, was an Olympic canoeist too, also coming within an error of a place on the podium in Barcelona. Indeed, Fox is a paddler born to canoeing royalty.
“My parents have been amazing role models, amazing inspiration, amazing support,” she said after her victorious run. “Dad missed gold because of a penalty, mum missed gold because of a penalty, so gold has been a bit of an obsession in our house. I wanted to win it for them, win it for the whole family.”
Unlike most of the other competitors, whose loved ones have been required to watch on television at a distance, Fox's mother was there at the side of the course to witness the family ambition being realised. A member of the Australian coaching team, she ran alongside her daughter as she paddled, yelling encouragement. After Jessica had won, Myriam leapt into the water in celebration and had to be hauled out of the flow by a fellow Australian coach.
Richard Fox, meanwhile, was back home in Sydney, commentating on the race for Australian TV. When he saw his daughter’s time after she had finished, he echoed the words of Bert Le Clos when his son Chad won gold in the London swimming pool: “that’s beautiful” he said, before taking a moment to compose himself.
“My dad sent me a message before the race: courage, confidence, control,” Fox revealed. “I tried to concentrate on those C-words on the start line. It worked.”