Think of the Olympics and race walking probably isn’t the first sport that springs to mind, but Commonwealth champion Jo Jackson believes that putting it on show in front of a home crowd at the London Games will give her sport the recognition it deserves.
The 27-year-old became the first British woman to win a major race walk title when she claimed gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, a feat she claims as her best achievement, to date.
But she’s certain we’ve not seen the best of her yet. We caught up with Jo to find out more about her sport (you can read our ‘Getting started’ guide here too), and how she’s preparing for the walk of her life in central London this August.
First things first – race walking, can you give us the low-down?
There are two rules to race walking and it’s important because we get judged whilst racing. The first is that you have to have one foot in contact with the ground at all times and that’s visible contact. The other is that the advancing leg has to be straightened from the moment of first contact with the ground until it’s vertically under your body. It sounds more complicated that it actually is!
How did you get into the sport?
I was originally a runner and there was a guy at my old club who had been to the 1964 Olympics in the 20k race walk. I did a couple of sessions and it snowballed from there. I properly took it up in 2004 and went to the Commonwealth Games in 2006 – I qualified for that after doing my first 20k and didn’t even realise I’d qualified, so that was a bit out of the blue! It was probably after I raced there that I began to take it really seriously and thought ‘I could come back in four years and try and win this’.
And that was your motivation, seeing what you could achieve?
Yes, I think it was the success. I managed to have success within Britain quite quickly. There were quite a lot of strong junior girls when I first started so I worked my way though beating them then became better than them and I think that just spurred me on.
You were the first British woman to win a major race walk title when you got gold in Delhi – was that your career high, so far?
Definitely, so far! I hope that’s not going to be my final high! Also going to my first Olympics in Beijing as well.
How do you think the London Games will compare – does it mean a lot to you that it’s on home soil?
Oh definitely. You can’t imagine what it’s going to be like at the moment. Just to have a massive home crowd that are all going to be supporting you in the race. I think it will be quite overwhelming really and it’s definitely going to be a different experience to going out to Beijing.
Were there lessons learned in Beijing?
Yes, I came 21st in Beijing but I went there with no expectations. I wasn’t expecting to get an ‘A’ standard that year so going out there was a bit of an eye opener. I definitely learnt a lot, but with it being a home Olympics this time I think all that’s going to go out of the window.
What can people expect if they come to watch?
Well for a start it’s on a 2k loop – we race over a 20k distance but it’s on a 2k loop so you’ll see the walkers going by all the time, unlike in the marathon where it’s strung out all over the city. Also we’ve got the disqualification rule and that can throw in a bit of controversy and make it quite exciting – that an athlete can be pulled out at any time during the race.
How do you find racing on a 2k route – doesn’t it get monotonous?
When I was younger running on the track I used to hate doing track loops and I loved cross country but it’s something I’ve learnt to deal with. Sometimes we’ll even race on a 1k loop so we’ll be going around 20 times. I think you just get so engrossed in the race you don’t realise the laps you’re doing.
You suffered with injury last season – what sort of position has that put you in now ahead of August?
Unfortunately last season didn’t really go to plan.I hurt my knee and carried that throughout the whole season. That disrupted quite a lot of training so everything went a bit to pot, but I managed to qualify.
How did that affect you mentally? Are you back on track?
It was the first big injury I’ve ever had so it was quite hard because I’ve never had to take that much time out of race walking before. But I managed to get back into doing some cross training quite quickly – that’s mainly what I’ve been doing over the winter, lots of rehab and cross training. You’ve just got forget about it and focus on what’s coming up this season.
You’ve mentioned that going to Delhi as the favourite put pressure on you to win – how will you deal with even bigger pressure ahead of London?
I don’t feel too much pressure at the moment. I think it’s going to be difficult because the crowd might not know race walking, they might have different expectations, but it would be good just to draw a crowd and get people actually seeing race walking, probably for the first time.
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Photo credit: Mark Easton http://markeaston.zenfolio.com