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“Once we’re out there, it’s every man for himself”: Nathan Fox on going up against his coach at the Commonwealth Games and the depth of British triple jumping

Six years ago, Nathan Fox perched on the edge of his bed in a Swedish hotel room, his eyes fixated on a television screen as Super Saturday unfolded. Greg Rutherford – a former training partner of Fox – stormed to a surprise gold medal on the night that illuminated the London Olympics, permanently etching the images of an unsurpassable fortnight into national folklore.

Meanwhile, Fox was winning bronze in the triple jump at the Folksam Challenge in Mölndal on Sweden’s west coast. Yet, things could have been so different. An ankle ligament injury in 2012 shattered the Olympic dream of the Barnet-born athlete who, just four years previously, had suffered a thigh injury serious enough to leave his sporting future in serious doubt.

Rutherford’s career-defining victory, however, provided Fox with a renewed outlook on his sport, giving him a new-found desire to challenge his body to strive for greater heights.

“That hindered my Olympic dream,” he says, looking back on his ankle problem. “It was realistic opportunity for me. I thought I was in good enough shape to compete for GB at the Olympics. Being a home Olympics, I had that extra motivation as well.

“But Greg winning his gold was a shock for a lot of people. I was so pleased for him. It was massively inspirational, and it showed that anyone can in a medal on the night.

“It’s just down to who performs the best. Reputation and the past do not matter. Everyone’s equal on the night. It’s just all about who does what on the night.”

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That Fox should play down the importance of history is interesting, not least because of his own membership of an exclusive one-man club. In a nation heaped with triple jump history – Jonathan Edwards still holds the world record – Fox is the only Brit ever to have broken the 14m barrier as a 14-year-old.

It was a British age-group record back in 2005 and thirteen years on, it is remains a tag exclusive to Fox. Although he denies feeling an additional expectant weight on each and every jump, he admits that his pride at the record is tempered by a self-driven fear of failing to exploit his teenage precocity.

“I definitely wouldn’t consider it a burden,” he explains candidly. “I still love being able to say I’m the first and only person to do it. It just means that I have to back that up in senior performances because you never want to be that person who does well when they’re young and then never fulfilled that potential.

“But being able to represent Great Britain last year at the World Champs – being the first triple jumper to represent GB since Philips Idowu in 2012 – showed that I’ve started to fulfil that potential.”

That potential, he confesses, could have succumbed to the challenges and distractions of higher education. After leaving school for Brunel University, a severely torn thigh coupled with the difficulties of a part-time training regime had Fox worlds away from international competition.

“There was one competition back then where I actually said it could be my last one,” he recalls. “And then I actually jumped a personal best so that gave me a little bit more ambition to stay in the sport.

“I was at university and I was studying. I was still training but not as committed as I could have been at the time, but mainly because my performances weren’t really up to scratch.

“I could have easily fallen off the wagon and pursued a different kind of career.”

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A decade on from his first major injury and self-doubt, Fox arrives on Australia’s Gold Coast with a genuine chance of claiming a medal. Despite finishing 19th at last year’s World Championships, Fox was the second-placed Commonwealth eligible athlete. He is, by his own admission, a far better jumper than the one who finished sixth at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games four years ago.

The triple jump is an event that Team England has traditionally dominated, claiming gold at seven of the last ten Commonwealth Games. However, Idowu’s 2006 victory was the most recent of the seven. South Africa’s Khotso Mokoena won at the Glasgow Games in 2014, seeing off Tosin Oke – the 2010 winner, who finished second.

The role of Oke, the 37-year-old Nigerian, is perhaps the most fascinating part of Fox’s story. Oke competed for Great Britain until changing his allegiance in 2009 to represent the country of his parents’ birth.

He now doubles up as Fox’s coach, while – at the same time – providing some of his most powerful competition. The pair first met properly at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, with Oke taking on the role as Fox’s coach two years later. A further two years on, Fox credits his rival-come-coach with much of the confidence that the Englishman takes to the Gold Coast.

“It was one of the first times I had had a proper conversation with him,” he says, returning to the pair’s meeting in Glasgow.

“Competing against him, you get to see the levels of focus and dedication that you need to be successful. It was something that always stuck with me and it was one of the main reasons for switching over to him and wanting him to be my coach.

“We compete in training every week, so it really reflects when we get into competition,” he tells me, highlighting the mutual benefits of the relationship.

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“The only downside is that I don’t have him there to help me during the competition because he has to focus on his own stuff. But we will have prepped more than enough in training week-in-week-out so that we’re never in a situation where I’m looking lost.”

The fact that Fox and Oke have made their partnership not only workable but entirely mutually beneficial is testament to the pair’s professionalism. However, when push comes to shove with Commonwealth medals at stake, is there any scope for coaching?

“We leave all that for afterwards,” Fox laughs. “Once we’re out there, it’s every man for himself.” The honesty and confidence of the response highlights Fox’s journey and his recent progress as an athlete.

Despite the unusual arrangement, the partnership has blossomed. Fox names both his coach and Mokoena as among his rivals for a podium finish.

“In terms of medal rivals, you’ve got a couple of people,” he says of the competition. “Mokoena, who won in 2014; and you’ve got my coach Tosin [Oke], and a few other guys from the Caribbean.”

Fox, though, cannot discount those closer to home. Between him, Nathan Douglas and Ben Williams, Team England approach the Gold Coast with three excellent jumpers. There was just one centimetre between Fox and Douglas’ best performances last year.

“Beating the other English guys should mean that I’m in the medal positions because I think everyone’s going to be going for one,” he acknowledges.

“It’s always going to be a fierce rivalry. There’s no bad blood there but when we step onto the track together, it’s always very close. Everyone wants to be the best but it’s never a bad thing when you’ve got someone there pushing you on to be even better.”

There can be few disciplines within the track and field spectrum with such a nostalgic history of British domination. And after a comparatively lean period in the medal stakes, Fox is hopeful that England’s Commonwealth trio can restart the cycle of supremacy that Edwards commanded nearly twenty years earlier.

“I wouldn’t necessarily see it as pressure, but more as a challenge,” Fox explains.

“We have had a long history of good long jumpers and triple jumpers in this country. You want to try and match what they achieved and, if possible, attempt to better what they did. I think we’re now coming back to a time where we can be competitive on the world stage.

“We’ve got three jumpers going to the Commonwealth Games this year and I think all three of us will be going for the medals. We certainly all believe that we’re capable of winning one.”

 

Featured photograph: British Athletics / Getty Images

Nick Friend
Seeing off 500 entries along the way, Nick was the runner-up in the David Welch Student Sportswriter Competition for 2018, culminating in a night a the SJA Awards dinner alongside the very best in the industry. He has spent most of his twenty-three years involved in sport in one way or another. He graduated from Durham University with a degree in Modern Languages, having spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. The 23-year-old gained much of his experience in journalism as sport editor of the University’s student newspaper, Palatinate. During his two years in the role, he sourced and ran a host of high-profile exclusive interviews, three of which rank among the most-read pieces in the website’s history. He won the university’s Hunter Davies Prize for Journalism in 2015. Since leaving Durham, he has written for the iPaper, while contributing weekly to Sport500 – a website focused on creating concise sport opinion content. When not writing, Nick can often be heard bemoaning the fortunes of Queens Park Rangers. Beyond the Rs, he is an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, while in more delusional times, had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. He counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessary knowledge of all three.
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