Black Minds

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There was joy for Great Britain’s Mallory Franklin here as she produced a nerveless slalom paddle through 25 treacherous gates to take the silver medal behind Jess Fox of Australia.

Franklin narrowly missed out on becoming Team GB’s first female gold medallist at Tokyo 2020, leading the field right up to the final run. But Fox is canoeing aristocracy and came to Tokyo as a powerful favourite. Going out last she produced a devastating paddle, clinical in the turns and imperious in the final sprint, destroying Franklin’s fine time before celebrating with a heartfelt hug on the quayside with her mother, Myriam, who is also an Australian coach.

Franklin strolled along the quayside, medal around her neck, visibly delighted to have executed such a hard-honed skill in such a difficult sport and a winner of the first silver medal in this inaugural women’s edition.

“It was really stressful being sat up there on the start line but I had a moment where I was like: ‘This is actually really cool, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now,’” she said.

“The camera was panning round me and I caught a glimpse and smiled. It just reminded me of the environment and how crazy it all is, but it’s just really cool.”

Franklin was also fairly resigned on that final wait to see if Fox would beat her time and take gold. “It’s really weird. We were stood there and I was like: ‘I hate this bit.’ I hate sitting and watching people you never know and then people like Jess come down and they’re taking chunks.

“But it’s nice to be in that situation, knowing you’ve done a good run and not knowing what will happen, but enjoying watching everyone else paddle.”

The Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre is ringed by flyovers and industrial sidings, an urban inlet in Tokyo’s sprawling waterfront. On a humid, high-summer day it was a cauldron of tension as the semi‑final and final were completed within two hours.

This was also a powerful Australian family drama, a Neighbours with a paddle affair, as Fox’s parents were involved in the sport. Her mother was a bronze medallist for France at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (Fox could be heard answering a question in fluent French at the end of the day). Her father, Richard, who finished fourth for Team GB in Barcelona in 1992, was commentating at home on Australian TV as his daughter went for gold, an extraordinary how-did-I-get-here moment in anyone’s life.

Fox had dominated the semi‑final, canoeing within herself, but hitting every angle and putting down a marker for everyone else to follow. This is a high-wire event, canoeing roulette, with a strange, esoteric balance between going with the flow, feeling the water and the urge to press the throttle.

For all the perils of competition there was always a feeling the final would boil down to an Ashes-style shootout between Fox and Franklin.

The early paddlers seemed to freeze a little, with nobody willing to lay down a marker. Franklin was fifth out and looked smooth and controlled, with a stunning second half. Her time of 108.68sec was impressive, albeit with a powerful five-woman field still to come.

Maria Satila, of Brazil – a flamboyant, freewheeling paddler – attacked the course but came unstuck in the clinches. Andrea Herzog, Germany’s reigning world champion, was more controlled but could not close the gap. On the temporary podium Franklin let out a sigh, knowing now she was guaranteed a medal.

And so it came down to that final run. The pressure on Fox was uniquely pitched, both sporting and familial. “My dad sent me message this morning saying to take courage and be controlled, calm, confident, all the c words, and I just repeated those words to myself and just tried to focus on gate one,” she said.

It was a stunning final paddle, Fox making the course look simple and accelerating to the line in 105.04 before punching the water in joy.

A large canary yellow contingent burst out on to the quayside, including Fox Sr, waving her arms, a little overcome but also touchingly restrained in her coach’s garb.

For Franklin, this is also a wonderful moment, with an added sense of blazing a trail.

She took up canoeing at the age of five, began to compete seriously in her twenties and became world champion in this event in 2017, but has spoken in the past of facing obstacles from traditional elements within canoeing.

Watching the high drama, the high quality of the field, it seemed mildly absurd this was the first time women have been allowed to compete in this class at the Games.

Franklin’s next challenge is to prepare for her own wedding, which she suggested would be an even more nerve-shredding public event. And invitations to appear on a Question Of Sport are also welcome, after a fashion: “If they want a person that can’t answer questions and just hides in her shell half the time then sure.”