Meet our female frontliners: Jo Brigden-Jones, Australian Olympic kayaker & NSW Ambulance paramedic

For the frontline workers who are fighting to quash one of the biggest threats to public health in a generation, the current crisis will be no brief episode. Their responsibilities have shifted dramatically, and so has our appreciation for the significance of what they do. Although as a country we are moving in the right direction, the menace of the virus lingers, and while the world waits on a vaccine or an effective treatment, these women will be there working to support our health, our children and our loved ones both mentally and physically—the majority of them doing so at personal risk. As put to Vogue by one of these women, it is a marathon they are still running: this will be no sprint. We celebrate the women on the front line who have stepped up, in a series captured by photojournalist and New York Times contributor Matthew Abbott. Here, Vogue meets Jo Brigden-Jones, an Australian Olympic kayaker whose dream of being a NSW Ambulance paramedic is being realised as she works on the front line.




Jo Brigden-Jones, Australian Olympic kayaker and NSW Ambulance paramedic

I probably found out that the 2020 Olympics were cancelled only a day before the public did. I was at work when I got the call. First I was shocked, then upset and disappointed. As athletes we’re so meticulous in how we train, plan and prepare. Every minute of every day for the next four months was mapped out and I had packed up my entire apartment to relocate to the Gold Coast, where the Olympic kayak team was going to train. I also planned to retire from sport in August 2020, so for my life plans to be turned upside down was heartbreaking.



Being chosen to represent Australia at the Tokyo Olympics in sprint kayaking and to also achieve my dream career of working as a paramedic simultaneously has been a huge accomplishment but a long road, one that began in childhood.



I was always sporty growing up and did every sport imaginable through school. In 2001, aged 12-turning-13, I went to a local club’s talent identification program. They ran us through fitness tests and measurements and they discovered my arm span was longer than my height, which is an advantage for kayaking, so I made selection. From the get-go it was an elite program that required lots of training, and by the age of 15 I was training 10 times a week. I never resented that sacrifice, though, because I enjoyed it so much, and when I got to travel overseas to represent Australia at 16, I knew what an incredible opportunity that was.



My desire to become a paramedic started years before I got into kayaking. I have memories from about 10 years old of being fascinated by ambulances as they zoomed past and of wanting to know what was going on inside, and throughout school that stayed with me. It wasn’t just the medical side of the job I was drawn to; looking after and caring for people is just in my nature and I’ve always wanted to help my community.



When I finished school in Sydney, the only university that offered paramedicine was in Bathurst, which wasn’t an option, as I wanted to keep training. So instead I started a nursing degree in Sydney as a stepping stone to the paramedics. Admittedly, it was challenging juggling sport and study commitments, but I never thought about giving up as I’m just not that type of person, and in 2012 I qualified for the Australian Olympic team for that year’s London Games.



Going to the London Olympics exceeded all expectations—everything about it was amazing. One of the most special aspects was being in the Olympic Village along with 10,000 athletes—everyone from Usain Bolt and Novak Djokovic to competitors from African nations you’ve never heard of—and that sense that everyone is equal; we were all just there to achieve our best. The incredible emotions you experience over that time can’t be replicated, so it becomes addictive. I left knowing I had to do it again.



Returning home, my other focus was my career. I started working as a registered nurse and began a part-time post-graduate course in paramedics via distance education. In 2015 I graduated, which was amazing for me, but the following year brought disappointment: 2016 was the year of the Rio Olympics, and I hadn’t made the team.



As an athlete, I’ve had my share of obstacles over the years. When I was 19, I missed out on the 2008 Olympics by one spot, and over the years I’ve suffered two shoulder reconstructions, which meant I couldn’t paddle for five or six months each time during crucial periods in my sporting life.



Missing out on the Rio 2016 Olympics when I was 28, though, was the first time I’d considered giving up kayaking for good. Not only was it really tough, because I had come so close, but I’d also entered New South Wales Ambulance as a graduate paramedic, so had been thinking it was probably time to move on from sport and focus on my career.



Returning home, my other focus was my career. I started working as a registered nurse and began a part-time post-graduate course in paramedics via distance education. In 2015 I graduated, which was amazing for me, but the following year brought disappointment: 2016 was the year of the Rio Olympics, and I hadn’t made the team.



As an athlete, I’ve had my share of obstacles over the years. When I was 19, I missed out on the 2008 Olympics by one spot, and over the years I’ve suffered two shoulder reconstructions, which meant I couldn’t paddle for five or six months each time during crucial periods in my sporting life.



Missing out on the Rio 2016 Olympics when I was 28, though, was the first time I’d considered giving up kayaking for good. Not only was it really tough, because I had come so close, but I’d also entered New South Wales Ambulance as a graduate paramedic, so had been thinking it was probably time to move on from sport and focus on my career.



My first encounter with a coronavirus patient occurred around late February. I was in the ambulance that had to attend one of the first cases of the virus in Australia. We’d heard how much of a big thing it was in China and knew it was coming to Australia, because there were a few cases popping up, but suddenly it went from us talking about it to that moment of realisation that: ‘Oh wow, it’s here, it’s real.’



I had a good idea of what was happening from a medical perspective, but because at that time the Games were still months away I remained optimistic, thinking it was going to get better. But then I got that phone call and my hopes came crashing.



Returning to full-time work as a paramedic has been a good distraction and has kept me busy. I feel lucky to work in an essential job and to be able to help our community through this tough time, and because I have so many friends at work I don’t feel like I’m stuck in social isolation.



Dealing with coronavirus has become a normal part of our job. We’ve gone from having to really think about our Covid-19 protocols to it being second nature. The main difference to the way we work is that we have to be extra aware and cautious, because the virus is so contagious. We look out for a number of red flags with our patients’ symptoms and have our personal protective equipment on standby to throw on if we need to. All that adds another dimension to the other 10 million things we’re thinking about for our jobs and our patient, so it does bring more stress to our jobs. Obviously we don’t want to catch the virus or spread it to family or friends, so we’re more alert about how to keep ourselves, our colleagues and the community safe.



There’s also been a shift in how others see our work. It is really nice to know people are realising that what we do every day is very important, but we have been doing this for years and years—we’re not doing anything new. Members of the community are going above and beyond to show their appreciation, dropping off food and buying us coffees, because they know we are working overtime to get Australia through this crisis.



As for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, I think they’re going to be even better because of what everyone has been through and the amount of suffering and uncertainty the world has suffered. It will feel like the world coming back together—a celebration through sport.



When next year’s Games are over, I plan to retire from sport, which I was going to do this year. I was looking forward to going on a holiday and just being a normal person for a while. Luckily, though, I love training, pushing myself and competing, so I consider this an opportunity to do those things I love for an extra 12 months.


Vogue Australia 1 May 2020