Olympian Jesse Phillips was a lot like your average
teenage kid growing up in Perth.
He was absolutely sports mad and loved playing AFL with
his mates. When he wasn’t kicking a ball, you would most likely find him at the
beach or hanging out with friends near water.
In some regards, he is an accidental Olympian. Accidental
that is, until opportunity found him.
An otherwise routine day at school, many years ago, just
so happened to collide with a WAIS talent search at Aranmore College.
A well-trained eye focused upon a young student with the
physical attributes that were suitable for sprint canoe and in the simplified
version of events, the rest was history.
When Phillips thinks back to that time, he says it was
the very foundation of his high performance journey.
"It provided an avenue into a sport which I had never
tried but happened to be an ideal fit for me as an athlete, which ultimately led
towards the Olympic Games,” he said.
What that doesn’t factor however, is the inner attribute
that cannot be assessed at first glance. Character.
Phillips’ success was no overnight feat.
He was far too raw for Athens in 2004. And he missed
selection for Beijing in 2008 when a paucity of available positions saw
eventual Olympic champion Kenney Wallace and other established senior athletes win
Having been on WAIS scholarship for six years, did he
have the heart to commit to a further four – with absolutely no guarantee that the next four
would bring anything different?
In his case, the answer was yes. Coming into his athletic
prime, Phillips found a willing partner in crime, in the form of South African
born, Perth based paddler Steve Bird.
In a sport that is all about technique and developing feel
for the water, the duo became the country’s elite two-man combination over 200
As it always is, selection for the 2012 London Olympic
Games was cut-throat. Even though they were demonstratively the fastest in
their event, would selectors prioritise two untried paddlers at the highest
level when they had existing quality in other boats, with proven experience?
Eventually, their persistence won out. Not much was
expected externally of the WA duo, but that didn’t faze them. On rankings, PBs,
World Cup performance, or any other metric you could care to measure, they were
only there to make up the numbers.
Phillips and Bird however, believed differently and sensationally
qualified for the Olympic final in London with a career best performance and would eventually
finish sixth in the world, proving to themselves, others and anyone else who
cared to pay attention that their determination had all been worth it.
For Phillips, when he reflects back, that moment is still
"It’s a fantastic realisation that what has for so long,
been a hazy vision of what could be, all of a sudden becomes something which is
"All the reps, sets and sessions that can sometimes seem
to not add up fast enough, and at times seem unbearable, which is
inevitable on any journey worth taking, all become so fulfilling,” he
The combination between Phillips and Bird exists to this
day. Bird is working towards a third Olympics in Tokyo and Phillips helps steer
that journey in both a training and coaching capacity.
It’s easy to lose sight of where it all began, when the
culmination is tied up in something so special. But Phillips says any youngster
holding a dream needs only one lesson.
"Give yourself the
chance to be great - you might surprise yourself.”
If you’re looking for your chance, WAIS is holding a
Talent Search Day on Saturday, September 22 for WA boys and girls aged 13-17.
Testing will take place for Canoeing, Cycling and Rowing.
Further details and booking are available here.