It wasn’t quite the debut Olympic Games Jess Turner had dreamed of. The 400m hurdler’s hopes were dashed by the dreadful timing of an Achilles injury. Despite her best efforts, Jess simply wasn’t able to run a time she knew she was capable of and the aim of running in an Olympics final will have to wait at least three more years when Paris 2024 arrives.

After a couple of weeks of reflection, Britain’s number one women’s 400m hurdler spoke to us about her Tokyo Games experiences. It’s fair to say it’s one she will never forget. Unfortunately, Jess was facing an uphill battle before she’d even stepped on the plane for Japan. Despite the best efforts of her physio team, the injury issues refused to go away once Jess had landed and was (attempting) to prepare for her events:

“I had this Achilles issue a week before the Olympics trials at the British Championships. It just flared up out of nowhere a week before that. I’d been racing really well all the way through the season, so the flare up was very random. We managed to settle it down for the Olympics trials, so that I was able to get through that, do well and qualify for the Games. So that gave me confidence that, despite my Achilles being really sore and painful, that I would be okay for races in the Olympics because the adrenaline would take over.”

“I was in Yokohama for two weeks before I headed to the Olympics Village in Tokyo and in that time I just couldn’t train properly. The Achilles problem was giving me so much grief. It was just really, really painful. I just wasn’t able to jump over any hurdles. I received lots of physiotherapy to try and get this all to settle down. So the run-up to the Olympic Games wasn’t ideal at all. So that was worrying and a bit frustrating. But I wasn’t overly concerned because I still thought I could get through the actual races. Ahead of the opening heat, the Achilles was still sore but I could manage. It went very similarly to the British Championships. The race was very rusty because I’d not actually been over any hurdles for a while but I got the job done and got through to the semi-finals. I was happy because I thought that I’d ran the rust away and now I could do what I normally do in the semi-finals and run really fast.”

Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case. To make matters worse, Jess’s semi-final took place when the Tokyo weather took a massive turn for the worse. Rain poured down onto the track causing it to legitimately start flooding in places. The field events going on at the time such as the women’s discus event were postponed after several athletes were either slipping over or simply not able to throw properly due to the terrible conditions. Inexplicably, track events were allowed to continue despite the obvious safety concerns of competing in such a technical event when you can barely see in front of you. There was nothing that Jess, nor any of the other semi-finalists, could do. Things were to get worse though; as soon as the starting gun went off, the Achilles problems would not be beaten by the rush of adrenaline:

“But on the day of the semi-final, the rain was just torrential. I’ve never ran in such heavy rain. After being outside on the track for two minutes, I was just absolutely soaked through. My kit was dripping. I could barely see in front of me and the track was actually flooding. They should have postponed the race – 100%. It was far too dangerous to run in rain as heavy as that. From the get-go in that semi-final, my Achilles flared up pretty much immediately. I was actually feeling it now during a race – I feel like it was just one race too many for me with this injury. It was super painful all the way through the race. I knew I wasn’t going to run fast and I knew I wasn’t going to qualify for the final but I just wanted to finish the race. I didn’t want to pull up. I told myself, just finish the race, you have to do this. So I pretty much limped over the line. I was so upsetting because, with the way I’d been running this season, I knew I could have reached the final. I didn’t want to finish my Games like this. I was so upset when I crossed the finish line. I just couldn’t believe that this had happened at the Olympic Games, out of all the competitions it could have happened in. At least I’m home now, to properly deal with this injury. So the race was disappointing but when I look back on it now; I made the Olympics semi-final and I’m an Olympian at the end of the day. I was the only British girl to make it through to the semi-finals of the 400m hurdles and I ran two rounds with an injury. I can’t be too disappointed with that. I’m still proud of what I managed to do but I guess it is bittersweet. It is only three years now before the next Olympics though! So I’m just focused on getting this injury sorted and starting my training for Paris because it’s not all that long away!”

A semi-final place in your first ever 400m hurdles Olympics event is certainly nothing to be sniffed at; but there is that understandable frustration that it could have been more if it wasn’t for injury. Another gutting aspect of the Games for Jess is when she reveals to us that her Achilles problems didn’t only ruin her individual event; it also took away her relay spot in the women’s 4x400m relay event:

“Yes, I was still scheduled to be part of the women’s 4x400m relay team as well. If I wasn’t injured, I feel like I would have been part of the team. So that was another really upsetting thing about the Games. It was just another blow that my injury meant that I couldn’t compete in the relay either. The girls who ran did really, really well against tough competition.”

It’s always tough for athletes to speak to media just minutes after an undesirable outcome. There was plenty of bad luck for British athletes when it came to track and field in Tokyo. Dina Asher-Smith, Adam Gemili and Katarina Johnson-Thompson all had to face the TV cameras merely minutes after realising their dreams of gold had been ruined by injury. Years of training in tatters through the body breaking down at the worst possible moment. Jess was also understandably distraught immediately after she crossed the finish line in her 400m hurdles semi-final. After a couple of weeks of reflection though, Jess is positive about how her Tokyo experience can spur her on for the rest of her career. For the Derbyshire hurdler, it’s about taking the highs from the lows:

“I couldn’t do an interview directly after my race like most athletes do, because I was so upset, I was in tears. I just went straight down to medical instead. When I look back on it now, the experience at Tokyo has now just massively spurred me on to go for Paris. It’s not all that long to wait for that. My goal now is to reach the final of the 400m hurdles in the Paris Games. I know I’m in great shape and I know I’ve got a great time in me. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t show that in the Olympics just gone. These things happen though. No athlete goes through their career without injuries. There’s plenty to look forward to over the next three years: Commonwealths, World Champs, European Champs. The aim is now to be fit for all of that, compete well and that will be a great lead-up to Paris. I feel like you’ve got to take the negatives and put a positive spin on them. If you go into winter training and dwell on those negatives, then you’re not going to enjoy it and you’re not going to do well.”

Jess was also asked what her debut Olympics experience was like when she was not either competing or attempting to train through her injury problems. As has been widely documented, this was the most unique Olympic Games of modern times. Despite the strangeness of the situation though, there were also plenty of happy and cherished moments from the downtime side of the Tokyo Games:

“It was very, very different. Obviously, this was my first Olympics, so I didn’t really have anything to compare it to other than events like Commonwealth Games I’ve been to in the past where you’re also situated in a village. So I guess I have some comparisons to that, but no direct Olympics comparison. In the last Commonwealth Games, my parents flew out to Australia to watch me and we had the most amazing time. It was great seeing and having a look around the whole village and the host city. In Tokyo, that just couldn’t happen at all. We were put in a really nice hotel but we weren’t allowed to do much at all outside. We had a balcony we could go outside in, but that was about it. There was security outside the entrance at all times. So you could only go properly outside for training and competing. It was such a shame that everything was so restricted because Japan is such an amazing country and I would have loved to have properly experienced the culture and go sight-seeing but it just wasn’t possible and I totally understand why that was the case. There was just too much risk. The Japanese people were amazing – they were so friendly, so nice and so supportive. They were there every day at training with banners. Some even made us gifts. Some made us special posters. They definitely made it all a better experience for athletes…in terms of passing the time, I read a lot! There wasn’t really a big communal area like you normally would have. It was pretty weird and it felt like I didn’t really speak to anyone most of the time. It was still a great experience but it did feel like we were there a very long time. It felt like time went very slowly while I was there.”

So what next for Jess? While the rest of 2021 will be a very quiet one, 2022 (fingers crossed) should be an extremely busy year but one event in particular stands out as long as she is fully fit:

“I’m having complete rest right now and for the rest of this season. It’s a time for relaxing and recharging. In terms of the injury, I need to stay in touch with the physios and the doctors. We will have a plan set out. I may have to go for the surgical route to get it sorted. If we do that, that would mean around a six week recovery time following that before I could go back into training. I’ve never actually had surgery before, so I’m not too sure what to expect. Next year though, the Commonwealth Games is the definitely the big event to look forward to. The World Championships, the European Championships and the Commonwealths are all pretty close together – I think it will be impossible to do all three. The Commonwealths is definitely my number one priority for next year though. As long as I’m fit enough to compete in that, I’d be really happy. And, of course, there would be a home crowd at the Commonwealths which will be fantastic to come back to.”

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