You work your whole life and then it's like, 'have I actually done the Olympics?' I didn't really understand that I had. Over the years, because I've been known for just chucking crazy stuff throughout my whole career, it was like a 'this is surreal, I don't even know if this is actually happening. When am I going to wake up?' kind of thing. Walking away world champion was just the icing on the cake, really. I know I gained a lot as a person and as an athlete out there, I'm hungry for more.
Welcome back to the Jacuzzi Performance Podcast. I'm Ed Baxter, and today we're joined by world champion and Olympic finalist, Joe Fraser. How are you doing Joe?
I'm good thank you, thanks for having me.
You're just back from the Tokyo Olympics, your first ever games. Describe that experience for us, how was it?
Yes. To be honest, you know, you've worked your whole life for those, essentially, 10 days, so it's kind of surreal trying to soak up every single moment while I was there. But I did my best and I know I've given my all. Although I didn't walk away with the results that I would have liked, I know that there's more in the tank for next time so I'm just motivated, looking forward to the future and just pushing on.
So, you're saying there you've worked your whole life for it, you feel like you've built up to that moment. You said you didn't quite get the results you'd wanted, is that a big push to be like, 'right, I want to be straight back in the gym?' Or is it like, 'right, I need to take a bit of time now, relax and then go again?'
See at first I was like, 'I need to be back in the gym.' And then once I actually came home, I obviously knew I needed shoulder surgery and it gave me a bit of time to reflect more because I'm usually one of those guys that's ‘go go go’, but that gave me a chance to step back. I think it was probably very much needed, especially after such a long cycle. So yes, I'm motivated and seeing the guys training for World Championships at the moment, it's very inspiring. I'm definitely motivated and want to give my all for the next cycle.
You said there, it's a very long cycle. This was five years instead of the usual four year cycle. At the start of what you thought would be a four year cycle, was that the goal? Did you want to be in Tokyo, and did you know you'd be in Tokyo?
At the beginning of the cycle, I'm sure my mindset was very different than towards the end of it. I always had the dream of wanting to go to Tokyo, but my vision of what I could achieve out there probably changed as the cycle went on. My coach always had the vision that I could do great things, and that's why at the beginning of the cycle he always makes us write out routines that he wants us to compete by the end – kind of showing that we've got a vision of where we want that routine to go on each event. So, the routine that I actually won the World Championship with was the routine that we actually wrote out three years prior. Yes, so that showed to me he's got the vision, and I've got the vision we need to just keep going with that driving force.
A lot of athletes who are in a time based sport would write down a time, like 'I want to hit this time by the next Olympic cycle.' So you say there you write down a routine, and then it's you doing that to the best of your ability and whatever happens happens, is that how it goes?
Yes, so we were going for the most difficulty, but at the same time working on the execution. In gymnastics it's a balance.
Yes, the crazy stuff with the beautifully clean stuff. So that's kind of what I've had to work on over the years, because I've been known for just chucking crazy stuff throughout my whole career. So getting those things consistent and performing them on Olympic and world stages was the challenge.
We've just talked about your first games experience, not quite getting the results you wanted. You've had a lot of experience at international level, and obviously it was a very different Olympics this year with COVID and everything. What's the difference between that games compared to World Championships or the Europeans?
It's crazy because when you're there you know it's the Olympic Games and you know it's like this event that you've worked your whole life for, but at the same time you're seeing the same faces you've seen throughout the whole cycle and these people that you've competed against. In terms of that, not much changes. But when you're looking around the arena, and you're seeing five rings everywhere, you start to believe like, 'oh my days, we're at the Olympic Games.' Because obviously, we didn't have a crowd, so that's kind of what made it real to me that we were at the Olympic Games, seeing the rings.
So you've walked into the arena, like you said you can feel a buzz, you're seeing the rings everywhere. How do you keep that just a normal gymnastics room that you're just going to do your thing in? How do you do that mentally?
For me, I had my teammates and coach there, so I just treat it like a training session. That's how I always have done it. I try to enjoy it because, like I say, you work so many years for those moments, if you don't actually enjoy them you're wasting that time that you have. So, that's definitely what I try to do out there.
You're saying you didn't come away with the results you wanted. But you're still the first male to ever make the final in a parallel bars discipline. That must still feel pretty special, right?
Yes, definitely. I know I gained a lot as a person and as an athlete out there. I'm just hungry for more.
Do you take that time to be like, 'that's pretty special what I've done?' Or is it just another thing that you've done and it's like, 'right, on to the next thing?’ Or can you appreciate what you've achieved?
I think it took for other people to say it to me for me to actually process it, because at first all I was thinking about was I didn't get exactly what I wanted, I didn't achieve as much as I wanted. I didn't just want it for myself, I wanted it for my friends, my family, my teammates, my coach, who had always been there for me and pushed me along that journey. So I kind of wanted results not necessarily for myself, but like for them as well.
What result did you want?
I'd have loved to walk away with an Olympic medal or, you know, be Olympic champion or something like that. Like I say, I've worked 17 years doing somersaults for a living, so I'd have loved to walk away with a medal, and I'm sure my coach would say the same thing. But you know, we move on and we know that it's doable, we've just got to develop and move forwards now.
So, you finished fourth in the team event. For people that are watching who see gymnastics as yourself on the parallel bars or someone on the floor, what is a gymnastics team event or the specific team event you did?
Okay, so a team event at the Olympics consists of four members from each country. So there's six events, and on every one we have three people go on each. Every single one of those routines counts to the team score, so if somebody falls off or somebody makes a mistake or somebody gets injured halfway through the comp, the team score will be affected by that. So it's really pressurised. You can't afford for errors really. So yes, it's a nerve wracking one and for me it's my most nerve-wracking competition.
Do you feel a lot more pressure there than in your individual?
100%, because I feel like I really am doing it for the other guys then. When I'm in individual events, if I make a mistake, that's for me. I definitely feel a lot more pressure in team events.
How did you guys feel walking away with 4th place? Your first games, to walk away 4th in an Olympics is pretty special, but then like you said, you're very hungry, you want that success. How was that?
Some people would look at 4th at the Olympic Games and be like, 'oh my God, wow that's incredible.' But we are just hungry and want more, we'd have loved to have walked away 3rd, 2nd or 1st. Obviously, we just weren't good enough on the day. We worked out that we would've needed a lot on each routine more, in the grand scheme of things, to actually get into the medals. So that just makes us all know that we need to push harder, we need to have that vision and drive for the future if we truly want to make that team a success, and I believe that we can do it and I'm sure the other guys do. So that's why we're all knuckling down now and giving our all.
You said you felt a lot more pressure in a team event compared to an individual because obviously it's everyone's medal or title at risk essentially. In a time-based sport, you miss a stride in running, you miss a stroke in swimming, you can get it back. If you make one mistake in gymnastics you're gone, right? How do you deal with that? Like you said there, you feel so much pressure in the team event, how do you deal with that pressure?
Like I say, you've just got to enjoy it haven't you? When you're enjoying yourself and you're in your element, you're doing things at your best and that's the way I try and handle the situation really.
You seem pretty chilled. You seem like you just try and take it like it's another day.
Definitely, I try and have a lot of banter with the lads and just take it in our stride, because these are moments that you aren't going to get forever. I try and make them count when I can.
You and your coach, Lee, you've already mentioned it in this podcast already, that you've got some really big goals. You've already said you weren't quite satisfied with what you've got, you're hungry, you want more. What do you want to do, what are they?
Well, obviously I'm currently managing a shoulder operation, so the main focus right now is to get that healed and get myself physically fit for next year when obviously the Commonwealth Games are on and the Europeans, Worlds etc. I'd love to be able to go out to the Commonwealth, I'm from Birmingham as well so that would be incredible. I'd love to manage to do that. Then obviously moving forwards in the cycle, hopefully my difficulty in the routines will get more and more, crazier things will happen. That's the plan, just show the world that we really can challenge for these kind of medals. I believe it, I truly believe it and I'll give my all, whether it happens or not I'll always know I've given my all.
We'll talk about the Commonwealth games in a little bit. Like you've just mentioned there, you've got some really big goals. Obviously Paris is three years away, it's a shorter cycle than usual but still, there's one eye there. How do you get through the day to day of – I don't want to say boring, but it's like you're almost waiting to get there. How do you tick through day by day, week by week, getting to that big goal?
Like you say, I take it day by day rather than, 'Paris is three years away.' I find it easier because when you're thinking about, 'I've got three years to do blah de blah.' You're kind of looking in the distance rather than the present and now. So, when I come in here, and I know it's going to be a struggle – as we would call it, the struggle bus – I'll hop aboard, and I'll get going because I know they will as well. I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones that has such a great team in my gym that will push each other. When it's hard, I have got them, and they've got me.
Do you think about that big goal regularly? Is it in your mind all the time? Are you one of those people that's in there and you never take your eye off it?
Of course, it's always there. You're always thinking about it. But I still try and stay present and in the now, and giving that all every single day of the week, so that I don't lose focus of that goal. That tends to help.
You've mentioned shoulder operation. As an athlete, you push it every day. Do you know when it's time to have a rest or back off or anything like that?
I like to think so. Obviously my coach has been in the game a very long time as well, so he can see when I'm tired and when I need to push on or when I need to take a step back. We work together on it. It's not just he tells me, or I tell him. We just work together and get the best out of each other like that.
You've mentioned a few times you're quite chilled – in terms of day by day, just turn up, enjoy it, give your best, go home. Do you feel that pressure when you're like, 'right, I'm two months out of World Championships, I'm now starting to feel like I might have an injury?’ Do you then start to be like, 'right, okay. I'm panicking, there's a worry.' Anything like that?
Yes, the closer the competitions get, the more I'd start to stress.
Is that just in general or just with the shoulder?
In general, really. I don't tend to stress about, like, 'oh I need to be ready at seven o’clock.' Things like that. But when it comes to the shoulder for example, I'm thinking, 'okay. I need to start doing some things now because I've got six weeks and I need to be at the top of my game.'
Were you going into that World Championships with that in mind – as in, you wanted to come away as a world champion?
I wasn't actually, I was going in there with the mindset of, 'I've got a p-bar routine that can make the final and once you're in the final anything can happen.' Everyone knows that. So yes, it was a case of perform a routine that I knew I could and get into the final, and then once I was in the final, give my all. That's what I felt like I did, so walking away world champion was just icing on the cake, really.
Was there a moment through the routine or in the build up that you were like, 'it's on, it's me?'
No. Honestly, with p-bars, it's such tight margins between like 1st and 10th. So, the only thing that I had in my head was, 'you need to stick the dismount.' Because everything else is going to be very close.
Is that what did it then, was it because the dismount was so clean?
So from the beginning of the routine, all I was thinking was, 'stick the dismount.' So I don't even really remember what I was doing throughout. And then I didn't stick the dismount. So as soon as I finished, I thought, 'you've had a mare. You've had a mare.' But then the score came in and I was like, 'okay. That's pretty good.' That kind of said to me the rest of it must have been pretty good if I could afford to have a step and still walk away world champion.
When you got your score, did you know at that moment? I'm not sure quite how the scoring works, does everyone get them in their own order?
Yes. So I was fourth up, and there were four people after me. So I knew I was coming top five. I knew I had to beat two more people before I was getting a medal, so that was nerve-racking.
How do you deal with that? ‘That's another one.’ Is that literally it? You just wait until every time someone gets a lower score, you're just like is that it?
Yes. So my coach is a top level judge as well, so he would be watching the routines and he'll turn around to me and say, 'that's going to be close,' and then I'm getting more nervous thinking, 'oh my days.'
No way, that's crazy. So is that what it's like at every competition then? Is he right next to you and saying, 'you're okay there?'
Yes, and they might have a massive scoreboard and your score will be here and then they'll go [imitates crowd noise], like that. They'll make it like the crowd, and get them going a bit.
Oh really, no way. Like a gameshow. I thought it would just pop up as a score and it's like working out.
They'll literally make a bar go up.
Really, that's crazy. I didn't realise it was like that. What was that feeling like, you know, when you saw that everyone was dropping in below you? Was it right until the last person you were like? That tight?
Yes, very nerve-racking. All of the team came down, the coaches and stuff.
To watch the last couple of guys go?
Yes. Once the score came in, they all threw me in the air and stuff, so it was a good moment.
Amazing, so before the actual score came in, did you realise you had won?
I like to think I was winning after watching it, because he had an error in it.
Oh, did he?
I was thinking ‘surely, surely.’ But at the same time I was thinking this was surreal, I don't even know if this is happening. I was thinking ‘when am I going to wake up?’ kind of thing. So, yes, it was an amazing feeling.
You strike me as someone who's just like, 'I want it' every day, but do you get to that point where you need a bit of time or not?
After Tokyo particularly, one of my friends Niall Wilson, he spoke to me a lot about the Olympic comedown and obviously like you say I'm one of those guys that just loves being in the gym, loves doing what I can. So, when I came back from Tokyo I found it quite strange – we came back, and the games were still going on.
You couldn't stay there and enjoy the experience kind of thing?
Yes, so I was finding it quite strange. I keep saying it, but you work your whole life and then it's like ‘have I actually done the Olympics?’ I didn't really understand that I had, and I found it weird to process that I was an Olympian now, because I still wanted to be an Olympian and I couldn't quite understand that I had gone. I found that a bit up and down. Some days I'd feel amazing, some days I'd be a bit down.
Do you think if you had come back with the result you had wanted that would have made it an easier experience with the comedown, or do you think it would have been even harder because you were on such a big high and then come back down again?
I don't think it would have made it any easier to be honest, and it's weird because I find it hard to explain what I'm trying to say but, yes, I definitely found myself going up and down with emotions and stuff and mentality.
Would you say this is the first time post Olympics that you're like, ‘right, I need rest?’ Is this the first time you've ever been in that place, like you said where you need a rest? Is this the first time you've experienced that?
Definitely. I also love watching the sport and I found it hard to watch the competitions back, not because of results – I don't know, I just found it hard to watch them back and I found it so strange because I love gymnastics, it's my favourite sport of course.
Now, like a month after it, are you hungry again?
Definitely. Like I say, having these guys training for the World Championships, it makes me want to be part of that team again and give my all for them.
So, recovering from the shoulder operation, we talked about it before we started actually filming, that you knew you had this injury like you said just before the world championships in 2019, you persevered with the injury for pretty much two years, with injections to just kind of subdue the pain. What has that experience been like? I don't know anyone else who has kind of done that, do you know what I mean?
Yes. It was a challenge for sure. Timings of injections and things and making sure that everything was safe for my own health for the future, because I've always said to the doctors and stuff that I want to be able to throw my kid in the air when I'm older. We did our best to make sure that I was as safe as possible.
Did you have to weigh up those options? By subduing the pain and pushing on, was there a risk that there could be a long-term effect?
It was something that we always considered, and we did our best to minimise the risk of course, and having MRI scans when I needed to, and every few months checking in with the physio, my grip strength and keeping the shoulder as strong as I physically could was really helping the situation as much as I could. I was giving my all to make sure that I was in the best shape so that it was in the healthiest position that it could be. And obviously once we came back from Tokyo, 12 months from the Commonwealth Games, we knew it was the perfect time to actually get it sorted, so we just bit the bullet and went and did it, the same for my teammate.
You mention the Commonwealth Games. We are in Birmingham now… you are a lad from Birmingham… that must be exciting for you knowing that it's not just a home games in your nation but it's in your city. How do you feel about it? Are you excited?
Very much so. Very motivated, and you know, it's not often my friends, family, and teammates can go to competitions and actually see me compete. Like, you're in school missing weeks and weeks and weeks out for training days and competitions and then everyone's thinking, 'what is he actually doing?' but at least now they'll actually see what I've been training for and what I've been doing all those years.
Birmingham's a city with so much culture. People have loads of different opinions on it, you've mentioned you love it here. How do you think the city has kind of shaped you? You can tell, everyone watching this from the accent that you're a Birmingham lad. How would you say that this city has shaped you into the guy you are today?
Well, personally it has been great. I've always loved living in Birmingham.
You've trained here forever, haven't you?
Yes literally, so I definitely wouldn't be the person I am without some of the experiences I've had here and in Birmingham, and for me personally I've loved every second.
What's it like all the way around this building that we're in now? There's so much history, there's a photo of you out there winning the UK School Games when you're 12 or 13. What is it like to have grown up with the same coach, in the same environment and to look back every day you walk in and say that little kid is now an Olympian and World Champion at still only 22 years old? That must be crazy.
It is. I say I was slightly disappointed in the games in my own performance, but I know that little kid that was on that podium at the UK School Games would have been over the moon, so I should reflect on that and take the time to actually be proud of myself as well.
I think that's crazy, isn't it? When you're so young in sport, you have a big dream, you have a goal. That's what it is, it's a dream isn't it when you're young in sport? And then often you get to a dream or you accomplish something and in that moment you're like, 'oh it's not really enough,' because you didn't get what you wanted. You might have won the World Championships, but you didn't land your dismount. There could be that bit more, but I think it's good that you can have that maturity again to look back and be like that's a kid's dream that has then been accomplished.
Yes definitely, it's all about perspective and the way you look at things – because like I say, I know that 12/13 year old would have been over the moon with some of the things I've been able to do over the last five to ten years. So yes, I should really make sure I take the time and appreciate that.
As we mentioned, Commonwealth Games are here next year, you've already mentioned it's important for you to enjoy the sport, and I'm sure you're inspiring so many people already – young gymnasts and stuff like that. Do you ever think about the legacy that you want to leave behind? Or, not even leave behind but you know, as you move through the next five to ten years of your career, what kind of message do you want to give out to young gymnasts I guess?
I love the idea of getting more young gymnasts in the sport and letting them know that if you work hard you can achieve great things. It's not going to be easy but if you're dedicated and give your all to something, you really can achieve what you want to achieve. Because, as a young kid I always loved the sport. If you love it, you'll give your all to it I feel. I'm trying to make other kids enjoy it as much as I do and see how much fun they can have here. There's so many transferable skills that you get from gymnastics for other sports as well, and life.
You've mentioned there that sport isn't an easy journey – there'll be challenges, it's not easy work. You turn up here every day, train for six to eight hours and it's really taxing. What's the biggest challenge you've been through?
I would say my ankle injury in 2018. Just because at the time I was really going upwards and progressing in my skills and my mentality, so it was quite a shock. I dislocated my ankle in January so that meant that I couldn't trial for the Commonwealth Games.
Is that the only major you've missed due to injury?
So that was quite a big blow then?
Yes, so it was quite disappointing at the time, and it's weird because now being injured and not going to the World's, my mentality is a bit different. I'm motivated and want to push on, so I can be in that team, meanwhile back then I struggled, I found it hard to see the guys pushing and going for the Commonwealth Games when I wanted to be a part of that as well. The first few weeks when I was in crutches and couldn't walk was really hard, but then after a few weeks I started to push on and believe that I could get better for the Euros, so I kind of changed my end goal, so that helped.
You must have been 19? That's quite a crazy perspective of someone, I think most 19-year-olds if they'd done that kind of thing or been through an experience where they had to miss a Major they would be really upset, but to be able to have that bit of time when you've been disappointed, and you've let yourself get used to what's going on and then change your perspective, that's quite a mature thing to do.
I feel like having my coach and my teammates there as well made it easier because as much as I was disappointed so was my coach, he wanted me to be back safely and as quickly as possible which also helped. You find small victories, don't you? Where you do your first walk or your first jump on the trampoline and things like that. Your knee-to-wall is an extra centimetre or something like that. I was finding the small victories, and that's what I've been doing with the shoulder as well. So, I could do my first handstand walking last week, which is great. I know that on a normal day, I wouldn't think twice about handstand walking, that would just be something I did for fun. So, it's just finding those small victories.
You've talked a lot about your relationship with your coach, you mentioned you've been with him forever. Can you take us through that relationship? What's it like?
Personally, I think it's great.
Would he say the same thing?
I'm sure he would say otherwise, but we've had good fun over the years. He's been with me since 2008 and he's said that I was just a little kid that just enjoyed the sport, and he could see that I was willing to work hard.
Do you clash at all? Have you had any big fallouts?
Whose fault are they when they happen?
No comment. No, we have a lot of fun, and he's always made sure that I have fun in the sport because when you're having fun, you're willing to put the work in and that's the way it has always been – hopefully for the foreseeable future we keep having fun, and I'm sure we will. We always have done, so I don't see why not.
If you look forward now to the World Championships next year, you're quite fortunate you have two home championships, it's not in Birmingham again but it's in England. Going in as a World Champion already, does that change your mentality? Do you go in as more of a favourite? Walk in shoulders up a little bit more, or do you like that underdog feeling?
I've always liked being an underdog and going in with the mentality that I just need to deliver a routine, because I know if I deliver a routine the success, the medals, the finals, will come off the back of that. So as long as I do what I know I can do, everything else will take care of itself, and that's the way I will approach it.
It's been amazing chatting to you, look forward to hopefully seeing you in the Commonwealth Games, winning some medals for your city.