I didn’t expect to be in this position when I was cleaning toilets as a chalet maid,” Jones told a press conference, after claiming her historic bronze medal in the women’s snowboarding slopestyle final at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. “Hopefully I’ll feature in a few pub quizzes now,” she quipped.
Despite having a job which involves upside down, airborne daredevilry, having made history and previously being voted number 58 in Loaded magazine’s 100 hottest women feature, Jones has previously described herself as “a pretty average person,” who loves nothing more than surfing, G&Ts and going out for a dance. The night before the Olympic final she kicked back by watching Downton Abbey. Refreshingly guileless, with a sharp sense of humour, she is certainly down to earth, but is far from average. Even before getting an Olympic medal.
Only an incredibly determined risk taker could have followed the path Jones has taken. Her career has featured successes and podiums, as well as career-threatening injuries and tough choices, such as whether to leave the snow to get a degree, or work in a doughnut shop to carry on snowboarding. Also, her job involves the potential of falling, headfirst, from a great height.
A love of snowboarding, rather than the desire to be a pro-rider, is what has driven her. “I’ve always loved the excitement of launching myself off a jump,” she says. “I just love all aspects of snowboarding: free riding, hiking, riding powder through trees. Snowboarding is all about the lifestyle.”
While Jones has now blazed a trail for other riders to follow – as well as almost certainly unlocking further funding from UK Sport for them – she had to beat down the path on her own.
“It’s tough in the beginning and you have to work your butt off,” she says. “I just found my way round getting as much time on the snow as possible. It might be easier now, as the funding is going down through the stages, but I definitely had to work my way through; there was no avenue to follow.”
THE EARLY DAYS
Jones caught the bug at the age of 16, thanks to a free half hour lesson with her brothers at her local dry ski slope – the Mendip Snowsport Centre near Bristol. She was already competing at regional level in gymnastics, and these skills soon came in useful.
She claims she wasn’t instantly fantastic at snowboarding: “It was a bit annoying because my brothers picked it up more quickly than I did, but I persisted, because I liked the challenge,” she says. “Then I went for a week to Italy, with college, and got hooked. I decided to take a year out, to do a season as a chalet maid. I still haven’t made it to university.”
Her first season, in 1999, was in Tignes, in the French Alps. When she wasn’t chalet maiding, she was on the snow. By the end of the season she had caught the eye of Salomon, who invited her to the British Snowboard Championships in Laax, Switzerland, and became her first sponsor. She won the championships and later went on to win them four more times.
After this came a succession of seasons, where she worked in whatever job she could find that would pay her way and give her as much time as possible on the snow. By 2002, her successes had put her on the radar of Oakley and she secured her first full sponsorship. Pentax, Oakley and Nixon followed later, and this sponsorship meant she could snowboard full time.
This was an exciting time: at the age of 22, having just moved onto the international circuit and winning three large competitions in a row, Jones received her first invitation to a major international event. “I felt like I was on a roll when I got invited to the X Games, which is pretty prestigious in snowboarding terms,” she says. “I was over the moon, but then in training, before the contest even began, I had a bad fall on the jump and that was it, I was out.”
She had torn her anterior cruciate ligament and damaged her meniscus, so was forced to spend the next nine months out of snowboarding. For some, this might have been enough to wind down their career, but not for Jones. She fought back from injury and by 2006 was back on top form, finishing the year second in the World Snowboard Tour Rankings.
Happily, five years later, she was invited back to the X Games and this time took gold -– something, she says, she will never forget. This was followed up by two more golds in 2010.
Despite getting her first World Cup podium in August 2013, with a silver in New Zealand, the run up to the Olympics was far from smooth. “I would say the three months before the Olympics were one of my lowest points of my whole career,” she says. “I experienced a concussion in a fall during training in Austria and felt the symptoms for so long, which was testing both physically and mentally. I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
It’s testament to Jones’ nerve and determination that she managed to come back from such a recent concussion to find some of her finest ever form at the Olympics.
“Some injuries have affected me more than others. It has never made me scared of snowboarding, but sometimes the fear is related to a certain jump or trick,” she says. “You do worry about whether it could happen again, but you just have to push yourself past that fear and once you get past it there’s a sense of achievement.”
This focus and dogged determination, combined with the ability to review, reflect, alter and get better is what has made her an Olympic medallist, according to performance director for British Ski and Snowboard, Paddy Mortimer. “Her qualities include complete and utter perseverance,” he says. “She has driven herself and fuelled her passion in a number of ways, and had the courage to stick it out and keep pushing herself.”
Sochi was the first time slopestyle had been featured in the Olympics and Jones prolonged her career in order to enter. The sport involves riders launching themselves off rails and massive jumps (men and women ride the same course), doing aerial tricks, which are marked for technical ability and difficulty by judges.
Jones says her aim was simply to make it to the final, so she was more nervous in the semis. She was six years older than the rest of the field and this experience served her well. Judges were marking riders down for even the slightest technical infringement on ambitiously difficult tricks, so Jones played it safe on the second run, focusing on getting down without any errors. The strategy paid off.
“I didn’t feel as much pressure as in the semi finals. Although I was still nervous, I was more relaxed than earlier in the day, which helped me to improve my run,” she says. “If you get nervous you get stiff; your tricks can end up looking awkward and you lose your style. In the final run, things just seemed to go smoothly and I felt like I had more time to enjoy the movements and felt positive as I came into land the last trick on the final jump. I knew I had put down that run as well as I could. If nothing else, riding away knowing that was a satisfying feeling.”
Jones sat in gold medal position and was left to nervously watch the remaining 10 competitors. The nation also looked on, gripped. Fifteen minutes later, Finnish rider, Enni Rukajärvi, pushed her into second place and then the American, Jamie Anderson, put down the gold medal winning run.
While the few remaining competitors were left to go, the BBC commentators, including team mate, Aimee Fuller, gave a wholly impartial, but entertaining commentary, voicing what everyone in the country was thinking. Even Andy Murray tweeted: “Jenny Jones! Is it wrong to hope everyone left falls?”
Jones says it was the attention she received which set the Olympics apart from other events she’s competed in.
“Although it was all positive beforehand, it almost unnerved me getting so many messages of good luck,” she says. “I’m not used to so many people being aware of a snowboard competition. I eventually decided to turn off the computer and save the messages for later, so I could just concentrate on snowboarding and try to enjoy myself.”
According to the British Olympic Association, three million people watched her race live and more than 20m saw it online, on other BBC programmes, or heard it on the radio. This contributed to Jones being the fourth most talked about athlete at the Games globally.
Funding from UK Sport has only been in place since slopestyle became an Olympic discipline in 2012. At that time, British Ski and Snowboard were awarded a small amount of money and told to prove themselves. They’ve done just that. Her medal, and the success of the wider team, is certain to unlock more funding for the sport and means that many more up and coming riders will benefit. Similarly, her success has encouraged people to flock to British ski slopes and snowdomes to try snowboarding.
Jones is humble about the impact her achievement is likely to have on the sport: “Now we’ve got a medal on the team, freestyle will get the help it needs for four years, which should mean that youngsters get more time on the snow. There are some good ones coming through and hopefully they’ll have good support around them and a good network of people who’ve all experienced their first Olympics. That knowledge and experience will help for the next one.”
For young riders who’ve been inspired by her success and have dreams of following in her footsteps, Jones recommends they get as much time on the snow as possible, even in Scotland or in snowdomes: “They don’t need to be going to the big contests yet, get the groundwork in and hopefully the support will be there.”
Post-Olympics, Jones is very busy. She says there have been some exciting opportunities and she’s been busy with filming and commenting on the Paralympics, where ParalympicsGB made history again.
Shortly after I spoke to her in March, Jones was heading back to Austria to start training, before going on to the US to compete in women’s slopestyle at Keystone, Colorado. After this, some photo contest trips were planned to get photos for magazines.
Despite having just made history, and being the UK’s most famous snowboarder, I get the impression that Jenny Jones is first and foremost a girl who just loves to snowboard.