Joe Choong always had his heart set on the Olympics. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the now-29-year-old replied: “An Olympian.”

In 2016 Joe realised that dream, competing in Rio and finishing in 10th. Five years later he went several steps further and became the first British male to win an individual Olympic gold medal in modern pentathlon.

But his path to the podium in Tokyo wasn’t entirely smooth.

As a teenager Joe had to prove to his family that he could balance sport with a good education. By the time he showed he could sustain his academic scores while training and competing, the south Londoner was flying around the globe for World and European Championships.

Three years after starting university in Bath – and running head-first into the meeting of student and athlete life – Joe made his Olympic debut.

“I remember looking up, got goosebumps, and I felt this was a lifelong dream,” he says in an interview as a BEAA Ambassador. “It brought the best out of me, and at the time, the result didn’t matter. It was just from that first fight: I’m an Olympian. It doesn’t matter if I fall over and break my knee, now I’m an Olympian.”

That first experience taught Joe a valuable lesson for the years ahead, too.

“I was in second, in medal contention, and then my gun just misfired once and that something a little bit unusual threw me. I suddenly noticed loads of fans screaming behind the shooting range and I completely forgot what I was meant to be doing… For me it was obvious that I had the potential to medal and I just didn’t produce on the day.”

Something similar happened in 2021 – Joe could have been thrown off by a misfire that threatened his position. But by that point he was a different athlete, so kept his composure all the way to becoming an Olympic champion. It’s fair to say life had thrown some challenges his way in the intervening years. Here, he explains the hurdles he faced on the pathway to gold.

“2019 was my breakthrough year... I’d had a fantastic winter training block, running and swimming the fastest I’d ever been. Everything was looking really good for the Tokyo Olympics, building in the right direction. And then lockdown hit and the Olympics got cancelled.

“I really struggled with that. You have that doubt in your mind of: ‘Okay, I’m really fit this year, will I be able to keep it going for another year?’ For the first two or three weeks over lockdown we were told to keep running and we were doing some swimming in the river, open water swimming. I just didn’t go. I was like: ‘What’s the point?’. I struggled and just sat in my room playing video games for three weeks.  

“Then I managed to see the positives. I started going out for runs and enjoyed the simplicity of one sport a day. Normally we have such complicated lives trying to juggle five sports that running was so easy and really nice. I just turned a really negative experience into something I enjoyed.”

Another difficulty Joe faced was the lost of his grandfather, who died in 2019.

“He was always a really emotional guy. He used to be a rugby player, so 6’6, but he’d be the first one to tear up over any emotional or happy moment. They’ve always been a big part of my journey. That was one of the emotions I had on the finishing line in Tokyo.

“I then had a really interesting build-up to the Games. With Covid you had to do the three-day and two-day pre-flight tests. My two-day test got lost in the post, so the day I planned to just be packing, and being really thoughtful and making sure I don’t forget anything, I was instead doing a two and a half hour drive to Heathrow to get an emergency test!  

“I spent the most nervous 90 minutes of my life waiting for the result, and then drove back two and a half hours. So by the time I actually got on the plane two days later I was so relieved to be making it out there it took all thoughts of results out of my mind. By the time we got to the holding camp, I was like a child in a sweet shop. I was so excited to be at another Olympics after the pressures of Covid.”

Having dodged Covid Joe’s performance in Tokyo needs no further elaboration. When he returned, he began adjusting to life as an Olympic champion – something most people will never experience.

“I’d been thinking about being an Olympian since I was five and then 20 years later I’d done it, got that gold medal and it’s like: ‘What now?’,” Joe says.

“Athletes like Adam Peaty and Max Whitlock have spoken about having that desire to get back training. I took six-seven months doing nothing, doing things for fun, because you can’t go to sport and do it robotically. You need to have something to aim for, always. My advice in general is you start the sport because you enjoy it and there has to be an element of that all the way through. If you lose that you’re going to lose the drive you need to be successful.”

How have the BEAA supported Joe Choong?

Joe took a prominent stance against the decision to remove riding from modern pentathlon in favour of obstacle racing. As one of the sport’s leading figures he worked to draw attention to the athlete view, which in his eyes was overlooked. 

Beforehand, he spoke with the BEAA for support. 

“I was lucky,” he explains, “I’m from Britain and the BEAA were really supportive in terms of going for advice: ‘How do you think is the best way to approach this problem?’ And also being Olympic champion gives you a natural platform where people know you and will listen to what you say.

“As an athlete, my specialities are five sports and I’ve got a maths degree. I’ve got no idea about politics, never been particularly interested in it. I have to be honest and say: ‘I don’t really know the best way to approach this.’ So naturally you go and ask other people who are experts in that field for advice. I’m an ambassador to try and encourage anyone else who has issues to reach out and use this resource because it is so valuable.”

Athlete advice

Joe Choong reveals challenges on the journey to Olympic gold

Joe Choong always wanted to be an Olympian. But the path wasn't always easy.
June 6, 2024
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