Alison Jackson thought her dream of going to the Olympic Games in Tokyo was over. Then, on Tuesday she received a phone call: Canada had been reallocated a third spot after another nation pulled out, and she would be the one to fill it, joining teammates Leah Kirchmann and Karol Ann Canuel for the road race.
“I'm basically just in shock,” she tells me via phone from Canada, the day after receiving the news. “I think Canada found out about being able to get another spot just hours before they contacted me. And then basically I asked if this is real life, you know, but then just like shock...it's a whirlwind”
Jackson had given up the Olympic dream for this cycle, thinking her chances of reaching Tokyo were extremely slim: “You never hope that anyone gets injured. But basically, that was the only possibility I thought that I would have in order to go. And so this is just like nothing I could have imagined that would happen. I think it's a very special circumstance,” she says. “Once I started being able to tell family and friends, they're shocked, but it turns immediately into excitement. It just really helped me to just be like ‘yeah, this is awesome.’”
The 32-year-old had been back in her home country since her last race with her Liv Racing trade team at Flèche Wallonne, in April. “I took a little break and spent some real quality family time,” she says. “And then just started to build again and added a lot of different things like fun gravel rides, and that base fitness sort of stuff. So I really do feel fresh mentally.”
She had been planning to ease back into World Tour level racing upon her return to Europe by heading to the six-day 2.2 Tour d’Occitanie “and kind of roll into the race feelings again”— but all that changed this week.
Originally, her season had been geared around the World Championships in September but Jackson says she has been maintaining her form since heading home after the Classics. Crucially, she says, her head is still in the game: “I know what I have for physical ability, but the head knowledge I have — just the team spirit, tactics, whatever, everything that I can bring is going to be a really positive contribution to the team,” she says, adding: “I also just have all this heart and passion that I can ride with. So I'm going to bring a lot of that.”
Kirchmann and Canuel were travelling to Tokyo when the news that Jackson would be following them there on Saturday broke: “I have received some really nice messages from them just like welcoming me to the team,” Jackson says. “For them, it's just a bonus to have another teammate there. We as cyclists know the power of teammates and the Olympics doesn't really showcase properly how our sport is a team sport. But for them to go from two athletes to a third member on the team I think it's just a bonus of excitement and power, and encouragement all round.”
After the disappointment of finding out that she wasn’t part of the original team, Jackson says she “just had to give myself space from hanging on to every word about the Olympics.” As a result, she has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to studying the course, but she isn’t worried: “the Olympics is such a special race, but also, I am a professional athlete,” she says. “And even when we go to other big races throughout the season, sometimes we don't even get to recon the course, maybe we just look at it on the maps.”
Jackson is confident that she can get to grips with the course in time for the road race on the 25th July. “I'll get to recon it and do some extra studying and then rely on Leah and Karol Ann and the cycling Canada staff who have spent so much time analysing and looking at the course. So there will be some sharing of knowledge,” she says.
Many of the athletes heading to Tokyo have spent months preparing for the hot and humid conditions they will be racing in. For Jackson, the unfortunate effects of climate change and the resulting heatwave in Canada have assisted her acclimatisation process, “where I am in the Vancouver area in BC, Canada, the last few weeks have been super hot,” she says. “We had some 44°C days and it's mostly just right around 30°C to 32°C — so basically, that's on par with what Japan has. It might be a little more humid in Tokyo than here but yeah, I think that actually will be fine in the heat. I've been doing all my training in the middle of the day here.”
Of course, Tokyo won’t be a normal Olympic Games, and spectators are not allowed on the course, but that makes Jackson’s last-minute preparations easier: “For me, this is so last minute [that] if it was a normal Olympic Games, my family and friends wouldn't be able to come anyway [because] it's too last minute for them to book anything to go over there,” she says. “So it's sort of a blessing in disguise for me, you know, just a little bit less pressure.”
This time she may feel relieved at the lack of pressure, but Jackson hopes that in future she will get the opportunity to perform at an Olympic Games in front of crowds. “I think as an athlete, we're entertainers and I love being the entertainer,” she says. “I hope that I get to experience an Olympic Games where friends and family and just fans, and other Canadians just get to take part in the whole experience because, that's what I love to do, entertain.”
Jackson loves to entertain off the bike, too. She is well-known now for her exploits on TikTok which go out to her 3k followers on the platform and her 10 thousand strong Instagram following. Of course, one of the first things Jackson did after hearing the news was record a video in which she excitedly dances in her national team kit.
Will she be dispatching any TikToks from Tokyo? “Oh my gosh, I've got to plan and prepare,” she exclaims. However, executing the videos might prove difficult: “There's a lot of rules about media stuff around the Games. And one of those is that you cannot take videos at all. You can take photos, but you can't take videos at all in any of the venues or accommodation or anything so it really limits my TikToks.”
Aside from the potential lack of TikToks, one disadvantage for Jackson of being called at the eleventh hour to the Games is that she has not been able to relish the usual experience and attention that it brings, “One thing that I feel like I sort of missed out on by not having this long build into the Games, is the opportunity to really bring in my community to also be invested in this moment,” she says. “I think that's what's so special about the Olympics, is that everyone, and especially in Canada, where people don't follow cycling, knows the Olympics. For all the people in my town that I went to elementary school with or high school with, all these people now, this is a personal connection to them, and I just want everyone to share in my joy.”
In terms of the race itself, Jackson is pragmatic about Canada’s position against the favourites “I think for Canada, we have to create opportunities for ourselves,” she says. “It's quite a hard specific climbers course. And I think we all know who the favourites are going in. And I think if we can be tactical with how we use our players and energy then that's how we'll make a good result out of it.”
For Jackson, this last-minute turnaround means that whatever she makes of the race is a bonus. "It's a wild ride," she says. "I'm feeling good."
The women's road race at the Tokyo Olympic Games takes place on Sunday 25th July at 13:00 local time.