Two lads from Yorkshire became the best triathletes in the world. In an extract from their new book Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee talk candidly about sibling rivalry.
Alistair on Jonny...
The critical factor in the relationship between Jonny and me is the difference in our ages. From that two-year head start, everything over the next twenty-two years has followed.
I was the boss, the instigator, the leader. When we first went to school I was the one in charge, the one who had to deliver notes to his teacher when he wasn’t well, the one who had to look after him on the way in.
I wonder sometimes if our personalities have developed in opposition to each other. The big difference is that while triathlon is what I love doing – there is literally nothing else in the world I would rather do – I’ve never got that impression with Jonny. He does it, and he does it brilliantly; but the motivation I get from pure enjoyment is something he doesn’t share; he is motivated by an obsession for doing everything right, and on time, and by the book.
To understand Jonny, you have to understand he derives great satisfaction from ticking tasks off his mental list. He will get to swimming sessions early so he can get it done as quickly as possible, whereas I will get into the pool, swim easy for a while, hang around at the end. He does enjoy the sport, but just as powerful is the feeling that he has a duty towards it, a sense that he should do it.
Jonny has always hated change, and that’s what makes me wonder how he will cope when he takes over at the top. I know sometimes he misses having a normal life. Sometimes, like all professional athletes, he knows it would be great to just have an ordinary day, full of rest, full of freedom – being able to go off and explore somewhere, put his feet up. Nor has he had much chance to develop many relationships. At school he was always running or swimming. He never caught the bus home from school, the usual place for things starting to happen, because he was on his bike.
As a senior athlete you have to be selfish to succeed. Your life has to be entirely focused around you and your needs. So you need a partner who understands that you can’t go out with them because you’re training. You’re also always tired. You just want to go to bed.
The move away from our parents was a big thing for him. He moved into the house I bought in 2008, when he was approaching his nineteenth birthday. Our housemate, Alec, and I nurtured the independent side of him. But in some ways he was trapped, because he was still living in someone else’s house. He remained a kept man.
These days he won’t let me tell him what to do so much, although race situations can be different. The tension forces you together in some ways; rather than it feeling like me versus him in Leeds, it’s two lads from Leeds taking on the world together. And I enjoy those moments. Those little pockets of pressure are when I feel closest to him.
Jonny would deny it to the core, but I think his entire life has been about trying to compete with me. There was a time when he wasn’t into triathlon for its own sake. I could see his thought process: “Hey, Alistair can’t have it if I can’t have it ...” That has been his goal.
Jonny was noticeably more highly strung in 2012. Almost every race he entered there would be some sort of soap opera.
It will sound pernickety, but with Jonny it’s the little things that wind me up. I’ll get to the pool, and he’ll have made sure he starts as early as possible so he can do as many lengths as possible before I’ve started. He’ll get out on his bike first so he can say he’s been riding for a few more minutes. When I was injured, he’d be doing lots of little extra bits of training. Jonny would deny this. He says that, in my eyes, he could do no right during that period. But that is the tension that injury creates. Friends become strangers. Brothers distrust.
Pressure is having to do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. It can be positive, if it makes you do something more, if it makes you try that little bit harder. But it can push you too far. That is my fear with my brother: the pressure could push him too far.
Jonny on Alistair...
I still get stick about how much I used to follow Al around as a kid. I had little choice in it. He was the dominant brother. If he wanted to watch something on television, he would win. If I did something he didn’t want to do, he’d frown and say, ‘What are you doing that for?’ It’s the same today. If I were to decide to do an extra training run, the same question would come out. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to stand up to him.
We’ve done very well to get on as well as we do for so long. Living in the same house, doing all the same training sessions, competing for the same gold medal. One of the great advantages of having Alistair so close is that I can constantly see the best triathlete in the world. He has shown me what it takes to be the best and he has taught me a lot about enjoying sport. He has shown me that top athletes don’t need to be superheroes. You can be normal and still make the Olympics. He was the first one to break that barrier for me.
Here’s another lesson he’s taught me: training doesn’t have to be painfully dull to work. Without him I would almost certainly have trained too much, got caught up in being obsessive about what I eat. Our relationship has evolved in the last year. I feel less like the little brother now. I stand up to him more. There are other people in the training group that Alistair has got closer to, and he has his girlfriend now. I’m sure part of it is that he doesn’t want me around him all the time now I’m his biggest rival. We’re both growing up, and you can’t expect your relationship to remain unchanged. Alistair is more than stubborn than me, which has its advantages and disadvantages. He does what he wants to do, and he sticks to it. However, there is a side to him that would astonish people he’s bellowed at in races or destroyed on bike rides.
Your first surprise: he won a singing scholarship at school. Your next: he once won a talent contest by singing Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, although, sensibly, he’s now rather keen on keeping that quiet. His guilty pleasures? Only Fools and Horses, which is fine, and romantic comedies, which maybe aren’t. The only two DVDs we had when we moved into his house were Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually.
What my brother misses most as an elite athlete is spontaneity. We live in a very strange world. We literally don’t have the time that other people have to build normal relationships. Alistair doesn’t always say much, so it can be hard to gauge when he is bothered about something. Is he upset, or does he just want to keep himself to himself ? It’s not always easy to judge. And, beyond that, if I were sympathetic, he wouldn’t want me to get extra credit for being sympathetic. That’s how fraternal relationships work.
About two months before the Olympics I was asked what would happen if the two of us found that we were away on our own on the run. As the younger brother, would I have the self-belief to try to hurt Al and the confidence to think I could actually win? At the time I thought I would struggle. Even to take it down a notch, would I make the first move or would I wait for him? I knew I would hesitate. I would never give up, but I would hesitate.
Around that same time we had been doing a track session. Alistair had a bad stomach, and I knew I could drop him at any point. If that situation had been reversed he wouldn’t have thought about it at all – he would have just gone. Bang. But I was running round thinking: Alistair is struggling. He raced at the weekend; it’s probably taken a lot out of him. I could drop him at any time – but he’s my big brother and if I do he’ll get in a mood..
What will Alistair be like as and when his racing career comes to an end? What will he do with his life without the thing he loves most to hold it all together?
I know he would still want to be running and riding every day and I know he could never do anything that would require him to wear a suit. When our training is at its most intense I’m sure he would love to be able to ride to the café and go home without all the pressures of brutal sessions. But how long would that last?
I often wonder if we’ll be the sort of ex- sportsmen who are whippet- thin, or the sort who bloat out and become big fatties? I think I’ll be okay. And Alistair will get fat. Strange though it may seem, he puts on weight easily. He claims that’s because he has only ever stopped exercising when forced to by injury. His appetite has never had the chance to adjust; he’s just kept eating.
He’d rather like to be an international man of mystery. Main residence in the Yorkshire Dales, with nice riding on the doorstep, but also with a place abroad, somewhere mountainous where he could ski and climb. To train as we do means each day, and each week, and each month must be very structured. You cannot be spontaneous. You cannot do anything outside your training plan.
Our routine was ingrained in us from the way we were brought up – from all those swimming lessons, all the outdoor activities. As early as I can remember we would get in from school and go off swimming; at weekends we would always be running and walking. Maybe we never knew what we were missing.
Swim Bike Run – Our Triathlon Story by Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee is published by Viking, priced £20. To order copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.