IF there was ever any doubt as to Leeds’s status as the epicentre of British triathlon it was erased yesterday when five of the city’s finest competitors were named in the six-strong squad that will represent the country in Rio.
That the announcement was made at Civic Hall just days before the city hosts a weekend extravaganza of amateur and professional races merely added to the feeling that Leeds and triathlon are two entities that go hand-in-hand.
The Brownlee brothers, of course, will spearhead the British challenge in Rio, with Alistair looking to defend the title he won so dominantly in London four years ago, and Jonny out to improve on his bronze medal by supplanting his elder sibling.
Two Leeds residents will vie with Wales’ Helen Jenkins – the odd one out in the sextet – for honours in the women’s race.
Non Stanford moved up to Leeds five years ago and is headed to her first Olympics. Vicky Holland left behind her home town of Gloucester two years later because she realised that Leeds, and the chance to train alongside the Brownlees, was the place to be for any triathlete with grand ambitions.
Those five were certain of their place, with the only mystery yesterday being who would play the support role for the Brownlees.
That honour has been bestowed upon another Leeds resident and close-confidant of the Brownlees, Gordon Benson, a 22-year-old from Halifax who last year struck out on his own to win gold in the European Games triathlon.
Knowing that any chance of making the plane to Rio was dependent on the need to sacrifice personal ambitions for the Brownlees, Benson put all his focus on being the perfect foil for the sport’s dominant duo.
“My gold medal is getting Alistair and Jonny to the run as fresh as possible, and in the best position possible,” said Benson.
“It’s no different to any other race, that’s my goal and I’m going there to achieve that.
“If I can do that then, for me, it’s job done.
“I’d get as much satisfaction out of helping them to gold and silver as I would winning a race myself.
“For me, this is an opportunity to go and support my mates, because that’s what they are. They’re not just other athletes, they’re my mates, we train together every day.
“But this is also my opportunity to go to an Olympic Games. It will, hopefully, make me a more rounded athlete for the future.
“Whilst it may compomise my season in terms of results, I’m confident this will help me next year and I can go to a few more Olympics’.”
Benson was unsure of his place on the team right up until last week, when he emerged from his penultimate exam for a degree in nutrition at the University of Leeds to check his emails and got the news he had been hoping for.
Now he will sit down with the Brownlees and plot how they can once again deliver on the biggest stage.
“It is difficult to plan specifics because you don’t know what scenarios are going to come from the race,” said Benson, whose roots in the sport stem from his father’s participation in the 1981 IronMan Challenge in Hawaii.
“We’ll map out scenarios A, B and C and just try to think what might happen, and then once we come out of the swim we’ll just try and adapt to what scenario it’s closest to and go with that.
“I need to swim with them because the bike is where I’ll make the most impact if I can.
“On the run, it’s down to them. That’s what I’ve worked on this year to prepare for this role, and I’ve tried to show as best I could that I’m equipped to support the Brownlees.”
For Alistair, the success Benson enjoys in the first two portions of what is a testing Olympic course will be crucial to his chances of defending the title.
Four years ago, Stuart Hayes was the domestique who helped set the pace on the bike, and for Brownlee the key for Benson will be his flexibility.
“In London, Stuart (Hayes) was more defensive,” said Alistair, who made his Olympic debut in Beijing. “Gordon can play that role, but he is also flexible. The fact he’s there and we’ve got options is vitally important.”
The role of team leader in the women’s team is not so cut and dried, with all three having shown their winning credentials.
Holland is the woman in form after being a domestique at London. “Four years ago, I was part of the team in a supporting role for Helen, but things have changed for me,” said the 30-year-old.
“My move to Leeds has been the catalyst for things in my career and in Rio I’ve got far loftier ambitions.”