In an extract from his book Yorkshire’s Olympic Heroes, Nick Westby takes us to the start line of the triathlon and the Brownlee brothers’ epic race.
Alistair Brownlee had a smile on his face as he crouched into a diving position on the start line of the Olympic triathlon of London 2012. This was actually fun to him. The choppy, icy waters of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park held no fears for the 24-year-old Yorkshireman. This was the culmination of years of hard work and Brownlee was the red-hot favourite to become Britain’s first Olympic champion in triathlon, which had only been part of the programme since the Sydney Games of 2000.
Yet the expectation that had drowned out British stars like Mark Cavendish and Rebecca Adlington earlier in the London Games would not consume the home hope in the triathlon. If anything, Alistair Brownlee was revelling in it. This was his time, his destiny, and he was determined to enjoy it.
What gave him so much pleasure was his confidence. He had arrived at the biggest day of his life in the shape of his life. Not even an Achilles injury suffered at the start of the year had derailed him on his course to Olympic fulfilment. The injury had not panicked him. He even accelerated the recovery time by having a pool built into his back garden so he could aqua-jog in order to get back on the roads around his home quicker. He knew if he performed to the best of his abilities, nobody could catch him.
If he let anything slip in the 1.5km swim through the Serpentine, the 43km bike ride through Hyde Park and the regal surroundings of royal London, or the 10km run to the finish line, then there were only a handful of the 55 starters who could capitalise on such ill-timed misfortune and deny him gold.
One of the triathletes who could beat him and snatch gold stood to his left on the starting jetty on that mild late morning of Tuesday, August 7, 2012. Jonny Brownlee felt the tension, even if his brother didn’t. This was a first Olympics for the 22-year-old. He was the reigning world sprint champion, the man ranked the second best triathlete in the world, but he wasn’t even the best in his own home.
Alistair was the undisputed king, hoping for an Olympic coronation in front of his adoring public. Jonny, his brother, was the ace up his sleeve. Triathlon is historically an individual sport, with teamwork between compatriots at certain times of the race serving only to aid the team leader who will then run for glory down the finishing straight.
Before Alistair emerged on the international scene in 2008, finishing third in an ITU World Series leg in Madrid to seal a spot in the British squad for the Beijing Olympics that year, triathletes had invariably trained 25 hours a week. By the time of the London Games, the Brownlee brothers had transformed the landscape of the sport. They were the two-headed beast who terrorised all before them, their 35-hours-a-week training regimen making them fitter, stronger and better prepared than any of their rivals.
Pounding the roads and the rugged terrain around the home they shared in the leafy, picture-postcard village of Bramhope on the outskirts of Leeds had helped to shape them. The sheer passion they derive from running out of their front door together into the expanses of the Yorkshire Dales or on to the treacherous fells of the neighbouring Chevin Country Park set them apart from the rest. It was something they had been doing as a family since they were boys. It was a hobby that became a profession.
The fact that they were brothers, training and living together, gave them an advantage that the rest of the triathlon world just could not bridge. Burning brightly inside them was that bond that siblings share, the pride in seeing a brother do well, but the determination to just be the better man on the day.
If Jonny woke up bright and breezy one winter’s morning to train, then Alistair could not live with himself if he allowed sleep to engulf his body and did not follow his brother out into the crisp morning air. Alistair was a better triathlete because he had Jonny pushing him. Jonny was a better triathlete because he had Alistair to chase. As Malcolm Brown, the GB performance director and their mentor down the years, put it, they had the “ability to kick each other up the backside when it was needed”.
Together they had revolutionised the world of triathlon, a force of nature that left the rest sweeping leaves on a windy day. Either as a team or as individuals there was no stopping them. Alistair had finished 12th on his Olympic debut in Beijing, at one moment thinking he could actually win a surprise gold before fading into the pack. He was only 20, and the world would not have to wait long to see this phenomenally gifted and tireless individual take the step up.
The world title at the end of the multi-leg world series followed in 2009, complemented by the European title 12 months later. In 2011, when fully fit, he won both the world and continental titles.
Jonny won the world sprint title that year – a race contested over a shorter distance – but in the final months before the Games the younger brother had been the stronger Brownlee.
As Alistair rested his strained Achilles tendon in a protective boot, Jonny made hay while the sun shone. He won his first world series events in San Diego and Madrid before normal service was resumed in the final pre-Olympic world series event in Kitzbuhel in June, when Alistair demonstrated in his first major international race of the season that his injury had not undermined his destiny and thus opened the door to his rivals. He won by more than a minute, with Jonny coming home in second.
With Alistair back and in world-beating form, he took his place on that start line of the London 2012 triathlon as the favourite. Jonny’s job in the London Olympic triathlon was not necessarily to try and beat his brother. If the opportunity arose, he could, and would, go for it.
But when they sat down and hatched a plan in the late summer of 2011, their mission was to get both of them on the medal podium. Alistair first, Jonny, hopefully second, would be the best way to fulfil an ambition that would be historic. There was no sense in the two working against each other and depriving their family and the British public of a memorable storyline.
That they planned to both be on the podium was no secret. Even the notion of crossing the line together, and so sharing the gold, had been discussed and speculated upon. They did exactly that at a triathlon in Oxfordshire in June – Alistair’s first race since injury – taking the plaudits of a crowd moved to tears by such solidarity as they crossed the line together.
Both young Yorkshiremen had said that in the heat of Olympic battle and in a sport with as many intangibles as triathlon, the chance to cross the line together, triumphantly in the Olympic final would be almost impossible. The International Triathlon Union went a step further in the days leading up to the race when they said if the brothers did so they would be disqualified for manufacturing the result.
To their opponents who lined up alongside them on the start line at the Serpentine, the Brownlees represented an irresistible double act that needed beating. Such was the siblings’ dominance the fear was that the rest of the 53 athletes were fighting for the one medal that was left. There were a good few athletes in that race who were just happy to be there, but they were outnumbered by those who wanted to rip up an emotive script.
Among them was Kris Gemmell, a 35-year-old New Zealander, who had won the world title in 2002 when the notion of global domination was unfathomable to Alistair, who was still only competing in British junior triathlons.
In a shot across the bow that echoed the cross-nation teamwork that had gone into denying Mark Cavendish a chance at the gold medal in the men’s cycling road race 10 days earlier, the Kiwi issued a warning to the Brownlees that the rest of the world were uniting to hunt them down.
The 43km cycle leg, the second stage of the triathlon, which requires more tactical awareness than the swim and the run, was identified as the time when their rivals would gang up on the Yorkshire duo.
EYEWITNESS TO DAYS OF GLORY
Yorkshire Post sports journalist Nick Westby has written a book chronicling and celebrating the extraordinary achievements of the county’s Olympians at the London 2012 Olympics.As the newspaper’s correspondent in the capital he was an eye- witness to the 12 medals won by the athletes representing Yorkshire.
Yorkshire’s Olympic Heroes by Nick Westby (Great Northern Books) is out now, £12.99. Paperback, 128 pages. To order a copy phone 01274 735056 or visit the website at www.greatnorthernbooks.co.uk.
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