Gold rush: The team behind Yorkshire's Olympic heroes

Team GB's gold rush isn't about to end any time soon if Yorkshire has anything to do with it. Grant Woodward meets the team behind the White Rose stars shining in Rio.

Jonny and Alistair Brownlee have benefited from the facilities at the Leeds Triathlon Centre ahead of Rio 2016. Photo: Bruce Rollinson.

ITS official name is the Environment Chamber, but the athletes know it as ‘The Broiler’. To step inside is to find yourself whisked away to the heat and humidity of Rio de Janeiro, without having to set a single trainer-clad foot outside Yorkshire.

Olympic medals don’t happen by accident – and here inside the Triathlon Centre at the University of Leeds is where Britain’s best put in a sizeable chunk of their thousands of hours of preparation.

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“Many of our athletes have been through the Environment Chamber,” says Dr Mark Hetherington, the Leeds academic who specialises in heat acclimatisation and keeps a watchful eye over the gruelling training. “There are profound psychological benefits in terms of knowing what to expect and crucially, there are wide ranging performance benefits.

Flyweight Nicola Adams at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. Rui Vieira/PA Wire.

“Sessions in The Broiler improve sweat response, meaning they will start sweating at a lower temperature and as such will be less vulnerable to heat illness. We’re preparing them both physically and mentally for the extreme challenge of performing in a hot and humid climate.”

After the elation of London 2012, Team GB are once again setting the world alight in Brazil. And this week will see medal expectations heaped on the broad shoulders of the six-strong elite British triathlon squad – five of whom call the Leeds centre home.

Non Stanford and Vicky Holland harbour hopes of making the podium in the women’s race, while Leeds brothers Jonny and Alistair Brownlee will spearhead Team GB’s challenge in the men’s, aided by Halifax’s Gordon Benson in his role as domestique, or supporting athlete.

Alistair will be looking to defend the title he won so dominantly in London four years ago, while Jonny will aim to improve on his bronze medal by supplanting his elder sibling. Last time round it was an interfamilial battle that gripped a nation, helping to fuel even greater interest in one of the country’s fastest growing sports.

Flyweight Nicola Adams at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. Rui Vieira/PA Wire.

Amid the burgeoning public appetite for marathons and biking, triathlon is a perfect fit – combining both those disciplines with an open water swim. Official figures showed that the number of people participating in UK triathlon events shot up from 120,000 to 196,000 in just five years.

And Yorkshire has become British triathlon’s unofficial home, with Leeds University at its centre. The city was also host this year to a leg of the ITU World Triathlon, with Alistair and Jonny Brownlee taking the first two places on the rostrum. Now all eyes are on Rio, with the races taking place on Thursday and Saturday (check).

“It’s something we’ve been building for since London,” says Patrick Craig, Assistant Head of Sport at the University of Leeds. “The planning’s gone really well and all the athletes are in very good shape. They’ve gone from their altitude camp over in St Moritz in Switzerland over to Rio. They’re all on form to achieve what we as an organisation and UK Sport and the British Olympic Association are hoping and expecting.

“Alistair’s looking to defend his gold medal and the form he’s in we’d hope it’s something he would achieve. Jonny will be looking to at least match his bronze. If you ask the coaching staff they would like to see a medal from one of the girls as well.”

The Leeds performance centre is one of two for triathlon in the country but the athletes have gravitated to West Yorkshire over the last five years. It’s testament to the structure put in place by Leeds University and Leeds Beckett University, along with British Triathlon. The Brownlees and Gordon Benson are all recent graduates of Leeds University to boot.

Started by coaches Jack Maitland and Jack Brown, the centre really gathered momentum after Alistair Brownlee exceeded expectations by finishing twelfth in his first taste of the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.

“It’s gone from strength to strength,” says Craig. “And it’s got the pathway all the way through from the regional academy through to the university and then into the funded performance side of things.”

It means that around 90 athletes use the centre, ranging from those aged 12 or 13 who are just starting out through to the world’s best. The centre is spread across the city. It includes The Edge, an eight-lane swimming pool combined with strengthening and conditioning facilities at Leeds University. There are also pools at Leeds Beckett and the John Charles Centre in south Leeds, where the City of Leeds Diving Club – home to gold medallists Jack Laugher and Chris Mears – is also based.

For running, the triathletes head to the cross country route at the university’s Bodington site near Headingley. And it’s here that the next stage in the centre’s success story will take shape.

Opening in January next year, the £5m project will see the construction of a cycling track and a pavilion which will become the official home of the Leeds Triathlon Centre. All but £1m of the cost will be paid by Leeds University, the rest coming from Sport England and UK Sport.

“I think success breeds success,” says Craig when asked why Leeds has become the focal point for the sport. “Alistair and Jonny have been catalysts, along with the coaches. Then there’s the training environment as well. There’s no better place to cycle than the Yorkshire Dales, or to run. The combination of the facilities and the shared visions of all the partners working together to make Leeds the triathlon city.”

A few dozen miles down the M1, Tara Smith is getting equally excited by the prospect of medals for the dozen-strong British boxing squad.

As part of the staff at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, she has helped the likes of Nicola Adams get the best possible preparation for their tilt at Olympic glory. She’s still buzzing from seeing super-heavyweight hope Joe Joyce knock out his Round of 16 opponent inside three minutes.

“We like to call ourselves ‘the team behind the team’ and it’s great to think that the time, energy and dedication of everyone here is reaping the rewards,” she says. “Obviously at the end of the day the athletes are the ones who have to perform but the people who put the hours in behind the success definitely feel part of the success.”

Launched in 2002, the EIS as a whole worked with nearly nine out of every 10 medallists at London 2012. Its Sheffield centre focuses on the technical side of things including physiotherapy, performance analysis and sports psychology.

Alongside the nation’s elite boxers it also works with Jessica Ennis Hill, and Smith for one is delighted by her silver medal. “I thought it was a great performance. Jess did the absolute best she could.” Now her attention switches to the ring and medal hopes that include Joyce, Savannah Marshall and, of course, Nicola Adams. They’re ready, she says, and so is Yorkshire to deliver more Olympic success.

When to cheer for Yorkshire...

Today (Tuesday) sees Leeds gymnast Nile Wilson take on the horizontal bars, while Ripon’s Jack Laugher will be gunning for a second diving gold in the 3m springboard alongside Freddie Woodward from Sheffield.

Medal hopes in badminton were considered slim but Huddersfield’s Marcus Ellis features in today’s semi-finals of the men’s doubles.

The Brownlee brothers from Leeds will be strong contenders for gold in the men’s triathlon on Thursday, aided by Gordon Benson from Halifax.

Leeds-based triathletes Non Standford and Vicky Holland are hopeful of a podium finish in the women’s race on Saturday.

Boxing takes centre stage on Saturday and Sunday with Leeds’ Nicola Adams and Sheffield-based Joe Joyce tipped for the finals.