Man behind the Brownlees: How Malcolm Brown’s instincts created a triathlon dynasty in Leeds

Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee leads from brother Jonny during the running section of the Men's Triathlon at Fort Copacabana on the thirteenth day of the Rio Olympic Games, Brazil.

Having overseen the fledgling careers of Yorkshire’s greatest Olympic family, Malcolm Brown has every reason to look back on his 40 years of coaching with great fondness.

But, for the man who has guided Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee to world acclaim in triathlon, reminiscing is not in his coaching manual; not that he has one.

Team GB Triathlon Olympic Performance manager Malcolm Brown during the London 2012

An unsung hero of British sport, Brown has inspired Leeds-based triathletes to an unprecedented five Olympic medals and 89 world, Commonwealth and European medals (including 37 gold) across four decades.

He has nurtured the talents of the Brownlee brothers from teenagers to Olympic gold and silver medallists, creating Leeds as the hub for international triathlon success in the process.

“I tend not to look back,” he says, outside the state-of-the-art new Brownlee Centre in North Leeds. “I look forwards.”

Brown attended a final meeting in his role as British Triathlon’s Olympic Performance Group manager on Tuesday before formally retiring from the sport. From there, he planned on going for a cycle ride, then to the gym before kicking back and reading a cluster of novels he has saved up for retirement.

Al and John would be doing this if there was no money in it because they love it. You have to love it because it’s so hard.

Malcolm Brown

He may then allow himself to realise the role he has played in putting Leeds on the sporting map worldwide.

For two years running, a World Series race has taken place in the city and now, through funding in association with the University of Leeds, the Brownlee centre welcomes the most talented triathletes in Britain on a daily basis.

To predict such a boom in the three-discipline sport would have taken an extraordinary foresight, and one Brown admits, he hadn’t imagined.

“I’m not a great one for saying, in four years’ time, I will climb Everest,” he says. “I’m more interested that in four hour’s time we’ll do a training session. If you do enough training sessions, you find yourself at the top of Everest in four years – but there’s a lot of things that can go wrong.

Malcolm Brown at the opening of the Brownlee Triathlon Centre this week with Katherine Grainger and Jess Learmonth

“I’m very proud of everybody that has contributed to putting Leeds on the map in terms of the triathlon centre. Yes, the Gold Coast has some good triathletes, and San Diego has too...but Leeds has got better ones.”

Of course, there are the best, too.

Brown was approached by the Brownlee brothers’ parents 13 years ago when he was director of sport at then Leeds Metropolitan University, a role he held from seven years between 2002 and 2009. It has been a training partnership, alongside Jack Maitland, that has heralded success across the planet.

Alistair has repaid the coaching support with two Olympic gold medals and a haul of two world titles. Younger brother Jonny has added Olympic silver, bronze and another individual world crown.

The link-up eventually saw Brown, who was awarded an MBE in 2013, earn financial rewards for his expertise ten years ago as funding came into the sport off the back of the brothers’ success.

Funding options, from UK Sport and the National Lottery, have allowed British Triathlon to invest in talented athletes, swimmers and cyclists and mould them over the three events.

It has, as Brown says, been “a massive assistance” but not the be-all-and-end-all.

“Al and John would be doing this if there was no money in it because they love it,” Brown adds. “You have to love it because it’s so hard.

“The money is very important but if people are doing it for the money, they would be better off doing something else. You don’t get that much money unless you are a superstar. That motivation doesn’t drive you for long, but it pays the way, the mortgage and the rent. This game isn’t really about money.”

Brown’s coaching highlights don’t just focus on the Brownlees – although Brown pinpoints the two World Series successes on the streets of Leeds. He also credits the moments that have taken him most by surprise; Vicki Holland’s bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and Leeds-based star Non Stanford’s world glory in 2013 springing to mind.

“Nobody predicted that,” reflects Brown. “The thing I get most pleasure out of making good juniors into very good senior athletes.”

So what is special about Brown’s coaching? “That’s a good question,” the 69-year-old mutters. “First, is it special? And second, what is special, if it is?

“I try to coach the individual that’s standing in front of me rather than trying to coach out of a textbook or a methodology, recognising these are athletes second, they are people first, especially in our sport which is so, so tough. You have to mould the training around the individual rather than mould the individual to a training methodology.”

Such methods will still be available to British Triathlon upon request. The loaded bookcase will be left to gain dust if a call for advice shall come.

“I have coached for 40 years and for 30 years that was unpaid, so I must like it,” muses Brown.

“If there is a requirement, if there is a need, I will be very happy to do so if there’s anything I can offer.”

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