Rising star Jessica Learmonth making rivals sit up and take notice

ON THE UP: Tadcaster Jess Learmonth carries the pace for Non Stanford during the bike leg during last weekends World Traiathlon Series event held in Leeds. Picture: PA
ON THE UP: Tadcaster Jess Learmonth carries the pace for Non Stanford during the bike leg during last weekends World Traiathlon Series event held in Leeds. Picture: PA
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Fresh from a career-best performance in the World Triathlon Series, Jessica Learmonth’s progress went up another notch thanks to winning her first international title yesterday.

Learmonth, from Tadcaster, claimed gold at the European Championships in Kitzbühel ahead of British team-mate Sophie Coldwell.

We know from the start we were in it together. I never come out of the race thinking I wish this or that had happened. In triathlon, anything can happen.

Jessica Learmonth.

In a race missing leading Olympians Non Stanford and Vicky Holland through illness and injury, the British pair dominated the field together on the bike before going toe to toe on the run.

The duo continued to work together on the 10km run before Learmonth stretched her legs and took gold by 14 seconds.

Italian Alice Betto, who finished on the podium in Leeds on Sunday, finished in bronze medal position again, 26 seconds further down the road.

The victory marked Learmonth’s biggest triumph of a late-blooming career in the sport and will further her claims of qualifying for Team England at the Commonwealth Games next year and Team GB at Tokyo 2020.

The 29-year-old has only been competing on the international stage for two years and her transformation into one of the top triathletes on the planet will give hope to all amateurs.

She only took part in her first race six years ago – as a fun-runner like several thousand others were at the triathlon festival in Leeds last weekend.

Since then, she has swapped racing on the side of a career as a personal trainer to concentrate full-time on her own training programme.

“I think I might have just been getting really fat and felt I needed to sort it out,” she joked. “I got back into swimming a little bit and then gave it a go for a challenge. I just started like every other person and I’ve ended up here.

“It’s just snowballed.”

Learmonth, the daughter of a swimming coach, had shown talent in the pool in her early years but gave up competitive swimming aged 16.

But it is her speed in the water that is making the world’s best sit up and take notice.

Learmonth was the fastest swimmer of 32 racers in Leeds last Sunday as she maintained a lead from the first lap to the first transition.

Only team tactics stopped her from pushing ahead of a chasing group including world champion and eventual winner Flora Duffy – as she dropped back one minute to aid Stanford’s bid for victory.

That move perhaps had a detrimental effect on her hopes of a surprise podium finish in Leeds but Learmonth was happy to play the team card.

With her speed off the pontoon, she has been a perfect domestique for Olympic hopefuls Holland and Stanford – who fought a thrilling and emotional sprint finish for bronze at Rio 2016 – because of her strength to get to the front of the field.

But now a European Champion, the role could be passed to others.

“I am happy to do team tactics,” she added.

“We know from the start we were in it together. I never come out of the race thinking I wish this or that had happened. In triathlon, anything can happen.”

Learmonth’s results over the past seven days have been even more remarkable given that her participation in both events had been left to a last-minute decision.

British officials were nervous over her running capability after she crashed in training following the previous World Series race in Yokohama and suffered an infected bursa in her knee.

And the race in Leeds was a stark reminder of where Learmonth had come from and gone to.

“Since Yokohama, I haven’t been running or riding as well as I would have liked so it was a complete gamble coming into the race as to how I would perform,” she added.

“On days like this when I’m in an incredible environment, I look back and think: ‘Gosh, two or three years ago I was working full-time doing triathlon as a hobby. To come here and do this, it’s unbelievable.’

Learmonth ran a personal record of 36 minutes 35 seconds over the 10km in Leeds and she backed it up in Kitzbühel with a time of 37.14.

The run has been Learmonth’s weakest of the three elements throughout her triathlon career, but her transition to full-time training has been bearing fruit.

She added: “This year, because I’ve been consistent, it’s the first year that I have not had illness or injuries.

“Going from no triathlon to 30 hours a week, your body just can’t cope. I’m hoping this year is the one that I can now progress and stay injury-free.”