What a weekend I had over in St Moritz. I did everything that the place had to offer and then I got to go behind the scenes with Team GB, days before they flew off to Sau Paulo. I met up with the guys for a meal at the brilliant Kulm hotel, caught up with Jonny on the track for a warm up, and then watched a swimming session the day after. This was such a rare insight and something that I was ecstatic to be a part of. I had a look in to something which truly was once in a lifetime. And when the time comes for the boys to be challenging for the podium, I will be even more grateful. I spoke with Jonny in very casual circumstances and got underneath some of the reasons for why he finds himself at Rio De Janerio Olympics 2016.
“I can remember a symbolic moment when I was thirteen which inspired me to make a dream into reality. It was when Alistair had qualified for the Great British Triathlon for the first time. He entered the dining room with his Great Britain bag over his shoulder and placed his new vest and shorts emblazoned with the Union Jack on the table directly in front of me. Right then, I knew what I wanted to do.”
A vivid image like this can spur people on to do special things. To make special choices. The tale of making a dream come true is inspiring. But not the everyone in the world can tell these tales. The 2012 Olympics in London which rocked the whole of Britain with success (mainly down to Yorkshire… can I say that?) planted a flag in the ground again for British athletics. Jonny stood on the podium with his bronze next to Alistair with his gold. At age 13, Jonny took absolute inspiration from his 2- year older brother. Sometimes it’s not the sprint finishes or medal receptions that have the symbolic effect for an onlooker. For some people it may be money. For some it may be fame.
Jonny seemed to have a memory of a desire for inclusion. “To do that one day”. That is the biggest thing that I respect in someone. The realisation of a dream. Then the actions to make it happen.
Great Britain runs through Jonny’s veins, but Yorkshire runs, bikes and swims through them. When I asked him what reminded him of childhood he stated that it was cycling to his grandma’s in the Yorkshire Dales.
“It was the absolute middle of nowhere. You had to light a fire to warm the water and the setting was absolute freedom. I’d run on the moors or cycle there for fun. And the smell of cow shit is pretty nostalgic too”.
Cow shit is actually pretty nostalgic for me too. We found ourselves a bit of a distance from the Yorkshire Dales when we chatted. We met up on the track, where he would warm up and then start his 1h40 minute run through the woods of the formidably beautiful scenery of St Moritz. The hotspot for altitude training. “It’s perfect for triathlon because of the altitude and it’s relatively flat”. I texted him for when to catch up and the feedback I got was “can we meet at 5pm before my run? I’m riding to Italy this morning.” There’s not many sports where you can travel and train in the same session. Some of the stuff the triathlon boys do to get ready for their event is grueling, but every one of them seemed relaxed and quite rightly so, just treated it as the day job.
Maybe ‘day job’ is a little bit of an understated way to look at it for these guys.
“I would train by accident a lot of the time. I would cycle to school faster than the school bus could get there and I would swim because there was a swim squad there. It wasn’t so much training; it was just what you did.”
I was shocked how laid back these guys were with me. Here we were, a week before they fly off to an Army training camp in Sau Paulo, before then landing in Rio for the Olympic opening ceremony, and we were chatting easily with no pressure.
I wanted to get a picture from Jonny for what it was like competing in his sport. What are the things that we don’t see? What are the things that we don’t experience or feel when watching? He told me that there isn’t much of a mental battle in triathlon with other competitors. Which I completely understand. “In a sport like rugby, the first tackle is very important and sets the tone for the rest of the game. But triathlons are two hours long so usually the guy who is fittest will come out on top.” It is very much a different type of competition. A lot of triathlon will be competing with yourself. As a triathlete you know your own standards and that is the best that you aim to get to. Whereas in a game like rugby, you may also be trying to get to your best form, but you can be almost 100% certain that there will be an opposition player who will be directly focused on putting you off of it.
Jonny spoke of the tension that can occur before a race. “Everyone’s nervous and saying stupid stuff because they’re apprehensive themselves. Everyone will be looking at each other to see if they’re looking fit. Some people will be quiet, some people will talk a lot.” This is absolutely something that wouldn’t be obvious to someone unless they were inside the bubble. “Oh, hairs stand up on the back of my neck when the sound of a heartbeat is played through the speakers ten seconds before you jump in the water. I hate it and I can’t hear that outside of a triathlon.” I suppose that sends a shiver down the competitor’s spine, not just ours.
It was a unique moment which I won’t forget. Picking Jonny’s brains ahead of one of the biggest moments of his life. He seemed relaxed and assured. The sun was out in the ever changing climate of St Moritz. I’m sure these boys have been in the hurt locker before on this track we are standing on, but that could be a little bit easier to deal with when you can look up to the array of mountains leaning over you Omni presently. The setting was outstandingly beautiful and there was such a comfortable atmosphere. The track was lined with hurdles and youngsters out there to better themselves. Kind of like when Wimbledon is on and everyone floods to the tennis courts (me included). Jonny blends in and is at ease. The aspiring athletes pacing around the track unaware to the fact that I was standing with an Olympic bronze medalist of 2012 who’s looking to go even better in Rio.
Even I can be guilty thinking that Olympic athletes train for 12 hours a day, every day. But Jonny outlined a big misconception that is common for people to think.
“Normally people think that you would train hard literally all of the time. I train thirty-three hours a week and probably ninety percent of that training is quite easy and fun. You absolutely need rest.”
This is bearing in mind that an ‘easier’ session for them, is pretty tough. This could be a 4k swim. And…. I struggle with a 4 length swim. It’s all relative to what you do and the volume of what you do. But the main thing with this, is the fact that they don’t constantly run themselves in to the ground.
“Everyone thinks that you are a little bit weird as a triathlete because, at times, we are consumed by training and competing. We can be perceived to talk about energy drinks and gels a lot of the time. But we are just normal people. I enjoy what I do but there has to be a time when our lives aren’t just about sport.”
This stems from a big perception that a lot of sports fans have. Personally with my ruptured knee injury, I have had people telling me to stop thinking about magazines and concentrate on my knee. Unfortunately, there is only so much rehab you can do each day before it starts to swell up and it needs to rest. I’m not sure how much of that witchcraft stuff I believe in just yet. Jonny is completely behind getting away from the sport that you live by. The Leeds United fanatic and constant carrier of Yorkshire Tea says “At the end of the year, I’ll take four to five weeks off completely, just to do normal stuff. It’s important just to let the body and mind fully recover. It’s really important to be able to get away from the sport sometimes, because if you don’t, then you’ll never be able to commit fully either”. The idea of being fully focused on you sport, job, hobby 100% of the time, just doesn’t work. Never mind the possibility of it driving you mad.
“Mo Farrah really interested me. When he was off, he truly was off. He didn’t care about running or anything. When it was time to train he was absolutely on and would train hard.”
You can find similarities between Jonny and Alistair very easily. They both have a similar sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously. We found ourselves in Switzerland, and whilst I was on a flying visit, I thought it would be interesting to pose some questions surrounding the reason for why they are there. Training.
The main rival of the Brownlee brothers, Javier Gomez, has pulled out of the Olympics with a broken elbow. I know how much training partners can make a difference and I wondered about positives and negatives of training with Alistair and opinions of what it would be like to train with Gomez.
“It sounds horrible but I’d never be able to train with Gomez. It’s actually easier not being that friendly with competitors because it’s easier to beat them. I’ve never been able to train with many other people.
“There are some negatives that come with training with Alistair. Sometimes there may be a barrier created in my mind that he’s harder to beat. If he beats me in training, then I can go out to race and kind of expect him to beat me. If it was someone that I don’t see for two months and I am building up my fitness away from them, then I may have a bit of a different mentality.”
There are negatives with everything. But the overriding feeling I got after spending time with Jonny, Alistair and Gordon Benson: is that they were a group of lads, all insanely focused on one thing. They were all at ease with each other, that could be obvious as 2/3 of that group are brothers, but Jonny explained that he had known and trained with Gordon from the age of 12. This is special for a training camp. Something which I think gives the edge to Team GB. All 3 being from Leeds, all 3 having similar interests. And one of the most important things that I think you can have in a team: being able to tell each other to fuck off! Whether that’s because one of the lads is being an idiot or because they aren’t pulling their weight. Either way, both need to be said to contribute to true honesty and a winning formula.
These guys will push each other all of the way. This isn’t a day job, it’s what they live for. From ‘accidental training’, to competing for medals in Rio. Jonny and the boys will be hoping to create more history over there. We will wait in unison when that dreaded heartbeat soundtrack plays through the speakers. And all of Great Britain will be urging the boys on. Urging them to renew global triathlon superiority, that we have all come so casually to expect.