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Brownlee Brothers, Olympic Athletes
April 2016
Reading time 15 minutes

The Brownlee brothers were two of the breakout stars of the London Olympics, dominating the triathlon to take gold and bronze

Ahead of Rio, we spoke to them about training in the Dales and inspiring the next generation.

The tubthumping which followed when the realisation that Yorkshire would have finished 12th in the London 2012 medals table was, rightly, deafening. There were many stories of triumph for our county – Leeds’ Nicola Adams becoming the first female Olympic boxing champion, Lizzie Armitstead and Ed Clancy triumphing in the cycling and, of course, Jess Ennis-Hill’s heptathlon heroics – but perhaps the most satisfying was that of the Brownlee brothers. Alistair took gold and Jonny bronze in the triathlon in Hyde Park, completing a rise to the peak of their sport at the tender ages of 23 and 21 respectively.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that recognition and approbation like that would turn a person’s world upside down. That, however, would be for athletes less grounded than the Brownlees. Now 27 and 25, Alistair and Jonny have the great distinction of being the most classically Yorkshire-ish of the Yorkshire Olympians: cheery, likeable, down-to-earth, and built like oak trees. 

The brothers’ early memories of sport are tightly tied to a sense of place. Alistair says his earliest sporting recollection is of ‘running around a muddy field taking part in the Leeds Schools cross country’, while Jonny remembers ‘Aireborough swimming galas and buying sweets afterwards’. The Dales around their native Bramhope have been the backdrop to their elevation from supernaturally gifted schoolboys to elite-level athletes; the brothers still recall the canal path which they cycled along to school and running up Hunger Hill in Horsforth. Despite changes to their routes since then they’ve remained rooted in the same hills, and not just because of a sentimental attachment.

‘It is home, and that is a significant factor, but the combination of great roads, unbeatable views, mixed and varied terrain, lovely people and a fantastic selection of training groups means it has been perfect for us,’ says Alistair. 

The Brownlee family is still based in the area too, and the sporting prowess doesn’t end at Jonny and Alistair either. Their younger brother Ed, 20, has claimed in the past to have the beating of Jonny and Alistair at table tennis, but while the elder Brownlees are dismissive of Ed’s skills – ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the press, no way is he,’ says Jonny – they do admit that his ‘broad shoulders’ and ‘different build’ makes him ‘perfect for rugby’.

Alistair and Jonny’s racing tactics remain disarmingly simple – ‘We still try and swim hard, bike hard and run fast,’ says Alistair matter-of-factly – and they’re remarkably relaxed about their preparation for the biggest competition their sport has to offer and are confident they’ll be in prime shape by the opening ceremony on 5 August.

‘We’ve been avoiding the worst of the weather by heading over to Spain for blocks of training, and getting the miles in’, says Alistair. ‘It’s all about getting a good base in, which means longer, slower miles most of the time. Not being wet through or freezing cold makes it easier to do.’

‘It is home, and that is a significant factor, but the combination of great roads, unbeatable views, mixed and varied terrain, lovely people and a fantastic selection of training groups means it has been perfect for us’

Jonny is particularly blasé. ‘It feels a long way off, to be honest. It’s the start of a new season and we haven’t really started planning what races we will do ahead of Rio. However, we are confident because we do back ourselves.’ Dominating your sport for five years does tend to have that effect. 

That neither brother feels London was the pivotal point in their development into athletes of the highest calibre – Jonny cites his first World Series podium place at Hyde Park in 2010, while Alistair says the Beijing Games helped him realise he could ‘mix it at the top end’ – says a lot.

But then again, it might well be their self-effacing attitude coming to bear. The perceived wisdom when it comes to the psyche of elite athletes is that they all, fundamentally, have a harder edge than their competitors, and that at heart they are cold, ruthless and selfish. How, then, do the Brownlee boys get around the competitive disadvantage being so famously lovely and well-brought-up? ‘That’s very kind of you to say,’ says Alistair, neatly proving the point. 

‘I think we are the same as a lot of people in that when we are racing or competing, we turn into different people. It’s not about being a nice or not a nice person, we are both very competitive and want to win,’ he continues.

So has anything changed in the last four years, training jaunts to Spain and a torrent of medals aside? ‘We get recognised a lot more, especially when we are together,’ says Jonny. ‘We’ve got a bit busier as well. But we do endurance sport, and you can’t cut corners with that, so it’s still about 35 hours a week of training that we put in.’

One major difference is that the pair have stopped living together in Bramhope, and Jonny in particular is enjoying the independence. ‘It’s worked out well, it’s given us a bit of space. After a hard day’s training, we can do our own thing, and it means we don’t fall out over who’s meant to be doing the washing up,’ he says.

‘It does now mean I have to do my own washing up,’ Alistair notes sadly.

As for after they retire, there’s little in the way of hard plans. Having started studying medicine at Cambridge, will Alistair go back to his medical career? Maybe, he says. ‘But the training’s quite long. I’m hoping to continue to have a successful career in triathlon and that is what I’m focused on right now, so it’s quite difficult to answer properly.’ Despite Jonny’s history degree (specialist subject: the Tudors), he’s not sure he fancies a life of academia either.

They do both know, though, that they want to expand the work of the Brownlee Foundation, the charity they set up to help children in Yorkshire to get involved in sport.

‘We wanted to use the London Olympics and our success there to inspire children to do more exercise. We have a unique sport that combines swimming, cycling and running so by putting on some triathlon events for primary kids, they are being exposed to some sports that we have had great fun and enjoyment from and they might too,’ says Jonny.

Alistair continues: ‘It will be great if the kids want to do triathlon, but that is not the main goal. If they want to do a little more of one of the sports then we have had a positive influence and that’s what we are after. And the events aren’t timed, it’s not about being the fastest, it’s about taking part and enjoying it. That’s how we started it, we enjoyed it and so wanted to do more, and that’s what we will hope happens with lots of the children that take part.

‘We want to keep growing it, we want to encourage as many kids as possible to enjoy what we have. We started in Leeds, have gone to Bradford, and head to Harrogate this year for an event, so we are going further afield. We’ll do at least one event in London in September because one of our main backers, The Collective, has their head office there.’

‘There’s more to come, with the World Triathlon Series coming to Leeds [on 11 and 12 June], we are putting on events the whole week leading into it and the aim is that we can get 5,000 children to take part, and then they come into Leeds to watch at the weekend,’ Jonny says. 

‘It’s been amazing to see the enthusiasm of all the kids for doing some exercise, and giving them the opportunity to have a go at a triathlon is one of the most satisfying things we’ve done.’

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