TRIATHLON

Brothers in arms and competition: triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee are chasing Rio gold

The siblings share a love of a gruelling sport that began when they were around nine and today that rivalry is still burning as bright as they seek Olympic glory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 November, 2015, 2:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 9:50am

Pushed to pick from luck, hard work or talent as the force driving his success in triathlon, 2012 Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee struggles.

"It's difficult to put it down to one thing," he says. "A lot of it is genetics - which is luck anyway, isn't it? - then there's the hard work, and a load of things that were quite fateful: where we lived, the people we met.

"Honestly, we could probably talk about 50 things that turned out to be really important along the way. We could even write a book about just that."

But he's missed the obvious: Jonathan "Jonny" Brownlee, his adoring younger brother snapping at his heels since their childhood, now one of his greatest competitors.

Honestly, we could probably talk about 50 things that turned out to be really important along the way. We could even write a book
Alistair Brownlee

Their rivalry has fuelled world titles, Olympic and Commonwealth medals and forged a single, formidable name in triathlon: the Brownlee brothers.

Theirs was a fairy-tale finish in the men's triathlon at the 2012 London Olympics - Alistair storming first down the finisher's chute draped in the Union flag followed 31 seconds later by Johnny, who battled a mental blow of a 15-second penalty to hold on to the bronze.

Yet, despite superhuman abilities they've been dealt mundanely mortal injuries in recent years.

"We take it in turns to be injured," jokes Jonny, 25, who suffered a stress fracture in his left femur earlier this year.

Alistair, 27, has been out for the last two-and-a-half months recovering from ankle surgery. "It's recovering, slowly, too slowly," he says.

And so, after a year to forget, the legendary brothers found themselves in Hong Kong. Not to compete, but to enjoy the other side of being a professional athlete: raising awareness of their charity, the Brownlee Foundation, and satisfying sponsors.

In this case, Britain itself, as part of the "Britain is Great" campaign. "We are here," Alistair pauses awkwardly at the implication, "to show people what is good about Britain. We're very proud to be British".

When it's raining and Jonny's going out training, I'm not just going to stay inside
Alistair Brownlee

Indeed, a quintessential English childhood, cycling in the Yorkshire countryside, running over its muddy moors and swimming in the local pool has been an undeniable part of their success. But it's their close bond that is truly extraordinary. When Alistair started triathlon, aged nine, Jonny followed the following year - the same year they both won their age category in the National Series.

"When it's raining and Johnny's going out training, I'm not just going to stay inside," says Alistair. "And then being able to train with someone at such a high level - who can not only keep up but push you - that's quite rare." In a regular week they'll ride 500km, run 120km and swim 25km - "around 90 per cent" of it together.

Last week, however, training was relegated to a few short runs and dips in the hotel pool, making way for a jam-packed schedule of talks, school visits and book signings.

They hint they'd like to head off on their bikes ("it's the best way to see a city," pipes up Jonny) and prefer to be in better shape ("at the moment I wouldn't make it into any squad," Alistair jests) but brush off any concerns about Rio.

"Rio is pure triathlon; the bike is very hard, it goes up some tough hills, which should suit us definitely," says Jonny.

Alistair seems unfazed, even about rising star Jonny who has made his intention of finally one-upping his brother clear.

"The thing about triathlon is that it's one of those sports where the Olympics is by far the biggest event above anything else. Although we have the World Series next year, the Olympics and how you perform on that one day is more important."

Alistair has made a career of bucking trends and backing himself. He rebuffs sports psychologists - "they say you have to believe you can do it and then you can do it, but when I won the world championship title in 2009 I hadn't visualised it; I'd raced so much up to that point thinking I'd got no chance."

As a junior triathlete he ignored advice from the British Triathlon Association not to cycle long distances, heading off into the Yorkshire dales with a pack of older riders for 160km at a stretch.

Jonny came too, trying to keep up, as always. Cycling to school as kids Alistair would purposely ramp up the revolutions to try to drop his brother. "He hates being beaten," Jonny says.

The thing about triathlon is that it's one of those sports where the Olympics is by far the biggest event above anything else
Jonny Brownlee 

Alistair claims his triathlon career wasn't intentional. "As a kid, being a professional triathlete never crossed my mind; I just wanted to get better. I had goals and wanted to achieve them."

Meanwhile, Jonny had a guiding beacon the whole way. "Al came home at 14 and laid his GB kit out on the kitchen table - that's incredibly powerful for a young athlete. I thought, 'I can do that'. I've seen Alistair eating fish and chips and winning world titles, so I thought, so can I."

They work together when racing and have never had a big falling out. "If we swim next to each other, I'll try not to hit him and let him swim on my feet; on the bike it's tactical, I try to make sure he drinks," says Jonny.

Rio is pure triathlon; the bike is very hard, it goes up some tough hills, which should suit us definitely
Jonny Brownlee

Yet they couldn't be more different. "I'm more organised. Alistair leaving his shoes around used to drive me crazy," says Jonny.

Alistair on the other hand is strangely laid back: he keeps his medal in a sock drawer and has never watched himself race.

After Hong Kong, they'll return home and have their first training camp at the end of this month. In the new year they'll "start training properly", says Alistair.

"A lot of the time you're just getting your body ready for more training. [For the Olympics], if you can do six to eight weeks at the height of training, that's what you need to be able to do. If you have no injuries, have done the work, then you can crack on, hopefully.

"Right now it's all about Rio and doing as well as you possibly can on that one day."

Will Alistair finally step aside to let his little brother shine? "No way," he grins.

Jonny's humble response belies a hint of confidence. "Every time I get faster, he gets faster," he smiles.

"But maybe."