Older brother Alistair may hold the bragging rights after gold at London 2012, but Jonny Brownlee tells Grant Woodward Rio could be his time to shine on the biggest stage of all.
JONNY Brownlee remembers it to this day. His brother Alistair had qualified to represent Great Britain for the first time. Arriving home, he proudly plonked his new kit on the family kitchen table.
“I was 12,” he says. “I looked at that bag of GB kit and thought, if he can do it then so can I.” There’s a moment’s pause for comedic effect. “He still beats me now but...”
It’s been this way for as long as the Brownlee boys can remember. Born two years apart, their competitive instinct has been an ever present.
Badminton in the back garden. Cricket. Monopoly at Christmas. Everything became a competition, even the tidying up. A game of crazy golf was liable to implode in violent acrimony.
“There have been times where we’ve thrown balls at each other,” the younger Brownlee smiles. “I think having a brother – especially one who’s almost exactly two years older – means that you’re going to be competitive.
“It’s good because I’ve never shied away from competition. He’s always been there, it’s just always been a part of my life.”
This sibling rivalry may have become friendlier over the years, but it’s no less intense. Four years ago it was played out in front of millions when Alistair claimed Olympic triathlon gold to Jonny’s bronze.
It was an astonishing family achievement in one of the most gruelling sporting tests – a 1,500m swim followed by a 40km bike ride, finished off with a 10km run.
The first brothers to share an Olympic podium in an individual sport since 1908, it provided Yorkshire’s finest moment in a Games which, if the county had been competing independently, would have seen it finish twelfth in the medals table.
Jonny, with a professional athlete’s in-built distrust of nostalgia, says he has never watched the race back. A 15-second time penalty for mounting his bike too early hindered his attempts to overhaul Spaniard Javier Gomez and snatch silver. He collapsed after crossing the finishing line and was wobbly on the podium.
“I felt like I was going to collapse again, so my first reaction was, just get me off this podium,” the 25-year-old recalls now. “It’s been and gone. It was an incredible day, I don’t want to go back and wreck it by watching it. But I’ve got my own memories of it and it was special.
“There was a lot of pressure building into London. The home Olympics, my first Olympics, we were both expected to do well. “When we crossed the finishing line, we’ve done it, that was the reaction. It’s only when you step back a few days later that you think, wow, that was incredible.”
The interest generated in the Games ensured it was a life-changing moment for both of them.
A homecoming in Leeds saw thousands pack the city’s Millennium Square. Fellow shoppers would come up in the supermarket and offer their congratulations. The children whizzing bikes around their home village of Bramhope told them they were doing it because they had watched their gripping duel on the streets of the capital on that warm August evening.
The brothers brought out a book which topped the bestseller charts. A Brownlee Scholarship was set up at Leeds University – which they both attended – to help promising student athletes pursue a career in sport. Their foundation will stage its fourth triathlon for all-comers at Harewood House this September.
There is a slick Brownlee Brothers website and Jonny has 105,000 followers on Twitter. Although, once again, Alistair pips him with 131,000.
Later, back in the office, I even get a phone call from a PR agency telling me about a Brownlees yogurt that’s hitting our shelves in time for the Rio Games this August.
Jonny has an agent, too. A stern-looking chap called Richard. As we sit on a picnic bench near a primary school running track that Jonny has just opened, Richard stands a few feet away, ready to whisk him off for the rest of his day’s training.
Richard has warned me I only have a limited amount of time and he doesn’t want to have to start “tapping his watch”. There’s no such thing as a day off when you want to be Olympic champion.
It would be easy to get carried away by all the hoopla, but Jonny’s not the type. “I came back from the London Olympics on the Monday morning and I was back in the pool on the Tuesday morning with the same coach, the same people training next to me,” he shrugs. This son of two doctors who encouraged their hyperactive sons to burn off their energy by cycling and running around Yorkshire is not about to let outside distractions get in the way of his goal – beating his brother to Olympic gold.
Does he think that’s what it will take to achieve a lifetime’s ambition?
“The way Alistair’s training at the moment, if I beat him then I think it should be gold,” he says. “But Gomez is an incredible athlete and you should never write him off. He managed to pick it up for London and go to a different level of performance from anything I’d seen from him before and I’m sure he can do it for Rio as well.
“It’s a tough time of year actually. You think Rio’s close but five-and-a-bit months is a long time. There’s lots of time to pick up injuries. We’ve pre-qualified so it’s about not doing too much to get injured but at the same laying a good foundation.”
If they both make it to Brazil unscathed, the Brownlees will once again join forces to see off their closest challengers and put themselves in the frame for medals. After that, it’s every brother for himself.
“It should suit us more than London because it’s a hard course with a hilly bike (course) whereas London was very fast, it came down to a fast run where the margins are a lot smaller,” reasons Jonny, who took silver to Alistair’s gold at the Commonwealth Games two years ago. So does he think he can do it?
“Four years down the line I’m a bit stronger, fitter, cleverer. But we very much go into these races as it’s us two against the rest of the world. When we get to the hard bit of the run then we start racing against each other.
“Up to that point we’ve got five-and-a-half months of training together where we need each other. All I ask for is five-and-a-half months of good, injury-free training.”
And if he doesn’t do it this time, he might get one last shot at it in Tokyo. “As an athlete you’re very much focused on the next one. At the moment I intend to be around for 2020. Four years can go very quickly – 30 in an endurance sport isn’t very old.”
But it’s clear that he wants to grab gold when he’s up against Alistair – and Rio is his chance to do it.
Moments later Jonny is off, waving goodbyes to the awestruck pupils to return to his gruelling 35-hours-a-week training schedule. Back to hitting the roads of Yorkshire. Back to his dream of beating big brother to the biggest prize of them all.
How Brownlees ruled the world
Nine-year-old Alistair finishes 400th out of 450 in the Leeds Schools cross country championships and promptly vows to give up “pies and chips” to get fitter.
Their uncle Simon Hearnshaw introduces his nephews to triathlon.
Alistair is chosen to represent Great Britain at junior level, inspiring younger brother Jonny, then 12, to do the same.
At 16, Jonny finishes second in the European Junior Cup, then wins it and the European Championships three years later.
At Beijing in 2008, 20-year-old Alistair is leading the Olympic triathlon only to finish 12th.
At London 2012 Alistair takes gold and Jonny wins bronze. They win gold and silver at the Commonwealth Games two years later.