Jonny Brownlee on his last Olympics, his legacy and what the future holds
There has been a lot of talk of countdowns in Olympic circles this week.
Wednesday marked 100 days to go to the delayed Summer Games in Tokyo.
Today marks a century of days until the Olympic men’s triathlon, the one event every four years – five years in the time of Covid– guaranteed to get Jonny Brownlee out of bed in a morning.
“It takes a bit longer than it used to do,” the 30-year-old says with a laugh. “The days of getting out of bed and going out for a run 10 minutes later are gone, it involves a bit more of a longer process these days, but that’s part of getting older.”
Brownlee is rising at the moment in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at a high-altitude training camp he and his brother Alistair have taken themselves off to to prepare for what they have both said will be their last Olympic Games.
So the countdown is on to not only their latest moment of reckoning but also the end of an era for British triathlon, a golden era, shaped by two brothers from Leeds who revolutionsed the sport with their work ethic, their training regimen and the dominance it reaped.
The Brownlees modernised triathlon, which is as grand a legacy as an athlete could hope for, but neither man will be done once the line is crossed in the inaugural mixed team triathlon five days after the men’s race in Tokyo this July.
Alistair has long been plotting the next chapter of his life, whether that be continuing to compete over half-ironman distances, writing books on elite athletes or sowing the seeds on a future as an administrator in sport.
As has often been the case out on the course, Jonny is not as far down the line as his older brother when it comes to planning his future – but he does know that further building on the platform the two brothers have laid over the last decade will be at the heart of what he does.
“That’s very a good question, and I am starting to consciously think about it,” Jonny tells The Yorkshire Post when asked about life after Olympic competition.
“I hadn’t given it a massive amount of thought until the last couple of years.
“At the moment the Brownlee Foundation massively interests me, I’d really like to get involved with that and grow that more when I retire.”
Launched in the wake of the brothers finishing first and third at London 2012, the Brownlee Foundation was set up to encourage children to enjoy sport and lead an active lifestyle.
“At the moment we’re on about 10 events a year – last year being the obvious exception,” continues Jonny about a programme that is done through schools.
“I’d like t0 build that up to about 15, 20 events a year; to get 100,000 kids doing a triathlon through our foundation every year – that would be amazing.
“Legacy is one of those things we talked about way back after London, and that’s why we started it, and I’d absolutely love to grow it.
“It doesn’t have to be kids going on to do triathlon, what I love about our foundation events is we basically put on a mini-triathlon, kids turn up and do it, and then hopefully they are inspired by it and go on to do some kind of activity, some kind of sport in the future.
“It doesn’t have to be triathlon, it can be any sport, but hopefully they get a taste for activity doing one of our events.
“I’m worried about what Covid has done to participation levels, because it’s really knocked people out of their routine. One of the easiest things to do is continue what you’ve always done, so I’m hoping kids get back into their routine of being active, whether that’s playing football, cricket, whatever. I would massively encourage kids to be as active as possible.
“If we’ve learnt anything about ourselves during Covid it’s how important health is. Looking after yourself and being active is certainly part of that.”
Jonny is also going to follow his brother into long-distance triathlons.
“It will be ironman eventually, more half-ironman to start off with, which I think will suit me a lot more,” says Jonny, who will still dedicate 35 hours a week to training for his new athletic pursuit.
“Watching Alistair do a full ironman has put me off a little. But I’ll be ready for something different after Tokyo. The whole long-distance world is different because you’re not part of the Olympic team, you’re reliant on sponsors, it’s a bit more relaxed because you’re not in that high-pressure environment, you’re out on your own.
“More than anything I’ll be ready for new training. I’ve done the same routine, or very similar, for the last 10 years, so I think I’ll be ready for a new challenge.”
Covid had already altered his routine, like it did for so many.
Last March he, his brother and the British triathlon team flew out to Abu Dhabi for the first race of the World Series, thinking, like the majority, that the threat of Covid would not last.
“Looking back now it was stupid, but we didn’t know,” says Jonny, an Olympic bronze medallist in London and silver medallist in Rio.
“One by one the races got cancelled and that’s when we flew out to Santa Fe for the first time.”
Once they returned, the Brownlees had to get resourceful. They have always thrived on their accessibility to the running and cycling lanes of the Yorkshire Dales as their natural training ground, but they still need more.
Alistair had a pool built in his garage while Jonny had radiators plumbed into his conservatory to create a ‘heat chamber’ to prepare for the oppressive temperatures of Tokyo.
“It’s no secret I’m not very good in the heat,” smiled Jonny, referencing the race in Mexico in 2016 when he nearly collapsed and Alistair had to carry him across the line.
“Although, to be honest, from the testing I’ve done I’m actually pretty good in the heat once I’ve prepared, but I just can’t take any shortcuts.
“The conservatory was planned pre-Covid but it’s also actually been pretty good post-Covid because it’s a lot harder going to laboratories nowadays for testing.
“It heats up there to 30 degrees and off we go. I just have to pop downstairs and I’m done.”
The training is tough, but necessary, if he is to continue the arc of his career by turning bronze and silver into Olympic gold. “One of the lessons I’ve taken from Covid is how disciplined I can be. I don’t even really need a race to aim for, I still love to get the work done, love going through the process and love challenging myself.”
Tokyo will be his final challenge – “an athlete never says never,” he offers – after which the countdown will be on for the next chapter in Jonny Brownlee’s life.
One Brownlee in Tokyo – but what about Alistair?
Jonny Brownlee has qualified for his third Olympics this summer in Tokyo – but his brother has yet to do so.
Double defending champion Alistair Brownlee has still to secure a spot on the Team GB squad for what would be the 33-year-old’s fourth Olympics.
His younger brother, and lifelong training partner, would love him to be there, which is why they have both decamped to New Mexico for a high-altitude training camp.
“As it stands, I’m in,” says Jonny, “which has become more important than ever given the lack of races.
“At the moment we have two slots, but we could, depending on points and what races are on, qualify a third spot, or it will be a shootout between the other athletes for that second spot, which is what Alistair is going for. We still don’t know what the qualification period looks like, what races are going to be happening.
“Alistair is in good shape, and that’s the reason we’re going to altitude now to get him in even better shape.”
The first race is scheduled to be in Japan in May, followed by what could be a glorious farewell at the ITU World Series event in Leeds on June 6. The Olympic triathlon is on Monday, July 26, with the team event scheduled for Saturday, July 31. Three women have already been selected – Leeds’ Jess Learmonth, Georgia Taylor-Brown and Vicky Holland.
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