Olympics: Pontefract brothers Max and Joe Litchfield to make history in Tokyo
The Brownlee quota at these Tokyo Games may have been halved but there will at least be two other brothers from Yorkshire racing in pursuit of Olympic glory.
The Litchfield siblings of Pontefract will line up in the individual medley events in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre over the coming days.
Max, 26, is competing in his second Games, hoping to turn a surprise fourth-place finish in Rio five years ago into a medal in the 400m individual medley, the heats of which are on Saturday morning.
Younger brother Joe, 23, will be making his Olympic debut in the 200m IM, the heats of which begin on Wednesday.
They are the first British brothers to compete in the individual medley at the same Olympics and just the third after Albert and John Dickin in 1920 and twins Bert and Jack Wardrop at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 to represent Great Britain at a Games.
“Throughout our careers Tokyo has always been our target and it’s pretty mental that this will be the first team we’ll be on together,” says Joe
“I’ve been chasing Max throughout my career. I’ve caught him now, we’re senior athletes, both battling each other.”
There is no bitterness between the two, like Alistair and Jonny Brownlee in triathlon, they spur each other on.
“It was amazing to see him qualify, and for us both to be going is amazing,” says Max, who was pipped by Joe to the 200m spot at the trials in April.
“We joked about it years ago, before even I made Rio, that we could go to an Olympic Games together.
“It is a different dynamic from my perspective to Joe’s. It is amazing to see Joe swimming fast, I’m just really proud of him, what he’s been able to do and watching him reap the rewards.
“I think we do push each other along, we’ve done that for years. Now we’re both at a senior level, competing against the best in an international event, we’re going to push each other even more. It’s an amazing situation to be in.”
For Joe, Tokyo 2020 in its original slot would have come too soon, but the coronavirus pandemic gave him an extra year to make the British squad.
“If 2016 was an outside shot for Max last year I think 2020, had it gone ahead as planned, would have been an outside shot for me,” explains Joe.
“I was more looking towards the 100m backstroke and to sneak on that relay team. A couple of years ago if you’d have told me I’d be going to Tokyo in 2020 I’d have thought you were lying. I wasn’t quite there.
“But since Max and I have moved to Loughborough, the whole dynamic changed and with the Olympics moving back a year, it became a platform for me to get another year into the cycle, and it’s helped me make the team.”
If Joe is going more for experience, Max is hoping to medal.
After finishing fourth at the Olympics and the following year’s world championships, he began winning medals at the European Championships of 2018.
Despite both brothers moving to the high performance centre at Loughborough to further their development, thoughts of their Yorkshire roots are never far away.
Both boys, along with sister Grace, started swimming at Minsthorpe Marlins before moving on to Doncaster Dartes and the City of Sheffield Swimming Club at Ponds Forge.
“Doncaster is where it all started, we wouldn’t be the swimmers or the people we are today without the coaches there,” says Max.
“I had four or five different coaches with Andy Wallace being the latter of those. I cannot praise those guys enough for the programme they had and still have today.
“And I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Russ Barber at Sheffield. I was a decent junior swimmer when I moved to him, I’d won a medal at world juniors in a relay the year before Russ.
“But I came on so much under Russ that first year; Commonwealths, Europeans, missed the world 2015, and made Rio 2016 – the amount of work we put in in that five years in Sheffield was amazing and I have to thank Russ for everything he did for me, getting me on the plane to Rio.
“The stuff we did back then is still paying dividends now.”
Joe concurs: “Having the likes of Dave Cuthbert at Doncaster, he didn’t take any negativity, if you were being an annoyance he’d tell you where to go, get you doing press-ups.
“It made you do the sessions well and it got you in line as a swimmer. Moving into the senior squad at Doncaster with Andy Wallace who is now our assistant coach at Loughborough, we’ve built that relationship over about eight years from 11 to 18, which for me was a great building block. He really set me up for my career.
“Doncaster was where it all started and I can’t have enough praise for them. For me then moving to Sheffield when Max was there, working with a lot of senior athletes and looking up to them, a lot of them on world championships and Olympic squads, gave me a little boost to want it as well.”