Triathlon: Stanford eyeing a podium finish in Leeds and a big push for the Olympics

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Non Stanford can well recall Hyde Park for the triathlon event at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

A matter of months after moving to Leeds, a 23-year-old Stanford had outside hopes of competing in the race yet watched from the other side of the fence.

“It was definitely a sense of next time I want to be on the other side,” recalls Stanford who would become world champion just 12 months later.

It means 2013 remains the best year of Stanford’s career, yet 2016 is by far the most important as the athlete closes in not just on an Olympic debut but the very real prospect of a Games gold.

Now 27, Stanford is one of three female British athletes heading to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and one of them is her house-mate.

Like Stanford, Vicky Holland also moved to Leeds to be part of the city’s thriving triathlon set up and the duo now share a house with Vicky’s boyfriend Rhys Davey in Adel.

Stanford and Holland will also compete in Sunday’s ITU World Triathlon Leeds and the triumvirate of British women heading to South America is completed by Welsh athlete Helen Jenkins, who, like Holland, also competed at London 2012.

Jenkins was fifth four years ago with Holland 26th and Lucy Hall – also based in Leeds – 33rd, as Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig claimed Olympic gold.

Gwen Jorgensen, the USA’s 2014 and 2015 ITU World Triathlon Series, is considered by most to be a strong favourite to win the Rio 2016 event.

Stanford, though, burst onto the scene by winning the same title in 2013 and, after battling through three successive injuries, is now determined to make amends for missing London 2012 by claiming Olympic gold.

“Coming into the start of 2012 I was very much a development athlete and really didn’t think I had much of a chance of qualifying,” says Stanford, recalling the situation she was in four years ago this week.

“Then, at the start of 2012 I started putting a few good races in and I put myself in the frame but, realistically, I was never going to be quite good enough to make that team.

“2012 unfortunately came a year too early for me as it was the following year that I became world champion.

“In 2012 I was really still getting to grips with the training in Leeds, settling into the set up here and it just came a bit to early for me. Things were starting to click but not quite in time and that’s fine. I was still very young back in 2012 and it was probably a more natural stage in my development than going to a Games. For the triathlon I was actually in Hyde Park – I went down for the men’s and the women’s race – and I was there to support the guys.

“But it was definitely a sense of next time I want to be on the other side and I want to be racing and not stood cheering from the sidelines.”

Confirmation that Stanford would get her chance four years on was rubber stamped on Tuesday when Team GB named their final triathlon team.

Already a world champion, Stanford now has an even bigger goal in sight.

Stanford reasoned: “Obviously the Olympics is a very different event and it’s special because it only comes around every four years.

“Every year you have the opportunity to become a world champion and I guess now that I have got that under my belt you just start naturally looking at the next goal and since I was nine years old it’s been my goal to make the Olympic Games.

“Eighteen years later I am going to fulfil that ambition which has been pretty special.

“I try not to get too carried away and get caught up in the emotion of that because, at the end of the day, you still have a job to do. It’s an absolute privilege to be selected to go but you are going to do a job and I am very much focused on that.

“Of course, I think Olympic gold is every athlete’s dream and to be in a position where I am actually a realistic medal contender is incredible really. I am very honoured and very fortunate that I am in that position. If I walk away with the gold I will be incredibly happy but a medal of any colour would absolutely be brilliant.”

More immediately speaking, Stanford now has another opportunity to claim gold in tomorrow’s ITU World Triathlon Leeds.

After a hugely frustrating 2014 in which the athlete suffered three successive injuries, Stanford will arrive in fine form having won the Cape Town leg of this year’s series in April. Assessing her progress since becoming world champion in 2013, Stanford reasoned: “Last year went pretty well considering it was my first year back after 18 months of not racing – to even qualify was great when it’s probably the toughest selection criteria of any nation trying to qualify for the Olympics. And this year has obviously got off to a great start.

“Now I am just trying to keep calm and keep working away towards that big day in August. Anything else that happens before then is definitely a bonus and definitely not a key focus.

“I would absolutely love to do well in Leeds and podium there but we have to keep the bigger picture in mind. This year is all about that one day and getting that one day right.”

And the bigger picture is also in mind when it comes to planning for tomorrow’s race in Leeds, even though Stanford and Holland live only 10 minutes away from the start line in Adel.

Stanford laughed: “It would be so weird to wake up in your house on the morning of a major event – sitting on your sofa in your pyjamas watching Friends eating cereal and then being like ‘oh God, I’ve got to be on the road in an hour!’

“It would be far too relaxed so we are going top go into a hotel the night before the race just to stimulate the normal race prep really, just to make sure that we are in the right head space before we go.

“We are staying right in the centre, so we will be right in the middle of the action which is great. When we have finished them we can pop straight to the hotel and shower and go home!”

Reflecting on sharing that home with Holland, Stanford beamed: “It has just made the whole journey and the whole experience so much more exciting.

“Being able to share it with your house-mate and one of your best friends has been great and, as the Olympics gets closer and closer and more stressful, you have always got one of your best friends to turn around to and smile at – even when times are getting a bit stressful and a bit tough.

“Obviously we are going to stay in the same house up until Rio and then, post Rio, I think we are both keen to start getting ourselves on the property ladder. Vicky and Rhys will probably want to buy a house together and I will look to buy a house here too. I’m first and foremost always going to be Welsh but I definitely feel like an adopted Yorkshire lass.

“I am very fond of the region, I do really love living here and, for the foreseeable, I don’t see me moving away.”