World Triathlon: Origin of Tri series in Leeds

Why Leeds? Why of all the cities in the United Kingdom did British Triathlon and the International Triathlon Union settle on this city as a staging post for a prestigious leg of the World Series?

Thursday, 9th June 2016, 7:15 am
Updated Monday, 13th June 2016, 12:38 pm
Jonny and Alistair with coach Jack Maitland after outdoor swim at Otley Sailing Club. Brownlees:

Is it purely the Brownlee effect, or is there more to it?

And why is Leeds a magnet for the best triathletes in this country?

Attempting to answer both those questions is a man who has been synonymous with triathlon and Leeds for the past 15 years – Jack Maitland.

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Back in 2001, former runner Maitland and a colleague Simon Ward started the triathlon programme in Leeds as part of the national governing body’s regional initiative, not knowing how far it would go or how long it would last.

Two super-human boys from the Brownlee family elevated it beyond their wildest dreams to put the city on the triathlon map. But surely it is about more than just that.

“It’s a combination of things,” begins Maitland, as he attempts to put his finger on why the city stands as a beacon for the sport in this country.

“Leeds City Council, after a successful Grand Depart of the Tour de France two years ago, have found a major appetite for things like this.

“There’s also been an influence from the success that Alistair and Jonny have enjoyed, and Leeds City Council have recognised that as a success for the city.

“At the same time London had perhaps run its course, having hosted a World Series event over the last few years, and it needed to go elsewhere.

“Jack Buckner (the chief executive of British Triathlon) wanted to ensure the UK retained a leg of the World Series.

“By coming to Leeds, because of Alistair and Jonny and all the other guys, there’s no doubt we’ll get an atmosphere that will be as close to what we saw in the build-up to London 2012.”

So what is so special about Leeds? Couldn’t a triathlon base be anywhere.

To answer that, Maitland has to go back to the beginning.

“We wanted to build a pathway from the Sydney Olympics,” he said, following the sport’s debut in 2000.

“Prior to Leeds, the two performance centres were in Bath and Loughborough so all our athletes from around 17, 18 would move down there, which was frustrating for us.

“Malcolm Brown came in as the head of sport at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2003 and within the first week I sat down with him to discuss setting up a triathlon programme at the university.

“His background was in endurance coaching, so he was interested, and by 2004 everything was in place and Leeds Met and British Triathlon started the programme.

“We utilised the Talented Athlete Scholarship fund from the government to fund four part-time athletes. That gave us a leg up.

“That then provided a programme for the likes of Alistair and Jonny to stay in when they came into the sport.”

As much as the ambition and drive of certain individuals to build a winning culture has been pivotal – and something that stems from Maitland down through the Brownlee brothers – so has the environment, from bricks and mortar to natural landscapes.

“The environment has been beneficial as things have progressed,” continued Maitland.

“From the outset Leeds had everything. There’s good running opportunities in the city with all the parks; we had a 50m swimming pool on our doorstep and even when the Leeds International Pool closed we moved straight into the John Charles Aquatics Centre.

“And cycling wise you’re 10 minutes from the Dales. Generally Leeds was a city that had done well in all three individual sports.”

The transformation has been rapid, and unlike some sports that have had a zenith and failed to build on it, British Triathlon and their Leeds base have used the success of the Brownlees as a starting point.

“London was brilliant because the boys achieved what they set out to do, but that also presented challenges for us as a centre: we wanted to do the same with the women’s team.

“Success of both squads is equally important. To get Non Stanford to come here before London was vital for the development of that.

“There’s also a Yorkshire academy now that we run.

“In 2006 we had one squad and no full-time athletes.

“Ten years on we have four squads of all abilities, four full-time coaches and a host of full-time athletes.”