The guts but not the glory for Brownlee

No one glanced up from their skinny lattes or did a double-take in mid-sudoku when Britain's most accomplished world champion walked into his local Starbucks. Even if they had, they wouldn't have recognised him. "No one ever has," shrugs Alistair Brownlee. "And actually, I like it that way."

So not a single autograph request as he sipped his hot chocolate. Indeed, he says he is still waiting for the first person to buy him a pint because of what he has done. Which is something special. Early in September he took his own sporting world by storm, clinching the World Triathlon Championship series on Australia's Gold Coast after an unprecedented unbeaten season.

The triathlon (1.5km swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run) is never likely to dislodge a Wayne Rooney groin strain from the top of the page, even when a Brit has proved himself to be arguably the greatest all-rounder in international sport, a veritable Ironman at just 21.

However, in Australia, where they have a more eclectic appreciation of sport, he is a big name – as he is now in Spain, since he deposed one of their national heroes, the reigning triathlon king Javier Gomez.

What's more, there's another one like him at home in Horsforth, Leeds: younger brother Jonathan, 19, who won silver on the world junior circuit. They can be seen out most nights on Ilkley Moor, training together with thoughts firmly focused on what really would be a headline-hogging family double on the podium at London 2012.

Last week Alistair did get some recognition when he was named Britain's Olympic Athlete of the Year, with Jonathan the British triathlon Junior Athlete of the Year. Both have been tackling sport's most taxing trinity since their early teens. The attraction is the challenge of the different disciplines.

"It's about endurance," says Alistair. "Jumping into and out of a freezing pool or lake, whizzing round on your bike for a bit, then leaping off and running like hell certainly gives you a buzz." And leaves you breathless. The swim is particularly physical. "You literally fight your way through for the first few hundred metres. If you feel someone on your legs you kick really hard to make sure they don't grab your ankles."

Despite his slight, wiry build, more that of a lightweight boxer, he has remarkable strength for a sport in which the physical demands are immense, taking as much out of the competitors as running a marathon.

"I've always wanted to be a professional athlete, and when I won the world juniors I gave up my place at Cambridge [where he was studying medicine] and thought I'd give it a really good go." Now he is at Leeds Metropolitan University, where he has finished a sports degree and is now studying for a Masters in finance. Jonathan is at nearby Leeds University studying maths, and they live at home with their sports- loving parents, both doctors.

"A lot of people have put their faith in me. Everyone dreams of winning Olympic gold [he was 12th in Beijing], but after the World Championships I do feel I have a bit of a chance, though the triathlon is a really unpredictable sport and at the Games anything can happen."

Obviously he would love to have Jonathan up there on the podium alongside him, though there is definitely sibling rivalry. "We are pretty good friends and being competitive against each other helps us a lot. When I am lying in bed in the middle of winter I might be tired but I know Johnny's out there swimming already, so I force myself to get up and join him.

"His potential is tremendous. It could happen that we are both in the team for 2012 but the competition for places will be really tight because there are some good guys around, like Tim Don, Will Clark and Olly Freeman. The British team is the best in the world right now."

He knows he will never be rich or famous, though the £100,000 he netted last year in prize money plus a few bonuses from sponsors and £12,000 in Lottery funding means he is one student who doesn't have to live on Pot Noodles.

He says he doesn't get invited to many sporting functions, though he has been asked to this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards down the road in Sheffield. "But I might not go as I am due to be in Spain." Unless he is nominated, of course, which he thinks unlikely. "I don't expect I'll ever get the recognition of the top sportsmen but I don't mind. I just want to get on with what I do best. I love the sport and it has become my life. That's enough for me."

The British Olympic Association

The British Olympic Association are the national Olympic committee for Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver world-leading services to enable athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information, go to: olympics.org.uk

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