Five years after learning to ride a bike, one year after watching the Olympics on television and less than two months after breaking her arm, Britain’s Non Stanford again defied the odds, and even her own expectations, to win the world triathlon title.
Her team-mate Jodie Stimpson also produced an impressive run, finishing fourth to claim the overall world silver medal.
Stanford, who was nowhere near Olympic selection last year, arrived at the Games course in Hyde Park with a hope, though an outside one, of becoming the third British women’s world triathlon champion in the past 12 years – the prospect of which, she later claimed, meant she had not slept properly for three weeks.
But from the moment she threw open her curtains yesterday morning things went her way. Even the gods seemed on her side, unrelenting drizzle and leaden skies reminding her of home in Swansea and frustrating others used to warmer climes.
Stanford certainly had her share of luck in a race that saw her two rivals for the overall title suffer a series of misfortunes, but to use their problems as the principal reason for her success would be doing her a great disservice.
Even the Brownlee brothers, whose tolerance for endless training is legendary, are said to marvel at Stanford’s capacity for hard work and a punishing seven-day-a-week 30-hour schedule. Indeed, her idea of a rest day involves a two-hour swim, a three-hour bike ride and not even a sliver of chocolate or sniff of alcohol.
Many would have seen their season ended by the injuries she picked up from her bike crash in Hamburg, and yet just a few weeks later she was back on the start line, swimming one-armed and, amazingly, not going round in circles.
This season, Stanford – whose best result last year was a fifth place – has won twice and finished second three times in her six world series races, consistency that underlined her dedication. Just 12 points separated the top three in the world rankings at the start of the final race of the season, with the third- placed Stanford 12 points behind the series leader, Gwen Jorgensen, and four behind Germany’s Anne Haug.
But Haug had a nightmare swim, losing two minutes on her rivals, and the American race favourite Jorgensen crashed during the opening stages of the bike leg and tearfully retired.
Those cruel twists of fate put the race at Stanford’s mercy, especially as the 24-year-old former cross-country international, a one-time member of Dame Kelly Holmes’s mentoring programme, is considered one of triathlon’s best runners.
And she duly won the race in 2hr 1min 31sec to follow the British lead of former world champions Helen Jenkins, a two-time winner, and Leanda Cave.
“Being the world champion, it’s crazy, it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Stanford. “I’m just trying to take it in my stride, but when I get five minutes to reflect on it I will probably get quite emotional. I just can’t believe it, to be honest, I can’t quite put it into words. All the hard work over the last year, I’ve just managed to hold it together and it’s paid off.”
As for silver-medallist Stimpson, she, like Stanford, has also enjoyed a breakthrough season – starting the year without a world series podium to her name but finishing it with one gold and three bronzes to leave her ranked second in the world.
Earlier, Jorgensen and Haug’s problems had meant Stanford started the run knowing a top-two finish would be enough, while finishing third and fourth would also secure the title if Stimpson – fourth in the world rankings before the race – didn’t win.
Stanford, who is part of the Brownlee brothers’ training group in Yorkshire, entered the run transition ahead and stayed there, piling the pressure on her rivals and opening up a clear advantage. However, she still had to serve a 15-second penalty for contravening equipment rules in the transition between the swim and bike legs. She served it with three kilometres remaining and re-entered the race with her commanding lead intact, finishing more than 20 seconds ahead of Ireland’s Aileen Reid and Australia’s Emma Moffatt.
Indeed, it looked as though the most pain she suffered all day was when someone sprayed champagne in her eye in the podium celebrations that followed.
“I went out really hard in the run to get a gap and never wanted to give them a chance to reel me back in,” added Stanford, last year’s world Under-23 champion. “I just wanted to stay ahead of them before I had to serve my penalty. It felt never-ending in that penalty box. I just got out there as quickly as possible. It was so cold and I couldn’t feel my feet; the crowd support was great and I couldn’t hear myself breathe, which was good because I was breathing really heavy.
“To stand on the podium with a fellow Brit was great and there was no better way to do it. Hopefully Alistair and Jonathan [Brownlee] will do the same in the men’s race and it will be a perfect weekend for British triathlon.”
A year ago, Stanford said her short-term goal was to qualify for the Commonwealth Games and her long-term ambition was to ditch the Under-23 part of “world Under-23 champion”. Mission accomplished. Next, after a long-overdue sleep, she will be on the road to Rio.
Stanford’s weekly training
Monday 45-minute steady run, 3.5km recovery swim, one-hour strength and conditioning session, 90 minutes on exercise bike.
Tuesday 4km swim, 40-minute easy run followed by running drills, 90-minute bike session, track session to work on speed. Maximum distance covered: 5km.
Wednesday 4.5km swim, one-hour steady run, four-hour steady bike ride, one-hour strength and conditioning.
Thursday 4km swim, three-hour steady bike ride.
Friday 4.5km swim, one-hour strength and conditioning session.
Saturday Cross-country run, three-hour steady ride, 30-minute easy run.
Sunday One-hour swim, 90-minute steady run, three-hour mountain bike/cross-biking session.