Jonny Brownlee: Olympian shifts focus to triathlon world title

Brownlee Jnr is in Auckland, where on Sunday lunchtime he will attempt to bookend his year by adding the world title to his Olympic bronze medal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The year that changed Jonny Brownlee's life began in San Diegan sunshine. It will end this weekend in the bluster of an Auckland spring but it will forever centre on a high summer's afternoon in Hyde Park.

The tale of how the Brownlee brothers became the first British siblings to climb on to an Olympic podium for more than a century stands as one of the centrepieces of home achievement during the London Games. It was not only the reward of Alistair's gold and Jonny's bronze in the triathlon, it was also the drama of the younger brother's race and subsequent exhausted collapse that ushered two young Yorkshiremen into a whole new world.

"It has changed my life," says Jonny, with an air of happy bemusement. "You can't do anything wrong! I'm getting stopped in the street – people treat you differently. It has changed my life completely."

Brownlee Jnr is in Auckland, where on Sunday lunchtime he will attempt to bookend his year by adding the world title to his Olympic medal. There hasn't been such interest in an Englishman diving into the city's harbour since Manu Tuilagi was in town. The 22-year-old – the younger by two years – begins the race ranked No 1, with a 180-point lead over Javier Gomez, the Spaniard who beat him to silver in London. Finish in the top three and Brownlee will be world champion.

Big brother, as big brothers do, got there first. Alistair is the reigning champion but will not be in New Zealand. Injury ruined the elder's start to the season, meaning he missed the opening rounds of the world series – Jonny won in San Diego and Madrid pre-Games – and left the field clear for his brother. Instead Alistair is in Peru, enjoying a belated post-Olympic break.

Jonny's break begins next week. First there is one more 1500m swim, one more 43km bike ride and one more 10km run to negotiate. "It's my longest ever season by far," says Brownlee. "Normally I don't start racing until May and the latest is usually September. The Olympics spread it all out."

The Olympics: the event that defines this sporting year, and one that defines so many of the Britons who took part.

"2012 for us has been talked about for so long and built up for so long. An Olympic medal was very, very special, something I had been dreaming about for so long," says Brownlee.

It has been an odd existence since. He was back in training the day after the closing ceremony and has been juggling his quest for a world title – he won the world series event in Stockholm two weeks after the Games – with a new life.

"My training's been good since but because I've not had that Olympic focus I have been training a little bit lost. The Olympics took so much and when it finished it felt like the end of the world."

The day after the Games the rest of his life began. It started with a helicopter ride back home to Leeds. The brothers were surprised to see a crowd there to greet them. Then the letters began pouring in, and more.

"People keep sending us free stuff – we've had a karaoke machine, chocolates, we get free cake in the local cafes. It's been a whirlwind. It's been super-friendly. That's the best thing about it – you run the triathlon in the Games and then people want to talk to you about it for a long time afterwards. Everyone wants to talk to you.

"We have had so many letters. This old man sent a note saying, 'Well done, here's £10, don't send it back, H'. There was no address so we couldn't send it back – it was such a nice thing to do.

"We've had letters saying thank you, letters saying, 'You inspired us'. It's weird. For us it's sport but in the Olympics it seems to become so much more than that. Before we were caught in our own little world where we just did triathlon, swim, bike and run, and then all this happens. The Olympics are so much more than sport.

"When we went to the homecoming parade in Leeds I expected my grandma and my parents to be there and that would be about it. To walk out of the town hall and see thousands of people, not just friends, everyone…

"And the parade itself was absolutely incredible. To see all those people in London, crammed into every space, stopping work and leaning out of windows, people climbing on top of bus shelters, holding up signs, 'Thank you'. We should have been saying thank you to them. The whole thing has shocked me every time, it's been so well received. It was a seriously special Olympics."

Brownlee's post-Games memories are better defined than race day itself. For the first time in his career he incurred a penalty for mounting his bike moments too early. During the run he had to wait 15 seconds in a pen while the contest swirled on around him. He chose to serve it on the penultimate lap, leaving Gomez to run clear for silver while he watched the road to see if his French pursuers, David Haus and Laurent Vidal, could close the gap.

"To be there in an Olympic Games, stood there for 15 seconds, that was stressful," recalls Brownlee. "It felt like a long, long time. I'd trained so hard and for so long and so to then during the Games stand in the naughty corner for 15 seconds was a weird feeling. It all seemed to slow down, the whole way to the end. I crossed the finish line and I was so tired.

"I had a strange numb feeling and then I collapsed. That was all a bit of a let-down – I collapsed and I felt awful. It should have been a special moment for me, crossing the finish line to get a bronze medal and Alistair to win the gold. Two brothers on the podium – we should have been jumping around. I was feeling terrible. I still felt ill at the medal ceremony. It all happened so quickly I couldn't take it in. It's a bit sad, really. But I got a medal."

That first afternoon back home, after the closing ceremony and the helicopter ride, Brownlee changed into his running gear and headed out into the woods. He wanted to run. "It was beautiful," he says. Now, finally, his year of years is almost run. "It would be the perfect year," he says. "To become world champion to go with an Olympic bronze medal would be awesome."

There is one more task that awaits him in 2012; to complete the move from being Alistair's lodger to his own place some 500m down the road. "I got the keys a week before I came out here so I've not moved in or slept there yet," he says.

"I've bought things like toilet brushes and knives and forks, which I found exciting! I'm going to set it up nicely after this. Sort out the garage, set up the bike hooks, get it set up into a sport house, get my bed in, paint…"

Life goes on.