Alistair and Jonny Brownlee: Meet the Fabulous Brownlee Brothers
They are in good shape to become the first Britons to win triathlon medals, ideally gold and silver, but they tell Robin Scott-Elliot their bond is so strong that they would settle for just one
Jonny Brownlee is moving house. Next month he will pack his bags in the home he shares with his brother, Alistair, in the village of Bramhope, a few miles to the north of Leeds, and branch out on his own. He is not going far though.
"It's 500 metres away," says Jonny and grins at his brother. "We'll still carry on as normal but we don't have to live on top of each other any more. It's not because I'm sick of him, it's because we need more room."
August is going to be a busy month. On the seventh, Jonny will line up alongside Alistair on the start line of the triathlon in Hyde Park and a little under two hours later, they will hope to still be together, running down the banks of the Serpentine on the final lap of the 10km run that follows a 1,500m swim and a 43km bike ride. They will then have to be separated – because there can be only one gold medallist – but if all goes according to plan, and current form, it may only be by a matter of inches; the distance from the top of the podium to one of the lower steps.
"You're not allowed to finish next to each other," says Jonny. "If it's a dead heat they'll do a photo finish and decide which one wins. There's nothing to stop you finishing together but you can't come first equal."
The Brownlees have lived together, trained together and raced together towards this goal. Their togetherness is remarkable. There is sibling rivalry – "I'm better at ball sports," insists Jonny happily – but both are adamant that it is consigned to areas removed from their day job; running, cycling and swimming kilometre after draining kilometre in pursuit of Olympic reward.
"It's never hindered us," says Alistair of being so close so much of the time. "The advantages are obvious – there's always someone to go out and train with. There is someone to motivate you to go out training, push you on in sessions, whether I'm chasing Jonny or the other way round. That's had a massive effect. I honestly don't think we'd be where we are without each other. I'm not sure there ever has been a disadvantage…"
He trails off and looks round at his brother, who shakes his head emphatically. "No, I can't think of one. We do 90 per cent of our training together."
Alistair Brownlee is the favourite to win triathlon gold, Britain's first medal in the sport, while Jonny has made rapid strides over the last couple of years to force himself into contention for a place on that podium. At the Kitzbühel triathlon at the end of last month, the Brownlees finished first and second. The man in third, Spain's Javier Gomez, is regarded as the greatest threat to a Brownlee one/two. Jonny has finished within the top three in his last 13 events. Alistair is the world champion, a title earned just last year. A weight of expectation will accompany him in particular to the start line.
"There were times when I struggled with it but now I enjoy it," he says. "If you're favourite you've earned being favourite."
Alistair is the elder by two years and has the experience of a previous Olympics to fall back on. As a 20-year-old in Beijing he finished 12th, fading after a bright start. Big brother has not though preached to Brownlee the younger on what to expect.
"I'm not sure he'd listen anyway," says Alistair. "There are different ways of approaching it. Some people need that big build-up, they need to feel the energy around it, feel the sense of occasion and get the energy with it. Other people are better stepping away from that and they can perform to the best of their ability without that."
Jonny takes over. "We never sit down and talk about the Olympics – 'Won't it be great, all those people watching us.' We just get on with it. We talk about other things, normal brother stuff."
Back to Alistair. "Some people thrive off the hype and exposure, they like being in the media and all the pressure that brings. We've tried to stay away from that. That's why we're not staying in the [Olympic] village, we're only going down a couple of days before.
"We get offers all the time, commercially we are both aware this is the best opportunity you will have as an athlete and there are other offers to go and do things that will be fun. You've got to balance that all the time with your training. The way I've looked at it, you have to do everything you can to make sure you are in the best shape you can be on that day. After the race, you can enjoy the fact that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
You can take the boys out of Yorkshire… There is a straightforwardness to their approach. It's simple: they will swim, ride and run quicker than anyone else and they will do that by training relentlessly up and down the hills around their home in God's own county. They both buy into the approach.
"We're similar athletes," says Alistair. "We tend to work on the same things and our training programme's developed to work on the same things – I don't know whether we're similar athletes because we do the same training! Or we do the same training because we're similar athletes! But that's how it works."
They have their differences. Alistair studied medicine at Cambridge University, before leaving after a term because it left no time for triathlon. He instead did a degree in sports science at Leeds. Jonny has recently finished his in history, earning a 2:1 after completing a dissertation on Richard III. Their parents were keen runners and swimmers but it was an uncle who suggested Alistair, a former Yorkshire fell-running champion, try out triathlon. Jonny, as is a younger brother's wont, immediately demanded to copy what the elder was doing. Now they are preparing to compete on the biggest sporting stage of all.
"Yes, I'm excited about it," says Jonny. "It's been talked about for a long, long time. It's going to be amazing for British sport and to be part of that is incredible, so, yes, very excited."
Jonny, chatty and enthusiastic, comes across as the more bouncy of the two, whereas Alistair is more the old(er) pro, considered and contained. They are different and they are the same.
"We are working as a team to give ourselves the best chance of winning a medal," says Alistair. "We do it a lot better than anyone else because we're brothers, because we've got that interest in the other doing well, but anyone could do it. If other countries got their act together they could do a really good job of it, but no one else does do a very good job of it.
"In an ideal world we'll both get a medal and that would be absolutely fantastic. But it's quite a big ask, isn't it? We can't go into the race expecting us both to get a medal. I think if one of us gets a medal that's a pretty good outcome because Britain has never got a medal at the Olympics. If we both got a medal that would be an amazing outcome."
Jonny nods in agreement. "Definitely."
GE is a worldwide partner of the London 2012 Olympic Games, See more at facebook.com/GEtriathlon
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