Alistair and Jonny Brownlee always seem to match each other, whether it’s winning medals in the triathlon at the past two Olympic Games or having birthdays in lockdown. Jonny won bronze in 2012 and silver in 2016 with Alistair the Olympic champion in London and Rio. Alistair turned 32 last Thursday while, this Thursday, Jonny staged a low-key celebration of his 30th birthday in isolation by ordering a takeaway burger from his local pub in Yorkshire.
“It’s a milestone,” Jonny says, “and I keep being told that turning 30 on the 30th is a golden birthday. It’s just weird in lockdown. I’m not really a partier, but it would have been nice to go out.”
Jonny could not even meet his brother, who is also his training partner, on Thursday but that did not stop one of his dry quips. “Yes, he’s getting on,” Jonny says of Alistair, “but then I remember I’m not a young up-and-coming athlete any more: 30 is a bit older than I’d like.”
The Brownlees had been expecting to be in full swing for Tokyo 2020 with their event scheduled three months from now – on 1 August. But, like everyone else, their lives have been turned inside out by the Covid-19 crisis which resulted in the postponement of the Olympics.
They can no longer train together and, illustrating their enforced separation, I talk to Alistair on his own before switching to Jonny. It’s not quite the same as past interviews I’ve done with both of them wisecracking alongside each other – but it’s still fascinating to hear how their competitive instincts remain undented by the pandemic.
Alistair, as is his way, is slightly ahead of his younger brother in training. “If I go out for a bike ride, I’ll run indoors,” Alistair says. “If I run outside, I’ll ride indoors. I go on this indoor platform which you link up with your turbo, and that’s pretty cool. I’ve enjoyed racing other people around the world on it because it’s important to stay competitive. And I have the pool.”
The Olympic champion is not joking. He is still managing to swim every morning in his garage. “A company called Endless Pool make them and I’ve had it for a while. I’ve mostly run in it because it’s got a treadmill at the bottom, and that means you can run against the swimming current. It’s fantastic. I can walk out my front door and do a swim session in the garage.”
A current of great velocity is generated so Alistair is effectively swimming on the spot. “You can swim really hard. The difficulty is motivation. I’m used to swimming in a squad with Jonny. Being competitive is really important and I’m missing that. But I set myself strict sessions. Get in and go as hard as I can. It’s a treadmill for swimming. You stay still and the water moves around you. It’s about the size of a car so I can’t get the Volvo in the garage.”
This is Alistair at his smoothest for it is a reminder that he and Jonny are now ambassadors for Volvo Car UK and they will work with the company on numerous safety and sustainability related projects. But there is so much grit in Alistair as he has shown when winning two world championships, to match his Olympic pair, and in his recent switch to Ironman competition.
Last October he attempted his first full Ironman (swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and running a 26.2 mile marathon) at the world championships in Kona, Hawaii. Olympic triathlon distances cover a 0.93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run. He was in third place early on in the Ironman marathon before Kona shredded him. Brownlee finished 21st and, woundingly for a serial winner, he was nearly 34 minutes behind the champion Jan Frodeno. The German’s extensive Ironman experience exposed Brownlee as a novice.
“Kona has got a hell of a reputation,” Alistair says. “But I was optimistic I could nail it first time. I didn’t.”
Can he describe his ordeal over the last 20 miles? “I’ll need some expletives. I’ve known about Kona for over 20 years, being a triathlete, so there was no way I was not finishing. But imagine being so tired, hot, thirsty, and your muscles cramping that you don’t think you could run five more steps. But you have 20 miles to go.”
Alistair completed a second full Ironman in Western Australia six weeks later, on 1 December, and won by more than 10 minutes as he smashed the course record. “I’m proud I turned it around pretty quick because Western Australia is a hard Ironman in the heat. My attention then switched to the Olympics. I was training as hard as I could for the short distances. Six weeks ago I was thinking: ‘I’m going well here. The Olympics could be on.’ And then the lockdown came.”
Despite the continuing uncertainty, Alistair’s ambition to win a third Olympic triathlon pulses stronger than ever. “That’s obviously the dream, but there’re a lot of challenges ahead.”
Jonny faces his own challenges. He will eventually get his training partner back – but his brother is also his biggest rival. “Alistair told me a few times he probably wouldn’t race in the Olympics again,” Jonny says. “But he never said definitely. I knew he would come back.”
Tokyo 2020 was meant to be Jonny’s golden moment. “Absolutely. Definitely. My winter training was based around getting the gold medal. I was very focused as I knew it was probably my last Olympics. But there’s a chance to get two Olympics medals with the mixed team relay as well. I was really excited and now everything’s changed.”
How has Jonny found the lockdown? “Weird. Strange. Different. It’s becoming a bit more normal now but I don’t get to see any of my training partners and I’m used to seeing them day in and day out. I’ve been missing Alistair. I’m used to training with him every day and I’m a very routine person. I know exactly what I’m doing every Tuesday morning. I’ve been doing that for 15 years. So I’ve had to find a new routine and I’m enjoying training without any pressure of racing.”
Jonny, unlike his brother, is not swimming. Is there any chance he could hold an isolated session in Alistair’s garage? “Not at the moment but I’ve swum every day since I was eight so I have that massive memory bank. Normally, I’m up at 6:15 [to swim]. But these days I’m getting up at 7:30.”
He might be enjoying his lockdown lie-ins but Jonny struggled at the start of this crisis. “I came home [from training in New Mexico] feeling a bit low. I had gone from being in an Olympic-style camp to a ‘what now?’ feeling. What have I trained for? At first, I was a bit scared as well. It’s all over the news, isn’t it? So I definitely was a little low. But I take the positives now. I’m still healthy and that’s the most important thing.”
Jonny endured an earlier crisis of confidence. “The hardest time was 2018 around the Commonwealth Games. I picked up an injury in January and I rushed to get back. I had pain that whole year, but it was terrible at the Commonwealths. We were on the start line but Alistair had an injured calf and hamstring. Our bodies were broken.”
He finished seventh and Alistair was 10th in a worrying confirmation of their troubles. Alistair switched to Ironman and Jonny’s form slumped. He feels now that he overtrained but were there psychological overtones? Jonny had been staggeringly consistent for years. From June 2010 to May 2014 he had finished on the podium in 42 successive triathlons. He was world champion in 2012 and so did Alistair’s absence intensify the pressure and lead to his poor results in 2018 and 2019?
“Yes,” Jonny admits. “It was my time to shine. I felt I was the golden son and that had me invigorated. But having Alistair to train with is massively important. He pushes me in some ways, and we both hold back in other ways. That holding me back is quite important, because Alistair’s so experienced. Whereas if Alistair’s not there, your default position is always to push more. Not having Alistair there meant I didn’t have a yardstick and I burnt out.”
Last July, Jonny came back and won his first World Triathlon Series race for two years in Edmonton. “That was a big moment for me. It was one of my proudest races because I doubted myself. Can I actually compete at the top any more? Edmonton told me I could and I was quite emotional.”
Does Jonny believe he will race another triathlon in 2020? “My gut feel is the World Series has been affected too much now. But I could do a Super League race at the end of the year. That’s a really short, fast triathlon and they’re more flexible with venues and dates. I’m prepared for everything.”
I ask both brothers if they would give up an Olympic medal next year if it would mean that they can compete deep into their forties in Ironman or similar competitions. They both choose the long-haul option. “I’m a lifelong athlete.” Alistair says. “I can’t imagine a day where I don’t go running, cycling and swimming.”
Jonny agrees. “If you asked me this before London I would have said an Olympic medal. Now I have two Olympic medals but I love competing even more. The lockdown has taught me how much I appreciate sport. I definitely want to be doing this every day for a very long time.”
Volvo Car UK is the official vehicle partner of British Triathlon.