We may still be two summers shy of the Rio Paralympics, but when triathlon makes its bow on the sun-kissed stretch of Copacabana, the British are shaping to be quite a force.
Eight world championship medals comprising two golds, four silvers and two bronzes, spanning classes from PT1 to PT5, equated to an impressive return from young performance manager Jonathon Riall’s 13-strong squad.
“The competition was really tough out there today and well done to the US team, they seem to have topped the medal table,” said Riall. “But we’ve exceeded our UK Sport targets, which was to win one of the Paralympic medal categories and two other medals within those categories.”
It was the women’s T4 category, already announced on the roster for Rio along with both PT1 (wheelchair) divisions, where Britain were most dominant. Lauren Steadman, Faye McLelland, and Clare Cunningham, pictured, shuffled the order from last year’s world finals in London but still provided a clean sweep of the podium.
And it was 21-year-old Steadman from Peterborough who fought off four-time world champion McLelland to lift her first world title. “Crossing the line was pure relief,” said Steadman. “I loved the swim and felt right at home with the chlorine in the lake. The hill on the bike was really tough, and I just got into my stride on the run and held on.
“I wasn’t sure how it would go. I was ill racing in Liverpool earlier this month, but I just stayed relaxed and tried to enjoy it, even though it was really painful the whole way round.
“I’m pretty sure the rivalry with Faye will continue right through until Rio. I don’t expect to win every race, I just expect one of us to make it to the top of the podium. It comes down to who gets it right on the day.”
Britain’s second gold of the day came minutes later in the T5 category for visually impaired athletes and was the result of another close Team GB tussle over the 750m swim, 20.4km bike and 4.6km run course. Ultimately Scot Alison Patrick, supported by her guide Jenny Manners, took victory in 1:09:49, just 20secs clear of silver medal winner Melissa Reid and guide Nicole Walters.
“I cannot believe it, I’m so happy,” said Patrick, who has transitioned from athletics and competed in Paratri less than a year. “Even going into the finish straight we didn’t realise we were in first place, we thought there was an American in front of us, but we knew when we approached the blue ribbon and Jenny shouted: ‘Alison, it’s the tape!’ This year was just about getting experience for me and knowing what I needed to work on for next year. I never thought this would happen, it feels amazing.”
It wasn’t such a happy day for Reid from Cornwall, whose preparation had been hampered by administration issues over her level of visual impairment. “For classification, yesterday and the day before, I had to go in and out of the room six times and then I got stuck in a lift for an hour this morning,” she said. “You don’t sleep at all, you are just worrying about it. I got about three hours sleep the night before and the same last night. Considering everything that’s happened, I’d say we’re pleased.”
“We’re not used to having people around us in the race,” added Walters. “We’re used to being out in front and then we’ve usually got a bit of a gap, but we all came out together today. It just means the sport’s getting better and everyone is getting stronger.”
The T1 wheelchair is certainly a strong man’s – and woman’s – game, and Britain secured two silvers through consistent performers Jane Egan and an elated Phil Hogg.
“I’m absolutely stoked, I’m so pleased and so proud,” said Hogg, 44, from Heanor, Derbyshire. “I struggled with illness through the winter and I’d been really struggling with the mental side of the racing. I was in hospital three times with infections and was even flown back sick from a training camp in Lanzarote. My whole world was nowhere for five months.
“I came into the Europeans on the back of four weeks training and got a silver and put some demons to bed. My goal was to podium here. This event has been the best world championships so far. The transition crew were amazing, the water handlers were the best ever, it has been epic – and I’m not crying either.”
Three-time world champion Jane Egan, 44, from Glasgow, was philosophical about her 5min 17sec deficit to American Kendall Gretsch. “It would have been nice to win again, but I had a really solid race,” she said. “One of the features of our category is we have new people coming in all the time so we have nothing to gauge against and I’ve struggled with injury since February, but all in all I cannot complain”
Sarah Pearson was Britain’s final medallist in her first year under the guidance of the British Triathlon elite para-squad. The 43-year-old from south Devon who has cerebral palsy took bronze in the PT3 category, consolidating a solid year after a silver medal in the European Championships in Kitzbuhel.
Image: David Peace/British Triathlon