Alistair and Jonny Brownlee on injury woes, changing dynamics and career goals

Alistair and Jonny Brownlee were the poster boys of short-course triathlon for over a decade. But with Ali’s move into the long-course arena and the pair currently beset with injury woes, what’s next for the sport’s star siblings? We find out in this exclusive interview…

alistair-jonny-brownlee-headshots-wetsuits

The challenging course in Roundhay Park, with a city centre finish in its early years, has set the backdrop for thrilling World Triathlon Championship Series (WTCS) races in Leeds.

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It has also built on the city’s legacy as the home of the Brownlee brothers. Almost every year a race has taken place, one or both of the Brownlees – Alistair and Jonny– has hit the headlines.

Sparks seem to fly whenever a Brownlee is on the start line in Leeds and the fireworks are even louder in front of a partisan home crowd.

These races have also become a microcosm of their careers: dominating from the front in the early years, becoming more frayed at the edges as time wears on.

A glorious first race in 2016 couldn’t have gone more to plan. Alistair, returning from injury just two months before the Rio Olympics, engineered a four-man breakaway with Jonny to distance arch-rival Javier Gómez before the brothers ran to a one-two finish.

Alistair took the tape and it was a sign of intent for the Olympic Games that followed in August where they repeated the feat.

“Unbelievable!” was Alistair’s response in the aftermath to Leeds. “I have said that the [London] Olympics was the best race I have ever raced in, but now I think that just beat it. The run was absolutely phenomenal, by far the best World Series there has ever been.”

The Brownlees’ many injury woes

It was a similar picture the next year, where it was just the two of them holding on in front on the bike. And it was just long enough to reach the technical section of the city centre that made it more tricky for the chasing pack to catch. Again, Alistair first, Jonny second.

In 2018, with Alistair absent, Jonny pulled out on the run with a stomach bug. The next year, although both were present, the growing strength in depth of the sport was emerging. Both faltered on the final leg, Alistair again dicing with injury just to make an appearance.

With the 2020 race cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2021 was Alistair’s final chance to make the squad for the Tokyo Olympics.

But clearly hampered by injury, it became a jog to the finish alongside the ignominy of a disqualification for dunking the American Chase McQueen in the swim.

It was to be Alistair’s last bow at short-course racing. Jonny was ninth as Brit Alex Yee took his first World Series win and laid down a marker for Tokyo.

Jonny Brownlee lies on the ground after being involved in a bike crash at the Leeds World Triathlon Championship Series race on 11 June, 2022 (Credit: Ryan Sosna-Bowd/Getty Images)

In June 2022 it was a crash and injury that stole the headlines, Jonny brought down in an incident that left him with a broken elbow, Yee also hitting the deck, and eventual winner Hayden Wilde of New Zealand apologising for his role in it.

“It all happened very quickly,” Jonny reflects. “On the uphill section, the pack grouped together. An athlete tried to get through a small gap. He hit the handlebars of another athlete who then flew sideways and crashed into me. I went over my front wheel and hit the ground.

“Initially, I thought I could continue, but I realised quickly that I’d broken my elbow – and my bike. I was so upset to not be able to perform in Leeds.”

Victories, illness, injury, DSQs (disqualifications) and DNFs (did not finishes). It’s been quite the ride for the Brownlees, but they’re not ready for it to be over yet.

SAFETY FIRST?

 

The amateur footage of the crash in Leeds shows just how serous it could have been. Does Jonny believe more should be done to improve safety?

 

“Yes. I don’t think athletes actively go out to injure other athletes, but certain athletes are taking too many risks and not looking out for others. I’ve ridden my bike pretty much every day for 20 years in triathlons, training and bike racing. However, I’ve only ever crashed in World Series racing. 

 

“Swim behaviour is monitored but there are no repercussions for dangerous riding. I think we need a commissaire role to monitor the situation and prevent incidents from happening. Also, athletes need to look out for one another better. We all want to race, but race in a safe way.”

I can go to the track and easily run fast enough... it’s about the speed off the bike, and being – on the start line – healthy, confident and backing myself
Jonny Brownlee

Jonny Brownlee’s next move

Jonny’s sights remain fixed on short-course racing. A planned Tokyo farewell became a reawakening, his performance in finishing fifth in the individual race and setting the GB quartet up for gold in the mixed relay convinced him he can compete for a fourth Olympic medal in Paris. “If I can’t, I don’t want to be there,” he says. If he can, he’ll make history.

While it might be two years away and Jonny will be 34, his prospects don’t seem to have diminished greatly. In terms of selection, he’s currently an automatic pick.

As it stands, Yee and Brownlee are the two standout British male contenders, and – perhaps worryingly for selectors – a podium threat from another British male doesn’t look imminent.

As Jonny showed in victory in a World Cup in Sardinia a fortnight before Leeds, he remains one of the best all-round triathletes in the world. And despite the footspeed of Yee, he also thinks he can run fast enough over a closing 10km to take the tape in Paris.

“I can go to the track and easily run fast enough,” he says. “It’s about the speed off the bike, and being – on the start line – healthy, confident and backing myself.”

First comes the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July* and the hope of recovering in time to make amends for his only major Games disappointment on the Gold Coast in 2018, where he finished seventh in “the worst race I’ve had on a big stage.”

“This has obviously become a lot harder now,” he says. “Before Leeds, I was in my best shape for years and felt great, but I can’t look back. My rehab has gone better than expected.

“I could cycle on a turbo immediately and run a few days after. I’ll be swimming next week, and all being well I’ll be able to get a few weeks of ‘normal’ training in before Birmingham.

“I am still confident I can compete for medals.”

*Sadly, since this feature went to print in our August issue, Jonny has announced his withdrawal from the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

It’s been hard not to spend too much time dwelling on all the work my team and I have put into the project over the last 12 months
Alistair Brownlee

A career low for Ali Brownlee

Ali Brownlee leading the run in his first-ever Olympic Games, in Beijing 2008 (Credit: Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

It’s also the first Olympic cycle since the build-up to Beijing 2008 where the focus has only been on one Brownlee competing. Back then, it was a teenage Alistair, who made a late charge for selection and would lead briefly on the run in China before eventually fading to 12th.

This time the elder sibling has finally drawn a line under short-course racing. Fired by the prospect of two Ironman World Champs [Ali pulled out of the postponed 2021 Ironman Worlds on the eve of the race], a host of big money middle-distance races, plus a crack at the Pho3nix Sub7, 2022 offered bountiful returns to fill any racing void.

The latter, in particular, was a pet project that he was instrumental in conceiving, and would have pitted him against Norwegian Kristian Blummenfelt in a quest to see what could be achieved over the full distance when drafting were permitted.

As has been the story of so much of Alistair Brownlee’s latter career, it was the body that let him down. “I’m absolutely heartbroken not to be on the start line in Germany this week,” he posted to Instagram just a week out from the event. “From the inception of the idea it has motivated me to train and prepare to the best of my ability.

“Unfortunately, I’ve got a stress reaction in my hip that appeared at the worst possible time. It’s been hard not to spend too much time dwelling on all the work my team and I have put into the project over the last 12 months; testing equipment and testing my physiology, hours of training, dealing with horrific winter weather and the tough sessions.”

It didn’t stop him joining the commentary team as fellow Brit Joe Skipper stepped into the role. “Joe did an amazing job jumping in with only a week’s notice,” he adds. “The bike leg was, quite simply, one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in the sport!”

Blummenfelt demolished the Sub7-hour goal with a time of 6:44:25, and Kat Matthews was equally impressive in the women’s race with 7:31:54, but Alistair believes it’s possible to go faster.

“By how much depends on conditions and the rules,” he says. “For example, the warm weather will have cost minutes on the run. I think we’ve invented a new discipline in the sport, and I look forward to seeing more of it.”

Whether Alistair will be partaking remains to be seen. He’s hopeful of a return this year, but being fit enough to both qualify and be competitive for the Ironman World Championship in October seems unlikely. “My plans are to race as much as possible. I have kept the training ticking along while the hip has recovered and I’m looking forward to getting back to full strength.”

At the moment I can't see myself being a coach. But I do like helping people develop and providing the opportunities
Alistair Brownlee

Will the Brownlee brothers race together again? 

Despite divergent paths – the last time they raced together was more than a year ago – the sibling camaraderie that served the Brownlees so well for years, racing ITU events and two Olympics, won’t be jettisoned any time soon. The pair might no longer live together, but – when they’re both fit and not away preparing for individual races – they are still firm training allies.

Where Jonny does miss his brother is in the races. The famous brothers’ breakaway, often helped by a lead-out swim from Slovakian training partner Richard Varga, dominated the racing narrative for years – none more so than in the Rio Olympics.

“Alistair was the one who always used to drive the front of the race. If you were a few seconds behind on the swim then your race could be over,” Jonny says.

“However, I think more importantly, the swim isn’t as fast as it was. There isn’t a single line of swimmers at the front that breaks the race up. Every swim is a fight now and the gaps are smaller.”

Not that he’s writing off his chances without big brother for company.

“My best race without Alistair was Gold Coast in 2015. I raced from the front and completely broke up the race. I want to get back to having the confidence to do this again. I am working on this! Arzachena [Sardinia] was a good start.”

What else do the Brownlees do other than triathlon?

There are other areas of focus, too. The Brownlee Foundation, established after London 2012, witnessed more than 5,000 children try a triathlon during its first event week this year in May. Over 30,000 kids have taken part in total.

Alistair has also shown an interest in administrative roles within the sport, being elected to the European Olympic Committee (EOC) Athletes’ Commission last year, and on the athlete board of the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO), alongside compatriot Laura Siddall.

“My role is to represent the athletes who are PTO members to the wider PTO organisation,” he says. “It’s not necessarily my opinions and views, but what’s going on with the athlete population. But the overarching goal of the PTO is to put on really good, high-profile, long-distance events that cater for fans to enjoy watching and bring sponsors and interest to the sport to ultimately fund the whole thing better.

“I think they’re doing a good job of that, and with the Collins Cup and two Tour events, there’ll be three major races this year that will become the most significant races at middle distance because of the status people will put on them and ultimately the prize money.”

Coaching is ruled out for now, though. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing and inspiring people who have had an impact on my sporting career and life,” he adds. “At the moment I can’t see myself being a coach. But I do like helping people develop and providing the opportunities to do so. I’d like to continue doing that in some form.”

I've got nowhere near to cracking a 70.3 yet. I'd trained unbelievably well for Gran Canaria... but I didn't drink half of what I should have
Jonny Brownlee

Jonny on racing middle distance 

Jonny racing Challenge Gran Canaria in April 2022 (Credit: James Mitchell)

With the PTO focused on events that are anything over standard or Olympic distance, even if Alistair isn’t racing, the role will eventually become representing his brother’s interests when he elects to go long.

Ranked 144th by the PTO, Jonny’s brief flirtations with non-drafting are yet to bear fruit. Thirtieth place in the PTO Championship in Daytona in 2020, sixth in Ironman 70.3 Portugal last year and ninth in Challenge Mogán-Gran Canaria in April are a way off where he wanted to be, but he’s not quitting yet.

“I’ve got nowhere near to cracking a 70.3 yet,” Jonny admits. “I’d trained unbelievably well for Gran Canaria and was flying beforehand. I thought I’d done everything right, but nutrition-wise on the bike, I didn’t drink half of what I should have and just capitulated.”

“That’s what was interesting watching the Ironman World Championship and Kristian [Blummenfelt]. He ran it all with a bottle, sipping away, getting it right, and fair play, because I know how wrong it can go.

“To continue running well at the end of an Ironman marathon was impressive. He was still moving in the last 5km.”

But the lure of short course is a strong pull, and Jonny has again been confirmed on the roster for Super League Triathlon’s autumn series, which has been extended to five events through September and October, including a return to London’s docklands and a first visit to Toulouse.

In many ways, the Brownlees have grown up with the sport in the UK. Gone are the days when they used to be able to head out into the Yorkshire countryside unrecognised, but both have forged successful careers and Alistair has no regrets.

“You didn’t want to be a triathlete when I started to be recognised! I’m pragmatic about it. We still love to head out into the Dales, and I know I’m very fortunate for the opportunities triathlon has brought me.”

Jonny and Alistair Brownlee were speaking as part of their work with American Pistachio Growers. Pistachios are a convenient protein snack that’s portable and doesn’t require any preparation. The Brownlee Brothers incorporate pistachios into their training diet to fuel their active lifestyles, and to help refuel and recover before and after a workout.

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Top image: Rob Rainbow/HUUB Design