Commonwealth Games: how will the triathlon medals fall?
220Triathlon columnist Tim Heming looks at the main contenders for medals in the Commonwealth Games...
You won’t need to hang around for the triathletes at this year’s Commonwealth Games. Both the women’s and men’s contests take place on the first morning of competition, with the rapid-fire mixed relay following two days later. It will also be a Commonwealth debut for paratriathlon, with the wheelchair racers taking centre stage.
Men to watch
Alistair Brownlee, England
Having defended his Olympic title in Rio, Brownlee now attempts the feat at Commonwealth level. But while it might appear a more straightforward task than faced in Brazil, nothing is simple where the Yorkshireman is concerned. Last season was again cut short by injury and operation, and Brownlee’s pledge to race longer – such as Dubai 70.3 last month, which he won in dominating style – is at odds to the sprint distance test of Gold Coast. That said, the smaller field, and bags of experience still mean he’ll start as odds-on favourite.
Jonny Brownlee, England
Can the younger Brownlee finally step out of the shadow of his brother on a global stage? While it’s a perennial poser, the shorter format of 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run should suit the 27-year-old, whose rare triumphs over a fit big brother have come over the sprint distance, such as Hamburg in 2013. Their race plan – and best chance of success – will be to distance the competition by T2 and turn it into another head-to-head family showdown.
Jake Birtwhistle, Australia
The long-striding Australian might be the man to upset the Brownlees – if he can reach the run leg in contention. A multiple Australian champion over middle distance on the track, his switch to triathlon yielded an Under-23 world title in 2015 and two runners-up berths on the World Triathlon Series – both over the sprint distance – last year. The Tasmanian, just 23, will not be short of support on the Gold Coast and has the further fillip of being part of Australia’s reigning world mixed relay team.
Also watch out for…
The calibre of triathlon among Commonwealth nations is always high and the South Africans, Olympic bronze medallist Henri Schoeman (who will be heading there riding high after his convincing win over the sprint distance at WTS Abu Dhabi on March 2) and Richard Murray – fourth at the Rio Olympics – offer a medal threat. England’s Tom Bishop, ranked seventh in last year’s World Triathlon Series, and the Scottish duo of Marc Austin, a former world under-23 silver medallist, and Grant Sheldon, a former world junior bronze medallist, will all hope to break into the top five. The sprint distance should also suit Australia’s world under-23 bronze medallist Luke Willian, just 21, who raced to sixth in the World Series on the Gold Coast course last year.
Women to watch
Flora Duffy, Bermuda
With seven wins in her last nine World Triathlon Series races (and in one of the other two she was second and at WTS Abu Dhabi she DNFed after a crash on the bike forced her to retire), the Bermudan will be a marked woman on Gold Coast – and won’t care a jot. Her race plan is simple. Go hard from the front and hold on. That formidable record does make her the woman to beat – but neither the flat course, nor the sprint distance really play into her hands as the best biker in the field. That said, her improved run leg can be argued to be on par with the competition, so only a few seconds advantage emerging from T2 might be enough.
Jess Learmonth, England
Last year was a breakthrough year for the Leeds’ triathlete, who ended 2017 with a first podium on the World Triathlon Series in the Grand Final in Rotterdam and she has started 2018 in great form with a second at WTS Abu Dhabi. As the best female swimmer in short course racing, and with strong biking skills honed on the Yorkshire Dales, the reigning European champion has proved the perfect front-running foil to help Duffy put time into the chasing pack. If that game-plan again plays out in Gold Coast, then expect Learmonth to challenge for a medal.
Vicky Holland, England
The 32-year-old has an impressive major competition pedigree as a two-time Olympian, with bronze in 2016 making her Britain’s first female triathlon medallist. Having pipped then-housemate Non Stanford in Rio, she left the Leeds’ high performance centre and re-rooted to Bath, where she’s now coached by partner Rhys Davey. Holland also has an individual bronze and team gold in the mixed relay to show from the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Also watch out for…
England’s formidable trio is completed by Sophie Coldwell, 22, who was selected ahead of reigning champion and training partner Jodie Stimpson. Stanford, the 2013 ITU world champion, who missed Glasgow 2014 through injury, will hope to regain enough fitness to win a medal for Wales. And Scotland’s Beth Potter is worth looking out for as a former track athlete with a 10km PB of 32min 3sec. The host’s hopes rest with world-ranked number three, Ashleigh Gentle, although team-mate Charlotte McShane is a threat as a previous Under-23 world champion. If it’s not to be Aussie success, almost as popular would be a win for New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt. The evergreen Kiwi will turn 36 the day before the race, and already has a bronze medal from when the Commonwealth Games were last contested in Australia, in 2006.
While the two-man, two-woman team will not be named until after the individual competition, you can perm two of three from either gender – the Brownlee brothers and Bishop, or Learmonth, Holland and Coldwell – and the England team will not be significantly weakened. The Brownlees and Holland were part of the winning squad in 2014, where victory was secured by a comfortable 49secs, but expect it to be a stiffer test this time around.
The host nation has every reason to be optimistic about improving on the bronze medal from Glasgow. Despite an all-changed quartet from 2014, Australia are the reigning world champions, with McShane, Matt Hauser, Gentle and Birtwhistle beating the USA to the title in Hamburg last year. All four have been selected for Gold Coast, and with McShane the oldest at 27, they have youth – as well as home support – on their side.
Already strong on the men’s side with consistent World Series performers Schoeman and Murray, the Commonwealth silver medallists from 2014 have received a further boost with Simone Ackermann switching allegiance from New Zealand having felt misled by the governing body over her omission from the Rio Olympics. Richmond-based two-time Olympian Gillian Sanders makes up the four, having successfully combined with Murray and Schoeman in Strathclyde Park four years ago.
Men to watch PT1
Bill Chaffey, Australia
Although 42 years old, the five-time ITU world champion is still the man to beat. Turned to wheelchair racing after being hit by a truck in 2005 while training for Ironman, Chaffey is undefeated against triathletes from the Commonwealth. But the Australian police officer is not infallible having missed a Paralympic medal in 2016 when finishing fourth. Chaffey’s aggressive style means thrills – and spills – are to be expected. He recently lost his national title by crashing out of his chair 200m from the finish line in the recent Australian championships on the Gold Coast.
Joe Townsend, England
Former marine who lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan is a genuine medal contender after his bronze in the World Triathlon Grand Final in September. The two Dutch athletes that beat him on that occasion will not be in competition, but Australian nemesis Chaffey, who finished ahead of Townsend in the Paralympics will be. The 29-year-old paratriathlete was sixth in Rio, but is still improving, and having comfortably won the national championship in August, is indisputably the British number one.
Mark Conway, England
The 38-year-old lost a leg in his fight against bone cancer as a teenager, but was inspired to tri by wheelchair ace David Weir’s medal-winning heroics at London 2012. The Lincolnshire paratriathlete just missed out on a place at the Rio Olympics to the experienced Phil Hogg, but has been rewarded for his dedication with a starting berth on Gold Coast. Seven weeks full-time training, including a trip to Mallorca, has given him a break from the day job with the county council and the hope he can break into medal contention.
Also watch out for…
Paralysed from the waist down due to a neurological condition, 31-year-old Queenslander Nic Beveridge will be the pacesetter by virtue of receiving a 3min head start over triathletes deemed to have less of a disability. Since taking up the sport five years ago, he’s also improved every season and came in just seven seconds behind Townsend in the Grand Final in September. Beverideg’s form is just ahead of the third member of the host nation, Scott Crowley, 38, who sustained spinal injuries 12 years ago and was formerly a professional wheelchair basketball player in Italy.
Women to watch PT1
Emily Tapp, Australia
The gold medal favourite and five-time ITU world champion hasn’t been beaten since Chicago 2015 – although Jade Jones-Hall came within 58sec in Rotterdam last year. The 26-year-old Sydney-born racer was selected for the Australian para-athletics team for the Rio Paralympics but had to withdraw after suffering severe burns before flying to pre-Games training camp. As an H1-rated athlete, Tapp will start with a 3min 58sec time advantage over less disabled competitors, and is joined by fellow Aussies Sara Tait and Lauren Parker. The latter finished second in the 2015 Ironman world championship in her age-group before breaking her back and pelvis in a bike crash in 2017.
Jade Jones-Hall, England
The 22-year-old law student from Middlesbrough might be inexperienced in triathlon – her first ITU race was in Yokohama last year – but is already a two-time Paralympian and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist over 1,500m in Glasgow. Medal hopes are well founded having finished second in the 2017 Grand Final in Rotterdam, and mentored by 11-time Paralympic champion Tanni Grey-Thompson, she will also return to wheelchair racing action, taking part in both the 1,500m and the marathon.
Lizzie Tench, England
The 43-year-old from Shropshire broke her back after being hit by the trailer of an overtaking car in 2012 and was recruited by British Triathlon after a Talent ID programme in 2014. British paratriathlon champion for the past three years, she’s competitive on the world stage, becoming European champion and world silver medallist in 2016. Will be Tench’s first opportunity to race paratri at a global multisport festival because the women’s PT1 class was omitted from the Paralympics, although the men’s wheelchair division did race.
Also watch out for…
Another H1 paratriathlete, Scotland’s Karen Darke was paratriathlon world champion in Auckland 2012, having won Paralympic silver on the hand-cycle at London 2012 a month earlier. That turned to time trial gold in Rio 2016, after which she was awarded an MBE for her services to sport. Having returned to tri, she won in Italy last year and finished second to Tench in the national championship in the East Midlands.