By now, most selections for the Olympic Games have taken place. The greatest sporting event begins this month after five years of waiting. It’s going to be symbolic, something the whole world can unite behind in the wake of this pandemic.
Even now, stories are being told about spectacular human performances, dreams that will be made a reality and the incredible work and sacrifice which goes into forging an Olympic medallist. I’ve seen it first hand, but this is something a little different. This is my story, the guy who just didn’t quite make it…
The task ahead…
Qualifying for the games in triathlon can be complicated and half of the start list hinges on whether a nation can qualify a relay team. This then offers two quota slots per federation. To qualify for the third spot, a nation must have at least three athletes in the top 30 Olympic rankings. Being ranked 37th at the start of the season, I was the only British athlete close to the top 30 who had a chance at qualifying for the third spot for Great Britain in the men’s race.
To be honest, it should have been wrapped up in 2019, but unfortunately I was part of two crashes in Montreal and Hamburg that caused me to lose valuable points, and I was unable to race the Grand Final due to a torn calf. Consequently, when the qualification period restarted, I had a chase on my hands.
I needed roughly 1,000 points to secure a top 30 (providing those around me didn’t climb too high though). In a normal season, this would have been possible, but due to the pandemic, our qualifying period was crammed into five weeks and three continents, and we’d lost two high-scoring World Triathlon Championship Series (WTCS) events along the way.
From the beginning it didn’t go as planned…
My first race was Yokohama WTCS, where I placed 22nd. Going into this race, I had high hopes. I thought my winter training had been the best it had in years and I thought I was close to my lifetime best form. I wasn’t expecting the shock of what happened in the race, to find every position a scrap to hold onto.
The swim was rough, which caused a hard chase for 20km and it didn’t settle for the remainder. I’d never had to push so hard in my life. My legs felt weak and I was losing metres out of every corner. Forty kilometres of that type of riding destroyed my legs, so there was nothing left for the run.
I scored less than 200 points, which meant the next races were going to be even more important. After speaking with my coach, we put the result down to rustiness and shock due to not being on a start line for over 14 months. I recovered from my disappointment and dusted myself off.
I was motivated to go again at the Lisbon World Cup the following week and was quite excited to prove to myself that I was in good shape. Yet just like Yokohama, Lisbon World Cup did not go to plan. I found myself on the back foot, chasing hard. The added fatigue from an Olympic distance race the week before, quarantine and jet lag hit me hard.
In the end, I had no choice but to pull out. I was in the 30s and going backwards. Out of the points. So an effort to carry on would have been futile for Olympic rankings. It hurt me to withdraw, but I knew any shot at scoring points in my final block of racing would be damaged if I pushed through and finished the race.
Cagliari World Cup in Sardinia was next. A fabulous place. Beautiful blue sea, quiet winding roads and coastal villages. It was an incredible setting for a race. I was fortunate enough to fly straight from Lisbon, so spent a week finding local training loops.
I needed a week in this place to clear my head and work on my confidence, as it had taken a battering after a DNF in Lisbon. I again tried to rationalise my form and put it down to travel, jet lag and the fact I’d not raced in a while, which must have been why these first few races were taking it out of me. Though, I couldn’t completely get rid of the doubt in my mind.
The pressure was building, I was running out of opportunities to score points. I had help in this race which gave us some hope. Alistair had offered his services as a domestique to protect me during the bike. If I’m honest, I could have had a whole team and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I dug as deep as I ever had that day on the bike and I had nothing again.
In the past, I would have been in my element on the tough hilly course, but for some reason, my riding form had gone. I had no idea why I was riding so poorly. The fact I was involved in a crash on the last lap wouldn’t have made a difference to my result, I knew I wasn’t good enough to score the points we needed.
I landed back in the UK confused. I had no idea why my form was so far off what I’d judged a month or so ago. That and the building pressure of qualifying the third spot was getting to me. In all honesty, I was at the lowest point in my career. I’d never felt pressure like it and to try and deal with that, lacking any self-confidence and not trusting your body and training was a real challenge.
I had two races left to score the points Great Britain needed, and with the shape I was in, that felt like an impossible task…
Leeds WTCS has always been a big race for me. It’s been my home for 12 years and I’ve always delivered decent results, 5th (2017) and 6th (2018). I’ve also been the highest-scoring Brit in the past two editions, so if anything was going to keep my hopes alive, this race was it. We had a strategy again with Gordon Benson and Sam Dickinson supporting me. They both held back and paced me to the front of the race which took around 20km.
Without them, all would have been lost, and I can’t thank them enough for sacrificing their performances. By the time we dismounted, I’d gone deeper than any other point in my racing career. I don’t remember much of the run except certain points on the course where I recognised friends and family cheering. Those were the people I was racing for that day, not myself, not to score points or try and qualify for the Games, it was for those who’d always supported me. I didn’t want to let them down. I finished 16th in the end, my best race of the season so far. I was genuinely happy with what I delivered given the mental and physical state I was in. There was nothing else I could have done.
Believe it or not, that result kept us in the hunt for Olympic qualification. However, it would have to be a podium in Mexico, the final race of the period, and also to trust that no other rivals gained points. As a performance team, we decided to withdraw from the points chase. The team believed that it risked my health too much. It was the fifth race in a row, the extensive travel and oppressive race conditions would have been too much of a challenge and simply, my form was not good enough.
Giving up the Olympic dream
Giving up on the Olympic dream was hard. But I think it had ceased to be my dream for a while, given the unhappiness I was experiencing while chasing it. Looking back, there are things I would have done differently. Maybe a smarter racing strategy would have yielded better results, but nothing was certain, and when my confidence started to go, there was no chance of success.
Our performance director admitted that chasing is rarely successful and the reality was that we found ourselves in a very pressurised position not conducive to performance. It was a sad end to my Olympic ambitions, I had so much hope and I know people around me felt the same. But the fact I gave 100% is something I am proud of and I’ll never regret my efforts.
Mine wasn’t the only story of qualification trials. The American and Australian men were in a similar battle too, as well as those fighting for their slots in the top 55 (nations without relay teams) such as Russel White (IRE), Steffan Zachaus (LUX) and Richard Varga (SVK). The women’s qualification had their own dramas as well.
The media won’t cover much of this, it prefers success stories. But I can guarantee you there is as much hard work and sacrifice going on further down the ranking as to those at the very top. The difference is, we don’t have the highs and jubilation to keep us going. It can be a very tough and lonely time, travelling from race to race scrapping for minor placings. The battles often happen in your own mind, and I’m proud to be on the start line with those who keep showing up.
Everything I’ve worked towards over the past five years has ended. I’ve been figuring out what to do. It’s actually been weeks since I’ve really thought about my future. I’m just training hard with a simple plan. The opportunity to be involved with an altitude camp came about and I did not hesitate. It was exactly what I needed. I was invited out to Livigno to help Vicky Holland prepare for the Olympic Games.
I’ve done a lot of race effort simulation and pacing but I’ve also been given some flexibility to keep focusing on my own programme, which has mainly been lots of bike volume and threshold climbing. Being away in the mountains has inspired me again and I have fallen in love with triathlon once more, after a very stressful few years.
As for racing, before I left for altitude I got the opportunity to race a PTO-funded race at Eton Dorney which was great fun. I only had my REAP road bike but still decided to give it a crack, lay down some rubber from my Continental GP 5000s, and learn a little about longer distance racing… there was a lot to learn. But it was also fun to mix it up again at the front and be reminded of what that feels like. I forgot how fun it was to be right in the mix after the previous races of just surviving.
I’m excited about the next long-distance race, but it won’t be for a little while yet. I still want to prove to myself that I can race competitively in World Triathlon short course racing and that leaves Montreal, Edmonton, Hamburg, Bermuda and Abu Dhabi WTCS left on my calendar. I’ve been in touch with Challenge Family series and will consider a few longer races later in the season, but for now I want to nail the final few races in the World Series.
I’m lucky to have supporters who believed in me and my dream to qualify for the Olympic Games. I can’t thank my sponsors Huub, On Running, Reap Bikes, SunGod and WeBuyCycle enough for the help they have offered over the years. I’d also like to say that every message of encouragement or consolation received meant everything. I’m so happy to hear that people follow my story and take inspiration from what I do.
Follow Tom on Instagram as he prepares for his next set of challenges
Top image credit: Graham Beardsley at @vspimages
Don’t miss the ‘220 guide to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics’, on sale now. Our 17-page section include essential viewing information, course routes, Team GB profiles, and our pick of the top individual and mixed relay contenders. Plus, we countdown the top 20 Olympic triathlon moments and speak exclusively to two-time Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee about his new book,Relentless: Secrets of the Sporting Elite.