The crowds lined the streets alongside the Copacabana. Most of those racing had never competed in front of such numbers, but as for a global audience for paratriathlon’s Paralympic debut…? It didn’t happen.
Great Britain’s Andy Lewis won Team GB’s first gold and three other medals followed, yet there was no live broadcast celebrating the achievements. As we look to Tokyo, the situation’s been flipped. At time of press, there’ll be no fans allowed, but millions will tune in, including free-to-air on the BBC.
It’s not the only thing to change. Paratriathlon head coach Jonny Riall had a “clear goal” of trying to qualify as many athletes as possible for Brazil. Eleven paratriathletes and two guides made for the largest team competing, and the medal haul wasn’t bad either.
But five years on, with Riall still in charge, the focus is on performance. Despite the number of classes rising from six to eight, a squad of just eight plus three guides will compete in Tokyo – but every one of them has a medal chance. “There’s no pressure on that statement,” Riall says. “To be selected for this team you have proved your potential.
“We knew that if we continued to do what we did, we would find ourselves nowhere when it came to medals in Tokyo. Paralympic sport moves on very quickly.”
How has the preparation gone for Tokyo?
Preparation has gone well. While 2020 saw a wipe-out of competition, this season Riall believes the opportunities afforded his squad, including two Super League Arena Games experiences and World Series races in Yokohama and Leeds (not originally scheduled in 2020), have surpassed those available for many other sports. But even the year of non-competition isn’t viewed as an issue. “When the Games was postponed, the drive to compete was taken away,” he explains. “For the most part, the consistency of training and simplicity of a life of fewer distractions has led to the standard going up. Fingers crossed, but the guys going to the Games are in much better shape than they would have been last year.”
Some, such as Lauren Steadman, who won silver in Rio and appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2018, might be familiar. Others, such as the visually-impaired Dave Ellis, who’s waited 13 years for a Paralympic return, less so.
Then there’s George Peasgood, who’ll compete in both paratri and cycling, and Fran Brown, a 2019 world and European champion, who lives with Crohn’s and has a stoma. All are ready to be showcased to a wider audience. You can get a head start here…
What are the different paratriathlon categories at the Paralympics?
Eight Paratriathlon classes have been selected and all races will take part over a sprint distance (750m swim, 20km cycle and a 5km run. The chosen men and women will race in:
PTWC – The wheelchair division is split into two classifications within one race, with a factoring system giving a head-start to the more impaired athletes.
PTS2 (women only) – For standing triathletes with the most severe impairments. Athletes often use a prothesis. E.g, Brown had a spinal cord injury that affects all four limbs.
PTS4 (men only) – Athletes with moderate levels of disability compete in this standing class. For example, Taylor is a below-the-knee amputee.
PTS5 – The standing class for the mildest impairments. Both Cashmore and Steadman have a single-arm disability.
PTVI – Visually impaired and blind athletes compete alongside one another. As with the PTWC class, a factoring system attempts to iron out the inherent visual disadvantage between competitors.
Who are GB’s Paralympic triathletes and when will they be racing?
There are two days of racing on 28 and 29 August, starting from 6:30am local time in Japan (10:30pm the day before in the UK). Channel 4 will be providing extensive coverage of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games across its main channel, More4 and their dedicated Paralympics microsite: paralympics.channel4.com/live, which will host 16 live streams.
Here are Team GB paratriathletes alongside their respective class and the day they will be racing
Saturday 28 August:
Men’s PTS4 – Michael Taylor, 25, Barstaple
Men’s PTVI – Dave Ellis (guide: Luke Pollard), 35, Derby
Women’s PTS2 – Fran Brown, 36, London
Women’s PTVI – Alison Peasgood (Guide: Nikki Bartlett), 33, Dunfermline
Women’s PTVI – Melissa Reid (guide: Hazel Macleod), 30, Truro
Sunday 29 August:
Men’s PTS5 – George Peasgood, 25, Saffron Walden
Women’s PTS5 – Claire cashmore, 33, Kidderminster
Women’s PTS5 – Lauren Steadman, 28, Peterborough
Who’s likely to win gold?
After 2016 in Rio and then competing for the Glitter Ball Trophy, Lauren Steadman has probably had enough of silver. Gold is the objective, and if her form continues from Leeds, where she defeated team-mate Claire Cashmore and reigning Paralympic champion Grace Norman of the US, she has every chance.
“Lauren’s in the best shape I’ve seen her,” says Riall. “Not just physically, but where her head is at. Plus, she does well in the heat.”
Doing well in the heat is going to be all-important in the potential furnace-like conditions of Tokyo. While Steadman is training in Lanzarote with coach Robin Brew, 2019 world champion Cashmore is acclimatising in the heat chambers at British Tri HQ in Loughborough.
“The athletes just finished a two-week heat camp and Claire was probably one of those who faired the best completing some incredibly difficult sessions,” Riall says. “It’s so hard to split [Cashmore, Steadman and Norman],” Riall adds. “They yo-yo backwards and forwards in races. All three are racing better than 2016. The cycling has moved on dramatically, and earlier this year Grace ran the fastest time we’ve seen. I wouldn’t expect her to turn up anything less than ready to race.”
Another category where gold medal hopes are high is in the men’s PTVI class, where Cashmore’s partner, Dave Ellis, guided by Luke Pollard, is favourite. Ellis has had a long wait. A Paralympic swimmer in 2008 before switching to tri, the men’s PTVI class wasn’t included in Rio and he’s held on an extra five years for Tokyo. “Dave was a swimmer who loved running, but had a lot of work to do when it came to the bike,” Riall said. “The challenge was to make him a better rider. It turned out that locking him in his house for a year, giving him a Kickr and numbers to hit worked. His functional threshold power has risen from around 260 to 320 watts. He’s as fit as a fiddle.”
The biggest challenge for Ellis may not come directly from his opposition but how fair the ‘factoring’ that gives blind triathletes a 3:21min head-start [3:48 for the women] over visually impaired rivals plays out. “We’ve always felt if you can pair a blind paratriathlete with the right guide it will be a threat,” Riall says.
The two USA athletes are likely to be that threat. Ellis will have the best part of an hour to make the catch. It’s the same in the women’s PTVI class where Spain’s 2018 and 2019 world champion Susana Rodriguez has a time buffer and if Alison Peasgood and Melissa Reid want to improve on their respective silver and bronze from Rio, they’ll have to play catch-up. A big ask, but a switch up of guides may help.
2019 Ironman Lanzarote winner Nikki Bartlett will partner Peasgood and Hazel Macleod has switched to team up with Reid. “Alison is in the shape of her life,” Riall explains. “This year has been her most consistent and she has a great partnership with Nikki. They’ll race as quickly as we’ve ever seen. What the outcome will be, we’ll have to see.”
Alison won’t be the only family member aiming for a medal. Her brother-in-law George Peasgood is not only looking to step on to the podium in the PTS5 class, but will then also look to success in the cycling time-trial – as reigning TT world champion – and the road race. While current champion Martin Schulz and another heavy favourite, Canadian Stefan Daniel, have arm disabilities, Peasgood has a leg disability following an accident as a youngster. Historically he’s led before being hauled back on the run. “I remember when George was walking a 5km in 35mins at the end of a tri,” Riall says. “In lockdown, he ran it in 16:20mins. He’s every opportunity to race for top spot.”
As proved with a first-ever victory over Schulz in Yokohama. In the PTS4 category Michael Taylor’s efforts in getting to the Games are almost worthy of a medal. Taylor, who is studying for a medical degree in Bristol, spends three days a week training with Vicky Holland and is coached by her husband (and coach) Rhys Davey in Bath.
Former Paralympic swimmer Dave Ellis and his guide Luke Pollard are favourites to break the tape in Tokyo and become the first pair to medal in a men’s Paralympic paratri visually-impaired category.
“He’s been incredibly consistent and benefited from that extra year,” Riall says. “Brought up as a surf lifesaver, he’s a strong swimmer and has been able to translate that strength into time-trialling. Now he’s pushing on to a 16-something 5km, which is up there in his category.” Gold might be a challenge. Taylor finished second to Alexis Hanquinquant in both Yokohama and Leeds, and the Frenchman has lost just one of his last 14 races.
The final competitor to feature here is one close to Riall’s heart. “On a personal level, Fran Brown is the one I’ll be rooting for the most,” he says. “Fran has had a tough year health-wise and has been open in talking about her diagnosis of Crohn’s and having a stoma bag fitted. The complexity of learning how to fuel training and racing in the heat has been an enormous piece of work, yet she’s had the tenacity and desire to find a way.”
Brown, who is an incomplete tetraplegic after a spinal injury, won the world title in 2019 against the odds. “What she was eating and drinking weren’t being absorbed into her body properly,” Riall adds. “Now we have a much better plan around fuelling, hydration and recovery.”
How will Team GB cope with the conditions in Tokyo?
In the 2019 test event, the swim in Odaiba Bay was cancelled due to water quality. While extra precautions are in place, there’s nothing any organiser can do about the heat and humidity, which even with the 6:30am start could rise into the 30s.
“It’s our competitive advantage, I’d be pretty disappointed if it was a chilly!” Riall says confidently. “I’ve no doubt we’ll have done the heat prep better than anybody.” As for the experience as whole? “Honestly, I can’t wait. You can focus so much on things that could be negative, but I’ve found with every race this year that the experience outweighs the worry of getting there. Representing our country at a very challenged Paralympic Games is probably a bigger achievement than it ever has been. We’ve got a team that can win medals and it’ll be a cracking experience. I can’t wait.”