Let’s play a quick word association game – ‘Leeds triathletes’. Easy – the Brownlees. Yet while the two brothers will forever be synonymous with their hometown, it’s two other athletes who are slowly cementing the city, albeit their adopted one, as the centre for multisporting excellence. Cue Misses Vicky Holland and Non Stanford.
While their names are, of course, familiar to tri fans given their back catalogue of world-class performances (Stanford was the 2013 ITU World Champion and Holland is a London Olympian, Commonwealth Games bronze medallist and a regular visitor to the WTS podium), this renewed focus is due in no small part to two of the greatest displays of endurance and skill ever seen in ITU racing. In case you missed it, the GB Olympic selection criteria required athletes to podium at both the test event in Rio and the ITU World Champs in Chicago in order to automatically qualify. The strict policy shocked national federations, the media and athletes. For the GB squad it was simply a case of ‘right then, let’s do this’. And do it Stanford and Holland rightly did, finishing second and third respectively, behind the USA’s Gwen Jorgensen (more on her later), at both races and showing both the GB selectors and the watching world just how consistent, tactically strong and mentally astute the pair could play it when it mattered most.
Moreover, the performances came in what was a comeback year for the duo, both having suffered various lower limb-related injuries that affectively wrote off their entire 2014 season. Now fighting fit, the girls are preparing to take on the world… and win.
Fast-forward seven months following the Chicago Worlds and 220 is standing poolside at Leeds Uni. We’ve been granted two days’ exclusive access to the girls as they go about their pre-season routine and prepare for the first races of the Olympic year. Their swim coach Jack Maitland has mapped out the session on the whiteboard for the eight-strong group, which includes one of the fastest swimmers in ITU racing, and Holland’s London Games teammate, Lucy Hall. From the sidelines, it looks like any other group of friends catching up. Even in the water, while on a kick drill, they’re having a good old gossip, which continues into the proceeding gym session. There’s a great atmosphere among the group, which is key to any successful training set-up, and one which clearly works for Stanford, who moved here five years ago from her native Wales, and Holland, who made the move from Gloucestershire two and a half years ago.
“I’ve gone from someone who was basically on the edge of being lapped out of WTS to the podium and [the set-up in Leeds] has absolutely changed my career,” enthuses Stanford when we sit down together in their home later that day. “I’m not saying that if I went somewhere else I wouldn’t have made progress but I don’t actually think so. I don’t think I’d be a world champion. I’m lucky in that the set-up and the style of training really works for me.”
“I came here as an already established athlete,” adds Holland. “I’d been to the Olympics already and I’d had slightly better results, but everything I’ve done that has been really notable in my career I’ve achieved since I arrived here. I’m 10 times more consistent than I ever was both in the way I can train, and the way I race.”
“People always ask ‘what’s the secret?’” says Stanford, “but not everybody comes here and has the same results. We’ve made it work for us as well. It’s not just complete luck and coincidence.”
An interview within an interview then ensues between the pair. Holland: “I mean it took you what, two years of you being here for it to really sink in and for you to get those results that you had in 2013? And for me, for the first six-nine months when I got here I was just surviving.”
Stanford: “Yeah, you’re really bleary eyed and you just get on with it.”
Holland: “It’s hard and it’s a lot more volume than you’ve ever done before. Most of the time I was fatigued and feeling over-trained. But you have the faith that it’s going to come off for you and you’re doing the right things for the long term, and that definitely showed for me in the 2013 season and going forward.”
Room for both
When Holland left Darren Smith’s D-Squad (GB’s Jodie Stimpson’s training team), she would drive up to Leeds from her Gloucester hometown for sessions and stay with Stanford. When she finally made the decision to move full-time, her best friend Non was the obvious housemate. The Brownlee brothers are well known for having lived together, trained together and raced together, only going their separate ways house-wise in the last couple of years. A sibling relationship is one thing, but how does it work for the girls?
“We’re really good at not bringing work home,” says Stanford. “I know it’s not conventional work stuff but when we walk through the door we don’t talk about it, we make dinner together and do what normal housemates do and we can have a normal friendship.”
Holland: “If something funny comes up then we will talk about training but we’re really good at not analysing our sessions. And there are other girls in the group who now don’t do triathlon, so for us that’s actually more interesting talking about their normal life.
Stanford: “And you want to know what life on the other side is like! So that to us is more interesting than sitting down and talking about our next race, or what tomorrow morning’s swim set might be.”
But what about the big day itself? As with the Brownlees, one of their biggest rivals is going to be their housemate, training partner and friend. “In August, we both know that we want to be on that podium, and there’s definitely room for the both of us,” says Stanford. “We can utilise the fact we are so close to benefit us. When you get onto the run it’s every woman for herself but we can work together to make sure we’re both there when it happens.”
We’re thoroughly enjoying being in their company; it’s 100% genuine and open, not cliquey or exclusive. It’s a hoot listening back to the interview as they finish off each other’s sentences and happily talk about the other’s performances or current fitness level knowing the other will never take offence. After all, there’s no hiding when your lives are so entwined, both in and out of the sport.
So what about the lives of those athletes they don’t see on a daily basis? An American by the name of Gwen Jorgensen for example, who until very recently held the imposing title of ‘unbeaten’ having won 12 consecutive WTS races on the trot.
“She’s a consideration due to how phenomenal she’s been, so it’d be a bit ignorant to not consider her in your training, but at the same time you can’t base all of your training around one athlete,” says Holland. “The way to attack it is to focus on being the best athlete you can be first, and then put tactical elements into it after that.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what shape Gwen is in at that time of year [August],” adds Stanford. “We’ll next see her in Leeds in June [12th] on our home turf! We’ll show her what it’s like to ride a bike in Leeds!”
The athlete who beat Jorgensen was the girls’ fellow GBer and, as a result, their now Rio teammate, Helen Jenkins, who at the Gold Coast WTS arguably put in the performance of her long, world championship-winning career to break away on the bike and put enough air between her and Jorgensen to take the win.
Catching up with the girls on the phone post-Cape Town (the race after Gold Coast), they were both understandably impressed by Jenkins’ “exceptional” performance. But in order for Jenkins to make the grade, Jodie Stimpson had to say goodbye to her Olympic dream for the second time in a row. Racing alongside Stanford and Holland in Cape Town, Stimpson demonstrated her podium-mounting ability by finishing second behind Stanford.
“[At the finish line] I was just saying to her how incredibly well she did considering all she’d been through,” says Stanford. “She’d genuinely found the two weeks leading into that race very very tough. And to pick herself up and to come out with a podium performance is very impressive and testament to her character. And all around that race she was fantastic, she was great with me and Vicky and genuinely wanted us to do well for the Games.”
Rio Medal target
Rio will be the second time for Holland to represent her country. But, in a marked shift from her supporting role at the London Games, she’ll be racing outright, for herself and for medals. As will her two teammates.
“It’s definitely a different mindset,” admits Holland. “In 2012 it was a completely different way to prepare for a race – dropping off the run volume and working specifically on the swim and bike. It changed it, but it didn’t make it any less of an experience to go there, stand on that start line and know that the best thing for me that day would be if Helen [Jenkins] medalled. This year isn’t about going to get the Olympic experience or going to help somebody else, it’s about going there to try and win a medal and it’s a completely different mindset.”
For Stanford, this’ll be her first Games: “I’m preparing myself for it being a shock! But I think we’ve got a good team around us to help soften the blow a bit. I’m just trying not to think too much about it because then you can get yourself worked up and become overwhelmed. At the minute it seems really far away.”
On speaking to Jenkins not long after her win in the Gold Coast, she remarked how it was a relief not to be going into the Games with a target on her back, as in London. Despite her ‘loss’ at the Gold Coast, for many Jorgensen is still the current favourite to take Rio gold, which at present is a blessing for the girls, allowing them to train and race unencumbered with that oft-disappointing number-one target.
Making that transition even smoother to the start line on 20 August is their current set-up in Leeds, and, as with the Brownlees in the lead-up to London, having each other to keep the other grounded and focused on the job in hand so that they execute the best race of their lives on the day it matters most. And so far, the signs are positive: the first hit-out of the year in Cape Town, albeit a sprint race, resulted in a first for Stanford and a sixth for Holland.
“It bodes well for the rest of the season, but not too much that I’m going to get too excited too soon,” said Stanford post-race. “There’s still a lot of work to do and I’m still a long way off where I need to be for Rio. I’m not aiming to be at my best until August.”
“It just highlighted a few issues around making things gel perfectly for me,” said Holland. “I’ve just got a few little things to work on. So for me not feeling good in a race, I still think it’s hugely positive that, on a bad day, I’m still coming out with a sixth-place result, which is really quite encouraging. Non was surprised but she was incredible on that day, which is great, and that’s a great platform moving forward. I guess I’m just starting from a step or two lower.”
While neither girl is currently injured, the dreaded ‘I’ word has blighted many an athletes’ career and Olympic pursuit – Jenkins’ medal chances in London, for example – and is something the girls know only too well. The answer? Prevention and pragmatism.
“I think as an elite athlete you’re always managing something… what you’re putting your body through, you’re always going to find little problems,” says Stanford. “We both see a physio twice a week, we have massages once a week, we’re really hot on looking after ourselves.”
“I think if you didn’t have anything you’re either incredibly lucky or I’d question whether you’re not pushing yourself enough,” adds Holland. “I think it’s part and parcel [of the life as a pro athlete] and we just accept that.”
Racing for Team GB comes with prestige, some of the world’s best coaches at your fingertips and proven Olympic medal success. The one thing it’s never achieved, however, is a women’s podium. So is 2016 the year? With what’ll hopefully be a fully fit and healthy Holland/Stanford/Jenkins triumvirate racing together yet ultimately for themselves, it’s the strongest chance we’ve had to collect medals. Ladies, it’s your time to shine.