LEEDS, England (Reuters) – Alistair Brownlee was done with the Olympics. Having won triathlon gold in London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro four years later, Tokyo, even with the event delayed by a year, felt too much for a man who had switched his focus to longer events.
But the Olympic allure, no matter how difficult it will be for this triathlon superstar to even qualify for this summer’s showpiece, has proven to be irresistible.
“It definitely wasn’t the plan to do Olympic distance triathlon again,” Brownlee told Reuters. “I was pretty sure that 2016 was going to be my last year of shorter distance racing. After 2018 I wanted to completely move on.
“I had basically four or five years of injury after injury. I was fed up. I was pretty close to retiring, from the long distance as well. Injuries are the one thing that really make me struggle with motivation.
“But then something happened. I started to feel better again. My training was going really well. My body got really healthy,” he added.
“I thought I’d train as hard as I could for four or five months, throw everything at it, and if I qualify it would be amazing to go to the Olympics again.”
Having conquered the Olympic distance of 1,500 metres swim, 40km bike and 10km run, an altogether more mind-blowing challenge became the 32-year-old Briton’s focus – “SUB7”.
Brownlee’s goal is to become the first person to complete the Ironman distance – 3.9 kilometre open water swim and 180km cycle followed by a full marathon – in under seven hours. That is more than 35 minutes under the world record.
As many before him have found, Olympic dominance is no guarantee of immediate Ironman success. At the world championships in Hawaii in 2019 Brownlee struggled badly on the run and dropped from third place to 21st.
However, as he has done all his life, it did not take him long to climb to the top as six weeks later Brownlee won an Ironman race in Australia, smashing the course record, before COVID-19 curtailed the season.
“You’d think it is much easier racing for two hours compared to the eight in Ironman, but it isn’t,” he says. “In fact, shorter distance is the harder form of racing.”
Brownlee has other interests, too, with his latest book “Relentless”, an investigation into sporting greatness, released in July.
But just writing a book while putting in hours of Ironman distance training would have been too easy for this differently-wired athlete. A late battle to qualify for the British Olympic triathlon team has been squeezed in too.
The fact he is chasing a third successive gold counts for nothing. His Ironman focus has meant Brownlee has neglected Olympic distance triathlon and has fallen down the pecking order.
Brother Jonny, who won silver in Rio and bronze in London, has bagged one Olympic team spot, with potentially two more up for grabs. Alistair is going to have to do it the hard way.
“It is a complicated path (to qualify),” Brownlee adds. “As a Great Britain team, we don’t know if we have two or three slots yet.
“In the upcoming qualification races, if I go out and win there’s effectively nothing to worry about. But someone else could do the same.”
It was initially feared the season would not restart before the Olympics, but there was relief when World Triathlon announced the races will resume in Yokohama, Japan in May.
It will be a tall order, but one final shot at an Olympic treble is still possible.
“I did a few competitive races late last year,” Brownlee said.
“I was seconds off beating the best guy in the world. I’m in the best condition I could hope for. My swimming is as good if not better than it has ever been.
“I’m committed to being in the best possible shape and be ready to win in Tokyo. But also, I’m really happy I’ve been to three Olympics and won twice. Fourteen-year-old me never dreamed of doing that.”
The odds are stacked against him, but that has never stopped Alistair Brownlee before.
(Reporting by Peter Hall, editing by Ed Osmond)