By Mitch Phillips
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Triathlon was invented in San Diego, made famous in Hawaii and polished on the beaches of Australia but the sport’s current epicenter, home to five Britons with serious Olympic prospects, is the slightly less glamorous northern British city of Leeds.
Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, gold and bronze medalists in the 2012 Games, have always been based in Yorkshire, eschewing warm-weather training camps in South Africa’s Stellenbosch and Boulder, Colorado, that have attracted so many of their compatriots over the years to instead bike and run on the same lanes and fells they knew as boys.
Their success, and that of coaches Jack Maitland and Malcolm Brown and their esteemed high-performance center in Leeds, has persuaded a host of other hopefuls that Yorkshire is the place to be.
Gordon Benson, the surprise third pick for the British team to act as a “domestique” for the Brownlees, was brought up in nearby Halifax, is studying at Leeds University and is now a regular training partner for the brothers.
On the women’s side, 2013 world champion Non Stanford made the move to Leeds in 2011, while Commonwealth Games bronze medalist Vicky Holland joined her two years later. The two women train together, cook together and relax together in the house they share.
Wales-based double world champion Helen Jenkins is the odd one out of the six British Olympians in not calling Leeds home.
Such is the impact the former industrial city has made on the sport that it now hosts the British leg of the Triathlon World Series. The Brownlees finished 1-2 in that one this year of course, while Holland was third in the women’s race won by hot Rio favorite Gwen Jorgensen of the United States.
The Brownlee boys are famed for remaining the most grounded of sportsmen despite their success. They shared a house until soon after their 2012 Olympic glory, and still live a stone’s throw from each other.
Both men still join their old friends in local cycling club rides and occasionally still race cross country.
FAMILIARITY A BENEFIT
In an interview given shortly before his London triumph, Alistair told the BBC: “I love it here. It’s got everything I need — great roads for cycling, perfect running, coaching and medical back-up. Australia’s too hot, and the roads round Stellenbosch are too busy. You can’t top Yorkshire.”
Jonny, two years his junior, agreed that familiarity was a benefit.
“We used to explore the area as kids. We went to a school that had a good reputation for running, went to a swimming club with convenient training times and cycled 10 miles to school and back every day,” he said recently.
“It’s the same now in terms of exploring –- we just do it a bit faster than when we were kids.”
Stanford says her move to Leeds was integral to the transformation of her career.
“I wouldn’t be talking about going to my first Olympic Games if I hadn’t moved to Leeds,” she said last month.
“The boys (the Brownlees) really showed me what it is to train and how to train and that definitely shifted me from an amateur athlete to a professional athlete.”
Holland raced in London in 2012 as a domestique for fifth-placed Jenkins but after a stellar 2015 she heads to Rio saying she now has loftier ambitions.
“Moving to Leeds and being able to learn from Non, Jonny and Ali, that’s been huge and has been the biggest thing in my success really,” she said.
“I’ve also had probably the most balanced lifestyle here that I’ve ever had. I’m just in a happy frame of mind and I’m relaxed and that translates into results for me.
“Rio is a bit of a Leeds takeover isn’t it? But really I think it’s just a testament to the center that we have here now and the fact that success breeds success.”
(Editing by Clare Fallon)