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Could injury wreck GB triathlon hopes?

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Ollie Williams | 12:03 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2012

All being well, Great Britain will win at least three medals in the Olympic triathlon races this summer. Two will be gold.

The problem is, all is not well. Britain may have both the current world champions in Alistair Brownlee and Helen Jenkins, but Brownlee is injured. He recently tore his Achilles tendon.

For younger brother Jonny, world champion in the shorter sprint triathlon and world number two to Alistair over the Olympic distance, this means the temporary loss of his training partner. The world's top two male triathletes - Britons, and brothers - have had their preparations disrupted at a crucial moment.

Yet such is their dominance that this has happened before, to very little effect. Alistair Brownlee sat out the opening months of the 2010 season with a stress fracture, then came back to win two world series races.

In 2011, a heel problem at the start of the year cleared up in time for him to win the European Championships despite suffering a puncture during the race, with Jonny second. They crossed the line moments apart, far in advance of the field. Brownlee won in Hyde Park and Beijing that year en route to the world title ahead of his brother.

Problems at the start and victories at the end seemed to characterise each season. Will this one be any different?

In this Saturday's British Olympic Dreams, on BBC One from 1300 GMT, we'll examine the promise of Britain's triathlon trio and hear how injury could be the biggest obstacle between Alistair Brownlee and gold.

Jonny Brownlee (left) with Alistair Brownlee

'We need to keep winning races,' says Jonny Brownlee (left, with Alistair). Photo: Getty Images

"I'm not much of a worrier but, if I think of things that could go wrong, injury is the big one," the elder Brownlee admitted to BBC Sport before he sustained that tendon tear.

"If I got an injury in a month's time" - which, indeed, he has - "I could still get pretty fit in the time I have. But I'd be standing on the start line [at the Olympics] feeling this is not where I want to be, and then maybe third place is my best possible finish.

"It's important not to plan too much. You can't plan for every situation, and then the situations you haven't planned for happen and you don't know how to deal with them. You have to be prepared for the worst on the day. Fitness and confidence has a lot to do with it. If you have that, you can deal with almost anything that's thrown at you."

The injury is by no means unmanageable. It could be far worse. Brownlee is expected to imminently ramp up his training once more, and the time lost may prove inconsequential.

Jonny Brownlee hopes so. He knows that, currently, a sizeable portion of the battle in each race is being won by the reputation the brothers have carved out with their phenomenal results of the past three years.

"It's important we keep on winning races," he told us. "If we're both continuously doing well, we can turn up to races and some people are beaten before we even start. They turn up, they see us, and they think, 'Aw no, they're here.' That's a massive advantage.

"I've been beaten by people like that before - [Spanish rival] Javier Gomez is an example. I remember racing against him a few years ago: I turned up to the start and I was beaten by him already. I thought I couldn't beat him. So we need to keep that going."

Now, there is only one person Jonny Brownlee believes he cannot beat. His brother. Fascinatingly, the two employ vastly different mindsets when it comes to who, in their ideal world, finishes first on that Olympic podium this year.

"I don't think I've ever been on a start line, looked across, and thought I could beat Alistair," admitted Jonny Brownlee. "I'm not racing for second - I'm racing to win - but at the same time I know when Alistair's on top form, he's going to beat me.

"If he wins and I come second, it's a victory for both of us. If I definitely wanted to beat him then maybe I'd change a few things I do - I could be more selfish and work against him - but at the same time we would lose an advantage both of us have. We can use each other massively."

Framing the men's Olympic race as one determined by whether Britain can install both Brownlees on the start line intact and confident would be wrong. The variables beyond that are many. Alistair Brownlee may have won nine out of 11 races in 2011, a staggering figure, but he still didn't win two. It is not that simple.

However, for Jenkins the question is different. She is older than the Brownlees - 27 to Alistair's 23 and Jonny's 21 - and her path to the world number one spot has been carved out with gritty consistency and top-five finishes, not a dazzling row of gold medals.

Helen Jenkins

Helen Jenkins' determination and consistency earned her the world number one spot. Photo: Getty Images

"It's been a slower progression for me," she said as 2012 dawned. "Alistair went from 12th at the Olympics in 2008 to winning every race in 2009, and he's won more than 50% of the world series races he's ever entered. That's amazing. I just haven't had that sort of explosion onto the scene.

"I've been around a bit longer, a bit more under the radar. In 2011, I won only one race on the world series but I had a few seconds."

The challenge for Jenkins, used to operating on fewer race wins than Alistair Brownlee, is to make sure one of them happens to turn up at Hyde Park in August. Happily for her, in 2011 that was the case.

"Hyde Park was incredible," she said. "I've not experienced support like that in a race before. And it replicated the Olympics, putting all that pressure on yourself for one day."

Alistair won the men's race that weekend, with Jonny third, ensuring all three earned Olympic qualification. The sheer level of British support stunned them. We journalists can write until we are blue in the face that these triathlons medals are as good as won but, if things do go awry on the day, it might be the crowd that saves them.

"I remember saying in the press conference before the race that the home crowd makes no difference," recalled Alistair. "Then tens of thousands of people turned up. At the swim, as far as you could see down the Serpentine there were people four abreast walking up to watch the race. The cheers were amazing. I thought, 'Wow, maybe there is something in this home-crowd malarkey.' That sticks with me.

"It was a big ask to get two of us in the top three at that race, and when we actually did it, it was like, 'Wow'. But all the hype is external to us. We've seen what's possible, we know what we can do. Hopefully we can go out and execute."


  • Comment number 1.

    Alistair Brownlee is the fastest male triathlete over olympic distance in the world. Therefore, if he is fit (and thats a big 'if') he is very likely to win olympic gold. Helen Jenkins is consistently close to the top, but is she actually the fastest? At a one off event such as the Olympics, the distinction between the two is critical.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good blog, keeps us up-to-date with the latest triathlon news via the BBC. Actually has a point, some good interviews and insight. Includes analysis, correct information... The rest of the BBC Blog writers could learn from this (imo).

    I was in Hyde Park in for the 2011 race... The atmosphere was amazing and the Brownlees were incredible. One of them should win in the summer, and Katherine should podium (again imo)

  • Comment number 3.

    Average_Man - did you really just confuse our top female triathlete (over Olympic distance anyway) with an opera singer?

    Alistair will come back and one of them will win gold, personally I don't think Helen will match that as I expect Paula Findlay to be fit again and I just can't see the Brit beating her in a straight foot race no matter how much home support there is.

  • Comment number 4.

    #2 - will she sing an aria on her way round the course?

    Unless Ali's training is sevrrely curtailed I can't see him being beaten. Even if he is it would most likely be his kid brother who beats him! Helen too, has a great chance but will ned to be at her absolute peak on the day which I'm sure we all hope she will be.

  • Comment number 5.

    A good blog and there is no doubt that if fit and on form Alistair is favourite for the Olympic gold and Jonathan is favourite for a medal. However, I was also at the test event at Hyde Park in August 2011 (and got an absolute soaking ..!). Impressive as Alistair's victory was, in my view several of his competitors were not really pushing themselves. For instance, he broke away in the cycling phase and the main peloton did not really try to reel him in. I don't think that will happen in the Olympics. The test event was one of several UTC events in 2011 but the Olympics is the BIG ONE in 2012 and all the Browning's competitors will be aiming to peak for that race. It's going to take a terrific effort to win it.

  • Comment number 6.

    yeah sorry bout that mistake, dont know what happened

  • Comment number 7.

    Everybody look like ants!

  • Comment number 8.

    => Tim

    Alistair was definitely the best as his results showed throughout the season (one loss if my memory serves me correctly when he fell in Sydney) I agree it will be a much tighter race in August as several of the others in the main peloton were probably more interested in chasing qualification for the Olympics than going for a win.

    In some cases the requirement was to be in the top 5 or 10 so do you risk going for a win and blowing up or do you watch who is around you with the knowledge that if you can beat all bar four on the run you will be pretty much guaranteeing your return in 2012.

    As for on the day itself, history has shown that the form book rarely holds good in Olympic triathlon. Alistair is almost certainly the strongest of the likely entrants in the men's race but his every move will be watched, as will Canada's Paula Findlay in the women's race.

    As for Alistair having an injury at this time of the season, isn't that a given like Xmas every December.


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