Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A glorious weekend in Beijing

(Courtesy of the BBC online)

A glorious weekend in Beijing has ensured Britain enters its home Olympic Games with both the male and female world champion triathletes.

The news gets better. Not only do Alistair Brownlee and Helen Jenkins now hold the world titles, Alistair's younger brother, Jonny, came second in the men's event.

Meanwhile, Britain's U23 men raced to a one-two-three as the 2011 season reached its climax at the sport's grand final in China.

But for the unwitting intervention of a stray dog, the team's results could have been yet more impressive.

When I ask the man in charge of Britain's triathletes why his team have become such a dominant force, it transpires the stray dog is an analogy for the entire sport.

"The Olympics are 11 months away and we're in a strong position," says Malcolm Brown, British Triathlon's Olympic performance manager, who is in China with his victorious squad as they celebrate.

"But think of it like this. Lucy Hall, one of our junior women, was leading her race here when a dog ran into her path and knocked her off her bike.

"The life of an athlete is full of stray dogs and you have to know how to deal with them when - and if - you see them."

Two world champions and a conveyor belt of younger talent implies those metaphorical dogs are safely on the leash for now.

Brown boils Britain's success down to three things: triathletes using their brains on the course, the governing body using its brain off it, and ensuring that developing athletes get the right coaching at the right time.

He has form with the latter. In 2002, the former endurance running coach for UK Athletics was dabbling in a little part-time coaching at the track when a father turned up with his two teenage sons.
As Brown remembers it, the man pointed to the taller boy and said: "This one is a good cross-country racer but after 200m he's always at the back. Can you make him faster?"

Gesturing to the shorter boy, the man added: "Don't worry about him. He's a footballer."
Alistair Brownlee would have been around 14, and Jonny two years younger. Brown enlisted the help of his colleague and triathlon coach Jack Maitland and, over the next decade, the pair not only made Alistair a bit quicker, they turned Jonny's head from football (if not Football Manager) and transformed them into the two finest male triathletes on the planet.

Brown looked at running and conditioning for the brothers while Maitland, who won the Everest Marathon in 1999 and remains the only non-Nepalese man in the list of its fastest times, concentrated on swimming and cycling. With time, the pair added physios, strength and conditioning coaches and so forth to reach the current staff of seven or eight, including a full-time manager, who prepare the Brownlees for races.

This is important because the Brownlees, alongside Jenkins, have set a precedent which has become the template for Britain's top triathletes.

Rather than basing themselves in a single centralised venue, like British Cycling's Manchester velodrome, the very best British triathletes are allowed to form their own staff and training bases. The Brownlees use Yorkshire and Jenkins uses Bridgend.

Triathletes in the UK earn the right to do that by finishing in the world's top eight, establishing themselves as a "podium athlete". But the system is flexible and, if athletes outside the top eight are prepared to accept a funding cut, they too are allowed to opt out of the sport's centralised programme. The likes of Tim Don and Will Clarke have done this and are known as "affiliate athletes", who can train elsewhere but still use British Triathlon's facilities as they see fit.

This leaves the centralised portion of British Triathlon - based in four centres, primarily Loughborough - free to focus on nurturing younger talent. A team of coaches with visiting specialists helps to prepare the next generation, such as the trio of U23 men who swept the Beijing podium, to follow in the footsteps of the Brownlees and Jenkins.

Matt Sharp, for example, overcame several years of injury trouble with the Loughborough centre's help, particularly its medical and sports science capabilities. He is now the newly crowned U23 world champion after leading home team-mates David McNamee and Tom Bishop in Beijing.

Yet with serious money to be made for high-profile senior triathlon victories, if Sharp goes on to establish himself in the world's top eight he may look to follow the Brownlees and strike out away from Loughborough. It is not a perfect system and some triathletes believe they have been unfairly treated by it, but it is more fluid than many others and seems to work for the sport.

"If you take the Brownlees, they're born and bred in Yorkshire, went to Bradford Grammar, used to cycle to school along the towpath, do cross-country at school, and swim at Leeds swimming club in the morning," says Brown.

"That whole environment has supported them. They've got great running trails there, an excellent physio, good coaching and good education opportunities in the city - they're both Leeds and Leeds Met university graduates.

"If you say to them: 'Right, now we want you to move to some central venue,' the amount they have to give up - which makes them happy where they are - is huge. It's a huge risk. Why would you take that risk?

"The success of Helen and the two Brownlees enabled British Triathlon to feel confident that they could invest in and around talented athletes training with high-quality coaches in different places. You need individual arrangements for individual athletes within an overall framework of support, direction and stability."

That support gets the athlete to the race. Then, during the event, intelligence becomes the ultimate cog in the machine.

Brown sees triathlon as the most complicated of sports and wants athletes capable of thinking for themselves during the race, because making the correct decisions in the heat of the moment accounts for a large degree of the difference between, say, the Brownlees and the rest.

"Triathlon demands a substantial number of judgement calls: whether to follow a bike break or not, who are those guys up the road, will I go alone or will people come with me? In the run, what are my strengths and weaknesses and what do my rivals think they are? A lot of it is knowing yourself as an athlete," he says.

"If you're trying to create a world or Olympic champion, you have to create an environment where the individual athlete weighs up the circumstances, makes calls, and more often than not gets them right. That is what we have tried to do, and you can only do that by seeing them fail occasionally, or stepping back as a coach when you could provide the answer. It comes down to trusting the athlete."

Triathlon in Britain is healthy at all levels. Beyond the Olympics, Chrissie Wellington has become a legend of the sport with back-to-back-to-back world titles over the punishing Ironman distance.

Amateur membership in the UK has more than doubled in five years, the sport's own figures show, with race starts - numbers taking part in recognised races - up 10% in the last year alone to more than 130,000.

Brown, however, is not convinced this increased pool from which to draw can only mean more British success in future.

"The sport's burgeoning internationally," he counters. "The Germans have got a great set of juniors at the moment on the men's side, while the Aussies have some fantastic female athletes.

"We really have to raise our game. But we've got a platform to do that. If we can keep stray dogs off the path, we'll be OK."

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