GB triathlon stars Jonathan and Alistair Brownlee on sibling rivalries and the importance of family

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, captivated the nation as they jostled to victory in the London 2012 men’s triathlon, taking gold and bronze medals, and becoming the first brothers in a century to stand on the Olympic podium side by side, entwined in victory.

This unique and memorable moment was built on a lifetime of training and a strong brotherly competitiveness, which has sparked their dominance within the unforgiving and gruelling field of triathlon.

The lads from Yorkshire are now keen on sharing their motivation and passion for sport with the next generation, becoming brand ambassadors for Warburtons, and their new ‘Half and Half ‘campaign, which aims to get kids active.

The brother’s have even launched a ‘half and half-term takeover’ of the Warburtons’ Facebook page to promote their top tips for the holidays, broadcast daily challenges and offer nutritional guidance.   

Ben Cullen and Sam Skelding caught up with the Olympic heroes to talk about their role in the campaign, sibling rivalries, and the importance of family influences during their quest to sporting glory.

It’s perhaps an unusual alliance, how did you get involved with the Warburton’s ‘Half and Half’ campaign?

Alistair: Well there’s a few reasons really. Firstly because we’re passionate about getting kids outside and active from our own childhood, running around, doing all sorts of activities so it’s a really nice fit and there’s also a TV ad-campaign that’s all about brothers being competitive and Warburton’s bread strengthening up the younger brother and that’s something dear to our heart, being competitive brothers.

Having seen the advert, does it reflect your early years growing up?

Jonny: Oh yeah, massively. We used to compete over everything – crazy golf, board games, monopoly – we never used to finish Monopoly games at all because we used to fall out before it was finished. We used to compete and it’s made us stronger as people and as athletes as well. It used to make games more fun as well; we used to have fun with simple things just because we competed against each other.

brownlee warburtons 005Do you think you would have been as successful as Triathletes had you been only children?

Alistair:  It’s difficult to say because there have been a million factors, but yeah, it’s definitely one of the more important ones, in terms of training day in and day out, motivating each-other to go out training and just having someone to train with. When it comes to the race itself, you can compete as teammates and I think that’s very important as well.

Jonny: I’ve learnt a lot from Alistair as well personally, Alistair has taught me about training, what to do in training and in races, if anything goes wrong I know that he’s there and I can talk to him. I ask him questions because he’s been through it before, that’s been very important for me.

How did you get introduced to the world of triathlons considering endurance sports are considered quite niche?

Alistair:  Well our mum was into swimming and our dad was into running, so we were swimming and running, and then our Uncle Simon was doing triathlon at the time. It was a time when we were giving everything a go really – we were 7, 8 or 9 years old, both of us were playing football, rugby, a bit of cricket – and it was just another thing to have a go at. We both had a go at it and really liked it.

Parents are often worried about accidentally conforming to the ‘pushy sports’ stereotype. Were your parents quite pushy or did they just facilitate your desire to be athletes?

Jonny: Our parents weren’t pushy at all – they wanted us to try everything, that’s the best way to describe it. They didn’t say, ‘go swimming’, ‘go running’ – you’ve got to do that – they said ‘go enjoy it’. I think the outside was important for our parents and to us, enjoying being outside, walking and appreciating the world around us. They never made us train – we wanted to train and wanted to compete – that was most important for us.

How about your younger brother – why hasn’t he pursued the triathlon route?

Alistair: He’s good – he’s eighteen now. He’s taken a very different route – he’s really into rugby. That’s what he enjoys doing and he likes the team aspect of it, the physical side of it.

So if you guys were to have children, would you want them to carry on the Brownlee legacy, and get into the world of endurance sports?

Alistair:  Absolutely. I’d love to get my kids into endurance sports – that’s my passion and that’s what I enjoy. I think if they did anything they enjoyed and to the best of their ability, then that is the most important thing. Our parents were very keen on that idea – you can do anything you want; just make sure you do it the best you can.

How influential was it growing up in Yorkshire? Did it serve as a big influence on your triathlon career? 

Alistair: Yeah, all very influential. I think a massive amount of our motivation came from being outside and enjoying being outside and active. I think if there was one thing you could say that our parents gave us that has been more helpful than anything, it would be a love of being outside and appreciating that – that’s very much what this campaign is about, giving that to another generation of kids, passing that on.

Becoming an elite athlete takes an incredible amount of dedication and hard work. What’s been your biggest sacrifice during your career so far?

Jonny: I don’t think I’ve sacrificed too much because sport’s what I enjoy. I love going outside and doing sport, training for it and we’ve got some great friends in sport as well, the social side of sport is great as well, so I haven’t really missed too much. Maybe going to football matches – I’m a Leeds United fan – so I’ve not been able to go watch Leeds as much as I could have wanted to do, but they’re small sacrifices.

We’ve read somewhere that your grandfather said he deserves credit for your success, giving you sporting genes – how can he back up this claim?

Alistair: [Laughs] He can’t. He’s got something – apparently his dad only survived a shipwreck because he swam to shore and he reckons that’s where we got our swimming genes.

Jonny: We’ve not heard that from any other source.

You’re both relatively young and achieved so much so far. With so much ahead of you what are your long and short-term goals both professionally and personally?

Alistair:  I think short-term, we’re looking forward to the Commonwealth Games next year, which is quite a big thing – we’ve never had the chance to race that before. Slightly longer I suppose is the Olympics in Rio, which is in three years time, so that’s a goal, but I don’t like to think too far ahead of that.

Jonny: Same for me. On personal goals, I’m not really sure about after sport. I’ve thought about teaching, because I had some great teachers at school and giving back to some kids would be great. Nice long holidays as well. But you can do Triathlon until you’re about thirty-six years old.

What are the more punishing aspects of endurance sports– the mental or physical challenges – what is it that keeps you motivated?

Jonny: I don’t actually think much into this itself -we have many techniques. The race itself you just break it down into segments – a 10k race is usually four laps, so maybe you break it down into each lap or each half lap. But during the race itself I usually just think, ‘try hard’, about breathing, and different techniques, about staying near the front, staying out of trouble, about eating and drinking the right time. I think about more practical things than mental things.

You’ve both completed triathlons all over the world, from the United States, to all over Europe. Where is the best place you have visited and completed a triathlon?

Jonny: Yorkshire! I also like Switzerland. I’ve been there a few times. I have done altitude training in St. Moritz, and that is a beautiful place, with gorgeous mountains, nice food, so I love Switzerland.

You’ve both done really well on an academic level, as well as a sporting level. Do you think parents should consider sport as a viable career for their children?

Alistair:  I don’t think sport should necessarily be considered as a career. I think, if you love what you are doing, whatever sport it may be, and you are passionate about it and your good at it and you want to achieve as well as you can, that should be the driving force for doing it, and to not worry too much about the career side. But when your 10, 11, 12 years old, you should try all the sports you can – you should be enjoying it, and using it as a vessel to try and better yourself and perform, and learn about yourself, and if I hadn’t have performed sport, I would have been absolutely terrible at school – I was always the kid who could never sit still at school. Sport was absolutely crucial to me.Alistair – you decided to pursue a career in sport over a medicine degree at Cambridge.  How did your parents react to this and were they supportive?

Alistair – you decided to pursue a career in sport over a medicine degree at Cambridge.  How did your parents react to this and were they supportive?

Alistair:  They were very supportive. But, like all parents are and should be, they were the voice of reason. Although I very clearly remember my dad saying, ‘you’ve got to follow your dreams’, and ‘do what you enjoy, just make sure you do it well’, but they also said ‘are you sure it’s the right decision’ and ‘are you sure you can have a career in triathlons’, so they were very good.

How have you guys adapted to receiving advice and criticism, as you have got older?

Jonny: It’s not really changed for me personally.  When I started when I was younger the advice from parents, coaches, all different sorts of people, and it hasn’t really changed.  It’s all about filtering it, so I don’t think my attitude has changed when receiving criticism. You’ve just got to be careful and just think to yourself ‘you’ve got to be confident’

Given your interest in getting children into sports. Could you see yourselves going down a coaching career path, when your competing professional triathlon career ends?

Jonny: Yeah I’ve thought about coaching definitely, and giving back to the sport. But it’s a long way off. I hope.

You’ve both taken the step of sharing your amazing story and currently have a book called ‘Swim, bike, run: Our Triathlon Story. Writing it together must have been fun.

Alistair: Yeah we started writing it in January 2012, and we wrote a lot of it as we went a long, what we were going through at the time – we were six months out for the Olympics, five months out to the Olympics, and at the end of that year, we spoke to loads of people – old running coaches, old teachers, parents, grand parents, friends – at the end of that year, when everything had settled down, we went through it and changed bits of the book, it was a really interesting process.  And we do want it to be a legacy, that’s why we put in a lot of information about training, nutrition, tips for triathlon etc.

What words of wisdom would you impart to any young, budding triathletes out there?

Alistair:  First thing is, you’ve got to enjoy it. Secondly, you’ve got to join a few clubs – like a swimming club or/and a running club. Make friends that you can go training with. Set goals that you want to achieve – you want to win your local triathlon or be the best at your school.

How are you getting your kids to stay active over half term? Share your own tips on our Twitter page @fqmagazine