Team GB’s Brownlee Brothers: Embodying the Traits of Top-Notch Triathletes

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Jonny and Alistair Brownlee on their way to silver and gold at the Rio Olympics.

I have friends who participate in triathlons and ironman competitions, grueling three-stage events of swimming, cycling and running so alien to the ways in which I can or desire to spend my free time, that I can only silently wonder – Are these guys from a different planet?

Alas, triathletes are earthlings like you and me. They are just far more focused, obsessive, competitive and determined about swimming, cycling and running than I am. When I learned that Alistair and Jonathan (Jonny) Brownlee, two brothers from Yorkshire, England, won gold and silver respectively in the triathlon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, I took notice, wondering if the fact that they were brothers helped them to the podium. In fact, this is the second Olympics in a row that the Brownlee Brothers made it to the podium, with Alistair winning gold and Jonny bronze in the London Games.

I learned they are indeed different, not so much that they diverge from homo sapien anatomy and psychology, but that they differ from me by significant degrees. I came across this site entitled “11 Traits of Top-Notch Triathletes“, which showed me that while I may be a tad measure better than some on these traits, I am leagues behind triathletes in all of them.

  1. We can deftly balance a jam-packed schedule.
  2. We are maxed out on self-discipline.
  3. We’re laser-focused about our goals.
  4. We take goals one step further.
  5. Pain management is fun for us.
  6. We welcome obstacles, adversity and pressure.
  7. We’re in love with our sport.
  8. We are persistent and determined (with a dash of stubbornness.)
  9. We are competitive, both with ourselves and others.
  10. We love to share our knowledge and convert our friends.
  11. We know that it takes one to know one.

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Here are quotes from the Brownlee brothers, relevant to some of those traits:

We are maxed out on self-discipline.: “…training is what I love. Those sessions have been harder than races: a few times a week absolutely killing myself, going to bed not being able to sleep because my legs hurt so much, getting up in the morning and not being able to walk because my ankles were so stiff. It’s been like that for the last six months with a few bumps and injuries along the way. That’s all of it, but the training is what I love doing. Killing myself to finish a session.” Alistair (ESPN)

We’re laser-focused about our goals.: “I don’t like this attitude of, ‘I had a bad race but it’s a learning experience.’ That’s a very convenient excuse for a lot of people, why it’s a good reason to have bad performances when it’s not.” Alistair (BBC)

We take goals one step further.: “I thought I’d be an awful injured athlete. I thought it would drive me crazy not being able to do anything, but I’m actually very good at changing my goal to a different one. Instead of focusing my training, I was trying to be the best kind of injured athlete I could possibly be. That involved being the best use of crutches in the world – my left leg didn’t touch the ground for four weeks. Straight away, I got on the phone to the nutritionist to ask how I could heal it. What were the best possible things I could eat? I got told all the usual – protein shakes, eat lots of cherries, that kind of thing. I made myself the best sort of nutrition plan in the world. I don’t think I could have done a better job of giving it the best possible healing.” Jonny (BBC)

Pain management is fun for us.: It would seem quite strange to a lot of people, that you could actually enjoy physically hurting yourself. It doesn’t seem to make sense. I don’t know where it comes from. I think in some ways that it’s not quite escapism, but everyone has a state of mind, or something that they enjoy doing or something that takes them away from everyone else, and maybe that’s been it for me.” Alistair (BBC)

We welcome obstacles, adversity and pressure.: “I’ve had other days where I’ve thought ‘Yeah, I could have done things a lot better there. I didn’t do that well’. And then I’ve had races where I’ve gone into it thinking ‘I’m going to really struggle to win this, I’m only going to win this either by sheer guts or by being a bit clever about it’, and I’ve pulled it off. They’re very, very satisfying races.” Alistair (BBC)

We are competitive, both with ourselves and others.: “We’ve been doing races that are low key and supposed to be fun. In 2012, we raced the Yorkshire cross country championships, and although we were first and second, we’d had a busy week and should just have been running together. Instead, with a kilometre to go, we were absolutely maxing out. It was a couple of weeks later that Alistair tore his Achilles. That race probably went a long way to doing that. If both of us had backed off for the last 10-15 seconds, which we could have easily done, then we would have been fine. We should really have thought, ‘It’s January 2012, the Olympics are eight months away, why are we racing each other?'” Jonny (BBC)

So, is there any advantage to the Brownlee’s being brothers? The answer, as Alistair related in this Yorkshire Post article, is yes.

We both know how important we have been, pushing each other on over the years. From everything, to just motivation to get out of the door in the morning – if you know your little brother is going to go training you are going to go training, too – to being able to travel the world together. That has been really important over the years. Over the last three months we have done almost every session together, even the very hard sessions where we are pushing each other as hard as we can. There is no-one else in the world that can do that with each other, but we have done that time and time again, four or five times a week in the last three months, and that has been absolutely crucial.