Brothers tend to do most things together growing up, especially if they’re born close to one another – but for Jonathan and Alistair Brownlee that has taken on a whole new meaning as they’ve won Olympic Games medals together.
The iconic image of the two though is not the famous gold and bronze double they achieved on home soil in London six years ago, or even the gold and silver – Jonny upgraded – four years later in Rio.
No, it’s the sight of worryingly exhausted younger sibling Jonny staggering incoherently towards the finish line of the ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final in Cozumel 17 months ago.
The 27-year-old was seemingly strolling to the title in Mexico but became disorientated just a few hundred yards from the finish line of the third and final leg run.
South Africa’s Henri Schoeman and Alistair, 29, were vying for second place. In memorable scenes, Alistair stopped to assist his younger brother, practically dragging him to the line while Schoeman raced home for victory. Alistair, the 2009 and 2011 ITU World Triathlon Series champion, even flung Jonny over the line first to ensure he finished second.
Both brothers were penciled in to be on the starting line for the WTS 2018 season opener in Abu Dhabi this weekend – but Alistair pulled out on Tuesday with a calf strain, which he doesn’t want to damage ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Australia, in April.
Brownlee junior revealed he’s happy to be back in the UAE capital after a two-year absence, but admitted it will feel like a part of him is missing with big brother absent.
“I raced here in 2015 so it’s been a few years, it’s nice to be back,” Brownlee, three times a WTS runner-up (2011, 2013 and 2016) said at the race launch in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
“I’ll miss him (Alistair) quite a lot because we like to race together in relay and go hard on the swimming and the bike, but I’ve done lots of races without him. He’s had lots of injuries over the years and so have I but there will feel like there’s something missing.”
The younger Brownlee is also busy preparing for the Commonwealth Games, getting under way on the Gold Coast on April 4. It’s an event that holds as much significance to him as the Olympics; he is the defending triathlon silver medalist, having unsurprisingly finished behind Alistair in Glasgow four years ago.
The pair were also part of the gold medal-winning mixed relay team alongside Vicky Holland, who’s also in Abu Dhabi this weekend, and Jodie Stimpson, runner-up here a year ago.
“A win here would set me up perfectly for the world series but my last few months have been really tough so it’s kind of a marker in the sand for where my form is and confidence for the next four or five weeks ahead of the Commonwealth Games, which is the most important thing for me,” added the Yorkshireman, who is looking forward to riding and running on the iconic Formula One track at Yas Marina Circuit for the first time.
“One of the best things about the world series is you can race different courses. Hilly courses, city courses and running on the Formula One track will be really special and especially as a sports fan.
“It’s a really good course from a technical point of view for racing, it makes it more interesting. I like to think I’m quite a good driver but I think I’d be pretty scared in a car on the track, but I’d give it a good go.”
Mario Mola insists he has no problem staying motivated – and even if he did he has a nation reminding him of iconic fellow Spanish triathlete Javier Gomez’s success.
The younger Spaniard though is undoubtedly the new poster boy of Spanish endurance sport, having retained his ITU World Triathlon Series crown last season, after hoisting his first in 2016.
He will be desperate to make it a hat-trick in 2018 – thus matching the feat of his much-celebrated compatriot Gomez, who won three in a row from 2013-15.
The two have certainly enjoyed a duopoly on the WTS in recent years, although Mola, 28, will require much more of the famed stamina he employs for his success if he is to catch Gomez in terms of total world series titles.
Gomez, 34, has won it five times (also in 2008 and 2010), to sit one ahead of Britain’s Simon Lessing, with Australian Peter Robertson, on three, now the mark for Mola.
Having made his WTS bow in 2012, Mola finished third overall in 2013 before taking consecutive second spots behind Gomez in 2014 and 2015. Gomez, the Spanish master, also won silver behind Alistair Brownlee and ahead of his brother Jonathan at the 2012 Olympics, while apprentice Mola was 19th in London and eighth in Rio.
Ahead of the season opener in Abu Dhabi on Friday, Mola is excited to begin the defence of his title.
“In order to keep winning and doing things well you’ve got to think or act as if you haven’t won anything before. That’s my mentality now,” said the Majorcan.
“Obviously I’m very happy with everything I achieved, but I always say in our country, people are always thinking of Javi who won five world series.
“So if by winning two I think I’ve done it all then I better stay home. People like Javi are big role models, he gives me motivation to keep doing things, the same things that had me ending the season in 2016 and 2017 how I did.”
The season started disappointingly for Mola 12 months ago as he slumped to eighth place in Abu Dhabi. But he picked himself up to win the next two races on the Gold Coast and in Yokohama, winning again in Hamburg and Edmonton and staving off the challenge of Gomez to win his second title by more than 400 points.
Staying motivated after such a demoralising opening to his 2016 title defence was easy for Mola, who didn’t panic despite his under par performance.
“I knew that sometimes sport, what you think is a failure, it’s not what you worked for, but at the end of the day all the guys starting here have done a lot of work so they all deserve a good race and result,” added Mola.
“Sometimes you have got to be happy putting in the 100 per cent even if the result is not the one you wanted or expected. Probably after that race I know I was swimming in front but then the others worked well together and got a distance that was impossible to come back from.
“After that I continued working as I did before and results went better. It’s only the beginning with eight months ahead of you, so you can’t be disappointed if the first race doesn’t go your way. You can’t let that beat or affect you.
“If the race goes well you say ‘well it’s only the beginning’ and you keep working well. You are the same, you’ve just got to keep working and wishing later on.”
And despite disappointment perhaps being the overriding memory of the UAE capital a year ago, Mola has fonder memories of Abu Dhabi, having won the first two races here, in 2015 and 2016.
“Every city and every race has its peculiarities but when you have a good race where you have good memories it’s always a good motivation to be back and do as good as before,” added Mola, who has the added confidence of coming into the season as the world’s best male triathlete for the second year in a row.
“I’m excited to be here, the conditions are a bit hotter so I think that suits me well, so we’ll see how I go.
“It was a great season after 2016 when I won the title. It was different. It was the best year, a great experience and huge motivation.”
Ashleigh Gentle and Vicky Holland come into the new ITU World Triathlon Series season on the back of hugely differing 2017 fortunes.
After several years of admittedly being the bridesmaid, Gentle thrust herself into the limelight last year with a maiden WTS victory in Montreal on her way to finishing runner-up behind champion Flora Duffy, who retained the title she won in 2016.
Now, the Australian will head home to her backyard of the Gold Coast where she hopes home comforts will count for a lot as she targets more glory at the Commonwealth Games in April.
Contrast that with Holland, who has endured a painful fall from grace since winning Olympic bronze in Rio just 18 months ago. She brought the curtain down on her miserable 2017 campaign early in May following the third WTS event of the season in Yokohama.
The 32-year-old English athlete managed to drag herself to a fifth-place finish in Japan but an MRI later revealed that had been a miracle as she’d slowly aggravated a niggling calf injury that had first surfaced the previous December.
She made her comeback at the Cape Town ITU Triathlon World Cup earlier this month and in some style too, beating fellow Briton Non Stanford to the title by 34 seconds.
Both will gauge how far they’ve come during the winter when they line up on the start line at the WTS season-opener in Abu Dhabi on Friday, in what is set to be one of the most competitive women’s line-ups in the event’s four-year history.
And despite victory on her return to competition, Holland is excited to test herself against a stellar field.
“This is a stacked field to begin with, you don’t often get that at the start of the year, I think that has to do with the Commonwealth Games in a few weeks. It’s a really busy race and I’ll definitely get to test myself against the best,” Holland said as the race weekend was officially launched at Yas Island’s Crowne Plaza on Wednesday.
“Cape Town was my first race of 2018 and first race in about nine months so I was a little bit rusty, but it was good to be back racing and I was delighted to start 2018 with a win.”
Nine of triathlon’s top 10 women will lead a pack of 50 from 20 countries as they tackle a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run at the Yas Marina course on Friday.
Bermuda’s two-time defending series champion Duffy, defending Abu Dhabi champion Andrea Hewitt, Gentle, Americans Katie Zaferes, Kirsten Kasper and Summer Cook, Britain’s Jessica Learmonth, Joanna Brown of Canada and Dutchwoman Rachel Klamer all finished in the top 10 of the 2017 rankings, with only Switzerland’s Jolanda Annen not featuring in the Emirates.
DRUMROLL PLEASE ...The elite women's start list for WTS Abu Dhabi 2018 is here! We can't wait to welcome the world's best female triathletes in Abu Dhabi. Get ready to race alongside heroes like @Flora Duffy, @andreahewittnz @gentle_ash, @kzaferes6 & more https://t.co/zZyWM550FM pic.twitter.com/sjbb6VNyMv— WTS Abu Dhabi (@WTSAbuDhabi) 11 February 2018
As for Gentle, she is hoping she can marry her form from 2017 with her ambitions for the Commonwealth Games, which start in just over a month, on April 4.
“Last year was a great year for me. I’ve been bridesmaid a few times in world series races so to come away with a victory in Montreal was a massive highlight,” said the 27-year-old.
“I wanted to come here and test myself against the best in the world before we see what I can do in six weeks’ time.”
Gentle is a Brisbane native and now lives in the city of Gold Coast, just 41 miles south east of her home. And she has been waiting for the Games since the city won the bid back in 2011.
“I remember the countdown from years ago when the Gold Coast first got elected. It’s such a big thing for us. To do it (win gold) in front of my home crowd would be great,” she said.
“This is the first big test. I had a few local races but training has been really consistent. I’ve given it my all each day and I guess I’ll see on Friday but I think I’m in a good place.”
Gentle has been with new coach Jamie Turner for the last 12 months and feels she’s found another gear as she also targets the next Olympics in Tokyo 2020.
“I’ve been with him (Turner) a year, not that long, but feel I’ve made a few inroads,” she added.
“I’ve been doing this sport for quite a long time but it’s surprising how much you can learn each day, week and year, being in a new environment and trying to get the best out of myself going ahead to Tokyo 2020, which is the big goal.”
One star name Holland and Gentle will be keeping a particular eye on is New Zealand veteran Hewitt, 35, who tearfully dedicated her Abu Dhabi triumph a year ago – her first WTS win in six years – to former partner Laurent Vidal.
The Frenchman, also an ex-triathlete who finished fifth at London 2012 and had turned to training Hewitt after retiring in 2014, died of a heart attack, aged just 31, in November 2015.
“It’s great to be back. It was my third time racing here last year but definitely it was special,” said Hewitt, who has finished second and third on the world series twice, and will hope she can push for a maiden title this season.