“Neither of us lived away when we went to uni [university] because we went to uni in Leeds, and it was best,” Alistair said. “It was probably good for us because that’s a really difficult move, I think, for loads of athletes. It was really good for us staying at home.”
The house they live in is surprisingly clean for one that is occupied by three college-age boys. Yet their age still shines through—their television sits atop a “table” of bricks and wooden boards. There’s a beanbag in the middle of the living room. Their stereo is wreathed in jumbled wires.
But there are soft touches to their home as well. They’ve hung framed posters from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which Alistair qualified for by beating all of the British athletes at the ITU’s 2008 Madrid BG Triathlon, where he placed third overall. He was barely 20 years old at the time and would go on to place 12th in Beijing. They’ve hung collages of pictures in their dining room, and the pictures include one of Alistair, Jonny and Gomez crossing the finish line as a team at a race on the French Grand Prix circuit, as well as one of Alistair and Jonny showing off the medals they earned at Budapest. Their bookshelf is bursting—its books include the “Lore of Running” and “Running Legends”—and it harbors a few awards from Great Britain’s 220 Triathlon magazine.
Although Alistair and Jonny are brothers, training partners and, technically, rivals, they are, above all else, friends.
“We’re good friends, not just brothers,” Jonny said. “Because we live together. And we do a lot of other things together, like go to cinema together, go out for meals together, spend lots of time together, travel to races together. So we’re really, really good friends.”
When they ride together, they ride side by side, their mouths moving almost incessantly as they pedal. And they never say an unkind word about the other, even when they are goaded. And if they do complain about one another, it is always with a laugh and never in malice. Alistair even lets his brother stay at his home rent-free.
When I asked Alistair about Jonny not paying him rent, something that Jonny “can’t face” doing, Alistair responds by saying: “He’s supposed to pay rent, yeah, indeed, but he hasn’t paid for a while. We’re going eight months now at least without any rent.”
“How come he doesn’t pay you?” I ask.
“Because he’s stingy. That’s why. … Jonny doesn’t even pay for the bills at the moment,” Alistair answers, laughing.
“Yeah. That’s how stingy he is.”
“But he says he does other things, like shopping.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t,” Alistair says with an air of lightheartedness and humor. “No. He thinks he goes shopping, but he only goes shopping the same amount as everyone else.”
Curious to get more insight into their relationship, I ask Alistair, who is one of the favorites, if not the favorite, for gold at the London Olympics, how he would feel if Jonny beat him out for the sport’s most coveted medal.
“Yeah, uh, [I] might be like, ‘Oh, well done.’ You know? It’s like, if I wasn’t going to win, I suppose in any race, I’d prefer he’d be the next best thing, you know. I prefer him to win than anyone else,” Alistair said. “He’s a great athlete, and I think, living so close to him, you realize more than anyone else, you know how hard he works and how much he deserves [it]. It’s very easy to accept. He trains equally as hard as me.”
If Alistair Brownlee can accept being beaten by his good friend and brother, it’s not something he will take lying down.
Indeed, if there is one immutable constant that runs through the personalities of champions in every sport it is that they are fiercely competitive.
But Alistair’s will to dominate his opposition takes this ethos to unheard-of heights.
This ferocious will to win, however, only comes out at certain times, such as in races, or when you talk to him long enough about triathlon.
His everyday demeanor is akin to California cool. Beginning a run 30 minutes past schedule is no big deal, or cutting a ride short when the weather is particularly cold and wet doesn’t bother him much either. It’s not that he doesn’t get his training done—he always does, because that’s what he loves to do—but he doesn’t seem to let life’s little annoyances get him down. Just like he doesn’t let the pressure of expectations and the press and the upcoming Olympics in his home country concern him.
“I find [pressure] quite hard to worry about, really. … It is so cliché, but, really, the most important thing is the pressure you put on yourself,” Alistair said.
But underneath Alistair’s laid-back disposition is a dominating spirit and desire to win that is unparalleled in triathlon.
It is startling.
“Put me in a race, and I’ll race anyone,” Alistair said.
During a long conversation with Alistair, he told me that when he stood on the line in Beijing during the Olympics—a race he was surprised to just qualify for, given he was so young—he wanted to win.
Most people in his position would just be happy to be there, to participate. Not Alistair Brownlee.
“By the time you get to the start line, that happy-to-be-there attitude turns to ‘I-want-to-win’ attitude, even though it’s probably quite unreasonable,” he said.
He raced like he wanted to win as well. He went for it on the run and was leading for a portion of the race. With 3K to go, he was in a position to win, and he probably could have if he were just a bit older, with a little more training under his belt.
Initially, he was disappointed with his 12th-place finish.
“I was like, ‘What did I do? What an idiot. With 3K to go I was right there. What the hell happened?’” he said.
But when he reflected on the experience, he realized that it was the best he had ever raced up to that point in his life, and he felt proud.
Alistair says that one of the keys to triathlon is learning how to get good results when you’re having a bad day.
To him, London was one such day where he proved he could do this, as he was “nearly winning” until the final straightaway, even though he was “massively overheated, massively dehydrated [and] had no energy [because] I hadn’t absorbed any food,” he said.
Another such day was Madrid in 2010. It was the first race of his season and he was “pretty unfit,” he said, as he was coming off a stress fracture in his femur that allowed him very little training during the winter. Despite his lack of preparation, he pulled off the win.
If you want to get a taste of Alistair’s ferocity and will to dominate, watch this race in Madrid.
After being instrumental in a breakaway on the bike that goes into T2 more than a minute ahead of the chase pack, he finds himself in a duel with Courtney Atkinson of Australia. They ran the entire 10K together, with Alistair matching every surge that Atkinson made—always answering each surge by putting himself at least a half-step in front of Atkinson.