Most triathletes know Jess Learmonth from the controversial finish at the 2019 Olympic qualifying race in Tokyo, where she crossed the line holding hands with British teammate (and friend) Georgia Taylor-Brown for a joint first place. The gesture—meant to symbolize the often overlooked team effort that goes into becoming an Olympic-caliber athlete—ultimately led to their disqualification, as World Triathlon (formerly the International Triathlon Union) has a rule that states participants can’t “finish in a contrived tie situation where there is no effort to separate the finish times.”
Learmonth says she doesn’t regret the move, and Great Britain eventually named both athletes to its 2020 Olympic team anyway. The controversy ultimately morphed into nothing more than an interesting bit of triathlon trivia; for Learmonth, it’s just another twist in an already-unusual story. While most of her teammates and fellow competitors have followed a clearly-defined path to elite triathlon, Learmonth arrived at the sport in her 20s, out of shape and, in her words, “a bit fat.” She had a passing familiarity with triathlon, recalling some races her dad did in the ‘80s and watching a few televised events that seemed “completely insane,” but her experience as a youth swimmer turned her off of organized sport in her teens.
“As a youth, I had been training 10 times per week, before and after school. I didn’t have a social life, and I didn’t enjoy it. I hated it really, so when I was 17, I quit. And I never exercised,” she said.
But five years later, sport crept back in when, after a long vacation, Learmonth felt unhealthy and sluggish. When her colleagues set up a mini-triathlon at work for charity, she entered on a lark, thinking it would be a good workout. “There were only four of us, but I took it very seriously,” she said. “Then, like a lot of people, I caught the bug.”
Learmonth’s fitness came back quickly in the swim, and she showed a natural ability for cycling and running. She knew how to train and, perhaps more importantly, she knew exactly how she didn’t want to train. With a firm focus on having fun, Learmonth enjoyed training again, which led to a rapid rise through the ranks. Only two years after that first charity triathlon, Learmonth was recruited for the British Triathlon training program, won her first European Cup, and became part of a new era of British dominance that includes Non Stanford, Vicky Holland, Jodie Stimpson, and Taylor-Brown. Learmonth credits her success to the company she keeps.
“We’ve got some real talent in Britain, and so many coming through the ranks. The high standards that have been set get the best out of everyone. I love seeing the youngsters come through and show us up. It’s the way it should be!” Learmonth, now 31, laughed before adding: “It keeps me young.”
It also keeps things fun, which is still at the top of Learmonth’s list of priorities as she prepares for Tokyo. “I find training very enjoyable, and I just really love progressing. I just love the variety of triathlon. You never get bored, and there is always something to improve upon.”