With about 500 meters to go, Alistair surges a final time, and Atkinson breaks. But it is Alistair who was the most spent—as he crosses the finish line, he is so depleted of energy that he can’t raise the finish tape above him. He collapses to the ground and lies in a corner of the finish straightaway while his defeated competitors file past him. Atkinson has no trouble standing.
“It’s scary that a guy with that kind of talent is also that tough and can push himself into collapse,” said Cliff English, a high-performance coach and obsessive observer of the ITU.
Alistair’s ferocity comes out in training as well. During a recent training camp he participated in in Tenerife, Canary Islands, the only thing that could stop him from riding to the top of an 8,000-foot peak was a police officer.
Neither darkness (his coach followed behind in headlights) nor temperatures cold enough for snow nor a long line of cars waiting behind could prevail over him—only the law.
“I didn’t want to get off,” Alistair said. “Malcolm was following behind with the headlights on and there’s snow on the side of the road and I had hardly any clothes, and I just don’t want to get off—I don’t want to get off. And then I got pulled over just before I got to the top.”
Maitland remembers an open water elimination session around a buoy several years ago. At the start of every round, Alistair, not the strongest swimmer among the group at the time and the smallest physically, insisted on taking the shortest line around the buoy, even though he was getting pummeled by his teammates. To him, the beating didn’t matter. What mattered was ensuring he wasn’t eliminated.
After I got home from England, I asked myself if perhaps I had misinterpreted Alistair’s ferocity, so I set about confirming it with the coaches and athletes who know him best.
They all agreed with my interpretation.
“Ali is very competitive and it can come out in [training] sessions as well as races, for better and worse,” said Oliver Freeman, a professional ITU athlete who recently retired and who has known the Brownlees since he was about 16. “He is the best and he knows it, and he does not tolerate people beating him. Whether this is from pride or self-respect, I’m not qualified to say, but either way it provides an amazing capacity to drive himself to places that many athletes struggle to replicate.”
At the time of this writing, Alistair’s Twitter profile contains a picture of him in what looks like some sort of fell race or cross-country race. He’s young—probably in primary school. His knee is bloodied and his face, arms, legs and clothes are covered in mud. And the look in his eyes says, “I am going to destroy you.”
This picture was pointed out to me by coach Filliol. He mentioned it to me when I asked him for an explanation as to why both Alistair and Jonny are so good.
Fingering the fierce look on Alistair’s face, he says, “If you could bottle up that attitude, then you have your answer.”
As to whether Jonny has a similar ferocity, that’s a question that will be answered in time. He hasn’t raced as many senior races as Alistair has and it’s too early in his career to tell.
But those who know him think he has what it takes to be a champion.
“Jonny is equally driven, but in a more introverted way,” Freeman said. “I think this is because Jonny grew up being used to his brother always beating him, and Ali is the other way around.”
Despite the boys’ talent, drive, work ethic and willingness to race hard, there’s no guarantee that either of them will win gold or even a medal in London.
That’s precisely what makes the Olympics so special—anything can happen on a day that only comes around once every four years, especially with both of them having gigantic bull’s-eyes on their backs.
But that Alistair and Jonny are friends and brothers means they have a weapon none of their competitors possesses.
“If there are 10 favorites or whatever, if already me and Alistair are in the 10 favorites and not working against each other, then we’re already going to be stronger than the rest,” Jonny said. “Well, hopefully.”
And regardless of what happens at the Olympics in 2012, there’s no reason that the Brownlees can’t have long and prosperous careers in triathlon and go down as two of the greatest triathletes of all time.