Triathlete Jess Learmonth can reveal her Olympic secret
Imagine winning the lottery and not being able to tell anyone about it.
Worse still, not being able to spend any of the money.
Jess Learmonth can empathise.
For a sportsperson’s equivalent of winning the lottery is being selected for the Olympics.
Learmonth achieved that career landmark last year – but had to stay silent for 12 months.
“We knew we’d been nominated for selection, but with the coronavirus and the postponement of the Olympics we had to stay quiet about it,” begins Learmonth.
“It’s nice that it’s finally been announced. I knew for a year without being able to tell anybody, so it’s nice that it’s now out in the open and I can tell friends and family.
“It’s made it feel a lot more real than it has been. The coronavirus has made it a weird year, and by the time the Olympics finally comes round it will have been two years of knowing and preparing for it, which is strange.”
Learmonth will be 33 by the time of her long-awaited Olympic debut in Tokyo next August.
She is the epitome of a late developer, so late in fact, that a decade ago she had still not even competed in a triathlon.
An accomplished swimmer growing up in Wetherby – she was a national medallist in the freestyle while racing for the City of Leeds Swimming Club – Learmonth also played golf at Wetherby and football for Leeds United’s ladies academy before finally arriving in triathlon.
“I didn’t start triathlon until early 20s. I quit swimming when I was 17 and didn’t do any sports, certainly nowhere near elite level, for a good few years.
“All I was doing was dabbling in a bit of football, I wasn’t even running or cycling or swimming.
“I didn’t touch a pool for five or six years after I quit swimming.”
Which makes her Olympic selection – coming as it did at the end of 2019, just seven years after her first triathlon – all the more surreal.
“My first thought when I think about the Olympic selection is it’s mad,” says Learmonth, who is heading into a winter block of training before resuming racing in March.
“It wasn’t on my radar 10 years ago, I wouldn’t even have contemplated going to a Games or even set it as a goal.
“It’s a bit of a shock. And with British Triathlon being one of the most successful countries in the sport, it’s just a real honour to have been selected.”
Learmonth is perhaps downplaying the strides she has made in such a short space of time.
Three years after her first race, she was taken onto the British Triathlon funding programme. In 2016, she went to the Team GB preparation camp ahead of the Rio Olympics.
A year later she was stepping onto the podium at World Series events and winning the European title in Kitzbuhel, which to this day remains her biggest win.
“It was probably only about five years ago when I thought I could do this as a full-time job,” she reflects.
“Initially, when I got on the funding programme it was to be a domestique, to help the medal contenders. Even that was a dream come true.
“By the time of the Rio preparation camp my only concern was ‘can I make a decent career out of this?’”
In the four years since she has certainly proven she can, with two Commonwealth Games medals, nine medals plus second place overall in last year’s World Series.
She has been fortunate that her rise has coincided with the tail-end of the Brownlee effect – the Yorkshire brothers who have accelerated the growth of the sport in Britain through their title-winning exploits around the world.
The upshot of that is the opening of the Brownlee Triathlon Centre in Leeds, the national hub for the sport, right on Learmonth’s doorstep.
“The Triathlon Centre has been a big improvement for us all. We were all using council facilities, but it’s nice to have access to everything under one roof, especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” says Leamonth.
Just as Alistair and Jonny Brownlee have spurred each other on to greater heights, so Learmonth has benefitted from a close rivalry. Georgia Taylor-Brown and Learmonth are never usually far from each other in a triathlon, so close in fact that they crossed the line together at the test event in Tokyo last year.
When Learmonth was third in the World Series race in June, 2019, Taylor-Brown was second. When Learmonth was second at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Taylor-Brown was third.
“It’s a good rivalry to have, we both gain from it,” says Learmonth of her 26-year-old teammate, who has also secured Olympic selection.
“You push each other harder. It becomes natural when you’re cycling together, because you’re so used to it in training, it makes it easier in the races.
“We both have different weaknesses; Georgia’s is her swim and mine is the run, so we help each other in those.
“It’s definitely a friendly rivalry.”
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