World Series Leeds - Jess Learmonth eager to delight crowd in home triathlon

Jess Learmonth ahead of representing Team England at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. ('Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
Jess Learmonth ahead of representing Team England at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. ('Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Any one of the six British women on the start line of the elite race of the ITU World Series in Leeds on Sunday can claim victory.

That is the assertion of Jess Learmonth, one of the sextet of home favourites hoping it is she who takes top step on the podium.

Jess Learmonth in action

Jess Learmonth in action

Where the men’s side of British triathlon has been all about the Brownlee brothers for the last decade, the women’s side is very much wide open.

Non Stanford is a former world champion, Jodie Stimpson an ex-Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and the defending champion in Leeds – Vicky Holland – is an Olympic bronze medallist.

Leeds’ Georgia Taylor-Brown was third overall in the World Series last year while Sophie Coldwell won a World Cup race in Italy just last month.

Learmonth’s credentials are equally impressive – 2017 European champion, 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist and currently tied second in the World Series standings.

I never thought of it as a career, I just stumbled upon triathlon. But when you enjoy something it becomes less like hard work.

Jess Learmonth

Not bad for someone who wasn’t even a triathlete when she went to watch her brother-in-law contest the steeplechase at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

“I went to Glasgow to watch my brother-in-law James Wilkinson, and had not even considered it might be a possibility for me,” says Wetherby-born Learmonth.

“Four years later I was in Australia by my own rights. When you’re on the journey you don’t think about it much, but that’s the one occasion when I sat back and thought ‘crickey, that’s mad’.”

Learmonth’s rapid rise owes much to the base she built up in her younger years as a swimmer. She quit the pool aged 16 because she found the ‘nine sessions a week’ too boring.

The social scene of triathlon’s other two other pillars – cycling and running – lured her into the sport that would belatedly become her career. “It was the training that got me into it,” says Learmonth, who can often be seen running and cycling around her home village of Allerton Bywater.

“First and foremost I enjoyed it. I never thought of it as a career, I just stumbled upon triathlon. But when you enjoy something it becomes less like hard work.”

Now 31, Learmonth is one of Britain’s best triathletes, eager to delight a home crowd in Leeds on Sunday that will includer her family - “it’s nice that my Grandma can just pop into Leeds to watch me race”.

She has yet to podium in her home race – tactics thwarted her one year, and 12 months ago she exerted too much energy in the breakaway on the cycling leg – and knows she is in for another hard race against a stellar field headlined by that strong British contingent.

“It’s anyone’s to win,” she says. “We’re all different, I’m more of a front-end athlete; swim, bike and then hang on.

“Vix is all round, Georgia is similar, and Non is a strong runner.

“So it all depends on how the race pans out but it’s good that we have all the bases covered.”

That strength in depth also means the British selectors will have a difficult task in naming their three female triathletes for the Tokyo Olympics next year.

“If I don’t go to the Olympics it’s not the end of the world, but if I do it’ll be brilliant,” adds Learmonth.

“I’ve just got a different perspective. Because I’ve stumbled across triathlon, everything is a bonus.

“At the Commonwealths, people were asking me ‘have you dreampt about this from a young age? Where were you when you got the call?’.

“But I couldn’t remember. I’m just not like that. I am massively motivated, but it’s not the be all and end all.

“I just enjoy every race as it comes and enjoy the experiences. That works for me.”

If that makes Learmonth sound not as driven as some of her rivals, at home and abroad, then don’t bank on it.

Her consistent results over the last three years - littered with podium finishes and top-six placings - points to a medal contender evey time she races.

To get to a position where she is winning these races, though, Learmonth knows there are still improvements to be made.

“Generally it’s my running that lets me down,” she admits. “I have been working on it but I don’t have the miles in my legs that the other girls who have been running for years do, but I am seeing steady improvement and once I’ve cracked that it will give me a lot more confidence.”

Her home race in Leeds on Sunday would be a good time for that to click into place.