Human to Hero

Brownlee brothers: From crazy golf battles to Olympic triathlon glory

Story highlights

Brownlee brothers compete in triathlon

Took gold and bronze in London 2012

Aiming to repeat success in Rio

Alistair two years older than Jonny

CNN  — 

A potent mix of intense sibling rivalry and brotherly love has proved the catalyst for one of the most compelling sporting head-to-heads of our time.

Triathlon has not been the same since the Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonathan, began dominating the professional circuit in the immediate years leading up to the London 2012 Olympics.

Their supremacy in the three-discipline sport – swimming, cycling and running – culminated in a gold for older brother Alistair and a battling bronze for Jonny, which might have been silver but for a 15-second time penalty.

On home soil in London’s Hyde Park, their every step was cheered as they went on to share an Olympic podium – the first time British brothers had done so in an individual sport since 1908.

Born two years apart in the proud northern England county of Yorkshire, their quest to be “best” at everything from sport to household chores began as young children.

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Brownlee Brothers: Sibling rivalry on the Olympic stage
02:42 - Source: CNN

“I think everything turned into a competition, games of crazy golf ended in massive rows so that’s an overwhelming memory,” Alistair tells CNN’s Human to Hero Series.

“Even doing the tidying up we both wanted to do it as quickly as we could,” the 27-year-old adds.

Their long-suffering parents Cathy and Keith, who are both doctors, had always encouraged the hyperactive boys to burn off plenty of energy with an outdoor lifestyle, bracing walks, bike rides and runs on the rugged Yorkshire moors, as well as taking part in conventional sports like football.

Both also developed a talent for swimming, so the building blocks for success were already in place when Cathy’s brother – Simon Hearnshaw – decided to take part in a local triathlon.

Jonny was immediately hooked. “I was running a little bit at school and then my uncle did a triathlon, and I thought it’s a cool, exciting thing to do,” he says.

“Alistair being the older brother actually started a few months before me.”

The siblings have been dedicated to the sport ever since, establishing themselves as the best at the triathlon Olympic distance of 1500 meters swimming, 40 kilometers cycling, with a closing 10 km run.

They regularly train for more than 30 hours per week, pushing each other to their limits.

Almost drowned

Childhood spats apart, their rivalry has rarely spilled over into animosity, although Jonny is quick to highlight one his scariest moments in the sport – almost being drowned by Alistair in the opening moments of a swim in France as the super-fit competitors jostled for position.

“He just pushed me under straight away – obviously that’s not the best way to start a race because after 10 meters the next person pushes you under,” recalls the younger Brownlee.

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Brownlee brothers quickfire
01:03 - Source: CNN

“You keep on going down and it can be pretty scary, but you want to try and avoid that if you can.”

Such rivalry, however, has proved incredibly helpful for the pair.

“We do definitely both motivate each other because on days if your brother is going out training and you don’t fancy it, you obviously aren’t just going to let him go out,” Alistair says.

“What I love most about doing triathlon is the training, the long easy training rides for four hours on a beautiful day,” Jonny adds.

“What I enjoy least is the opposite side of that, so the really cold training days when you’ve got to ride your bike for three or four hours, it’s snowing outside and you can’t feel your hands after an hour – that’s not much fun.”

Career sacrifices

There have been other sacrifices too: Alistair quickly decided to abandon prestigious medical studies at Cambridge University to concentrate on his triathlon career.

Aged 18, he was already world junior champion and opted to do a less demanding degree in his home city of Leeds, where he could be nearer to his coach and elite training facilities.

Jonny went down the same route, studying in Leeds to enjoy the same advantages, and of course to train full time with his brother.

Alistair first sampled the Olympic arena at the 2008 Beijing Games, becoming the highest British finisher in 12th place – an invaluable experience.

The following year he was crowned world champion, winning five of the International Triathlon Union’s (ITU) World Series races.

By 2010, with Jonny fully maturing as an athlete, the brothers were consistently battling it out at the front of World Series and major championship races, often accompanied by arch-rival Javier Gomez of Spain, a triathlete with formidable running speed.

They went into 2012 with Alistair the reigning world champion at Olympic distance and Jonny as the two-time world champion in the sprint distance (750-meter swim, 20 km bike, 5 km run).

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Rivals muttered darkly about “team tactics” as the two brothers moved to the front of the pack on the swim and cycle legs to give themselves the best chance on the concluding run where the medals are decided, but Alistair puts it into context.

“Once we’re on the race course we are very competitive and we both want