Moments before Alistair crossed the finish line to win his second consecutive Olympic gold medal, a historic first in Triathlon, he paused to look over his shoulder for his younger brother, Jonathan, just a few seconds behind. On the other side, panting on the pavement, the two held hands.
How they came to dominate the sport is, of course, a story of grit and determination. And while you’d never know it from seeing the brothers atop the podium with their gold and silver medals, it’s also a story of successive injuries rehabbed with aquatic therapy.
Brothers in Arms
The improbably named Coz Tantrum, their former swim coach and still a family friend, has had a privilege vantage point into the brothers’ unique bond.
Alistair “tends to think a little bit more outside of the box,” she observes in this interview with BBC Radio last week. “Alistair does take risks. He did prior to 2012 when he injured his ankle. He said, ‘Well, I’ve got to do something here to get back in the water, but I can’t put any weight on my ankle.’ So we trained in an Endless Pool on a treadmill.”
As she recalls, in the six months “prior to the 2012 Olympics, he’d done hardly any [dry-land] running. So when he got on the line, he knew he could swim, he knew he was going to be able to bike, but he didn’t know how his ankle was going to hold up. And as it turned out, he did the fastest 10K.”
The Endless Pool retained its rehabilitative role this time around. Alistair suffered a stress fracture to his ankle just nine months ago. As he maintained one of the leading positions on the bike, and then as he took a commanding lead over his co-frontrunner, Jonny, in the run, the injury seemed a distant memory.
The Race in Rio
The brutal course, worsened by sweltering heat and humidity, had been called the toughest in Olympic history. The waters off Copacabana beach are notorious for their choppy waves, and the bike course achieved gradients as steep as 20 percent.
The pair stayed side by side through most of the race, always near or at the front of the pack. Only in the last 2 km did Alistair break out to take a solo lead.
Alistair stands as the first triathlete, man or woman, to earn successive gold medals in the sport. He and Jonny are also the first brothers to take gold and silver together since Rome 1960.