Jess Learmonth: From Tadcaster Triathlon to Tokyo 2020

For many Olympians, appearing at the Games seems like destiny. The natural end-point on a path which may have begun at the same time as the ability to walk.

Jess Learmonth has taken a different route – one which proves that contrasting avenues can result in the same end destination.

Between the ages of 17 and 23, for example, when some athletes are fine tuning themselves for podium places or personal bests, Learmonth – in her own words – “didn’t really do anything.”

What she did do, aged 21, was travel the world with her partner Jon, taking in south-east Asia, Nepal and India before ending up in Australia.

Little did she know then that she would end up back Down Under within a matter of years competing as an international triathlete.

"To be honest, I was a bit out of shape," says Learmonth, reflecting on the start of her triathlon journey.

"We finished our travels in Australia and I indulged in it too much. I went back to working in a supermarket and they were doing a charity triathlon.

"I did that, thought 'I might do a bit of exercise' and it spiralled from there.”

Learmonth's is not a complete 'zero to hero' story. She was a talented swimmer as a youngster, competing for City of Leeds Swimming Club until she grew tired of the early starts and late finishes while her friends were out enjoying themselves.

"The swimming was so intense, training nine or 10 times a week, that it put me off for a long time," she recalls.

"I didn’t go back in the pool for at least five or six years. I literally did not swim as I was that sick of it.”

But having grown to resent the sport in her teenage years, Learmonth was grateful for the grounding it provided her when triathlons started to become slightly more serious than charity events through work.

"I think having my swimming got me to where I am today," she said.

"It’s very technical so if you have the ability to do it, it’s quite easy to pick up where you left off. It’s harder if you are a good runner or rider who is learning to swim.

"It didn’t take me long at all to pick it back up. When I first started competing, I was still working full-time and only swimming once a week but I was able to lead in European races."

With her natural aerobic fitness aiding her continual improvement on the running and cycling side, Learmonth’s rise through the ranks was a rapid one.

She watched the London 2012 triathlon as a spectator but by the time the next Olympic Games came around, she was helping those same competitors get ready for Rio, having been added to British Triathlon’s World Class Performance Squad in 2015.

"I had seen Helen (Jenkins) and Vicky (Holland) race in London and I didn’t know them at all," she said.

"Within a couple of years, I was training alongside them and then suddenly I was helping them prepare for an Olympics. It was so bizarre, but it was an amazing experience.

"I thought 'this is the best it'll ever get' – I couldn't believe I was training with people who were going to the Olympics."

Learmonth took her confidence on to the international circuit, winning the European Triathlon Championships in 2017 before picking up a silver in Glasgow the following year, while also doing likewise at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast – where less than a decade earlier she had been enjoying her travels with no thought of a career in sport.

"It still amazes me," she said, as she now prepares for a first Olympic Games. “Me and Jon always say 'how has this happened? How am I on the GB team?'. It is very strange to get your head round it, even now when I've had a bit longer to do so.

"For me, it's a strength. Everything is a bonus. I appreciate everything so much as I know what it's like to go back to a normal working life.

"Hopefully it gives people confidence, especially younger athletes. At 18 or 20, people think their whole career has ended if they don’t do well.

"I hope I can give people belief that this isn’t the case. You have years to do it and I've always thought the more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to perform well.

"I haven't changed my mentality from doing Tadcaster Triathlon five or six years ago to the Commonwealth Games. I just want to go for it and enjoy it – that has not changed one bit."

Neither has the close friendships enjoyed by the Team GB triathletes, who manage to spur each other on to new heights despite the fact they are competing against each other on race days.

Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown took this camaraderie to new levels at last year's Tokyo warm-up race, crossing the line hand in hand for a joint first place that was later taken away from them through disqualification.

"I don’t regret it at all," Learmonth said. "We all help each other along the way and it's just really nice to be able to race with your mates.

"If you support each other, you get more out of each other. It’s nice we have that relationship and I think we always will.

"When someone else does well, you have to raise your game. Although we are competing against each other, we have to raise our games and help each other improve.

"We have trained a lot on our own in lockdown but I enjoy doing stuff with others. I pretty much don’t swim if there's nobody else there.

"Me and Georgia make sure we go together as I need the motivation. That's how you get the best out of each other. If you didn't have that, you might not go as hard over that session. It helps us all individually.”

Learmonth and Taylor-Brown both train in Leeds, also home to the legendary Brownlee brothers.

Having grown up in Bramham, to the north-east of the city, Learmonth – who lives in Allerton Bywater – is as well-placed as anyone to pinpoint the factors behind the area’s link with endurance events.

"The terrain helps,” she said. “It's grippy, hilly and windy – particularly in winter. It's an easy training tool.

"If you go out for a three-hour ride when it's windy, you'll have to try a lot harder than you would normally. But you don’t even think about trying harder, you just have to try harder to get yourself home!

"It's beautiful, it's such a nice place to ride and run, but when it's bad weather it can be the worst place to ride and run. It’s weird how we all stick it out – but it's addictive as well.”

Yorkshire, of course, would have finished 12th in the medal table at London 2012 if competing as a separate 'country' – and 16th in Rio four years later – a fact not lost on those from the region.

Learmonth hopes to contribute towards that tally in Tokyo and is among those who feels she is representing the White Rose county along with Team GB when she competes on the world stage.

"It’s very similar to Wales and Scotland, as people are very patriotic," she said. "I am very proud to be from Yorkshire. What I love the most, and I know it sounds ridiculous, are all the different accents.

"You go two minutes down the road and people talk differently – I love those quirky things.”

If Learmonth enters the home straight in medal contention next summer, there will be a lot more than just Yorkshire accents cheering her across the line.