Taylor-Brown made of tough stuff

Getting punched in the face by a team-mate was the best thing that could have happened to Georgia Taylor-Brown.

The triathlete spent seven weeks on the Gold Coast in February at a training camp all involved believed to be final preparation for Tokyo 2020.

The group of top Brits went into a tough block of open water swimming, with special skills sessions run by Phil Clayton, a former Iron Man competitor and lifesaving expert.

In the swim leg of a triathlon, athletes turn as a group around a large buoy, a mass of flying limbs great for the cameras but less fun to do if you value your dentures.

Clayton got athletes used to leisure centres in Leeds riding big waves and one day, Taylor-Brown was accidentally punched in the teeth by fellow Tokyo hopeful Alex Yee.

And that was a painful reminder that Taylor-Brown is conquering fear of a third of a sport in which she is world number two.

“I really panic in the water,” admitted the 26-year-old.

“It's a mental block and I struggle before the start of races. I know I'm not the strongest swimmer so I have to fight to stay in the race.

“We were practicing trying to glide under the buoy rather than chop around it and the more you put yourself in that awful situation, the more you realise you’re not going to die.

“Alex was so apologetic about punching me! I told him it didn't matter and I needed to stop being a wimp about it.

“That camp was about putting our skills into practice and realising, actually, we are strong. We were learning and having fun with it. It really helped me.”

Six months on, Taylor-Brown took to the pontoon in Hamburg for the first international race since Covid-19 struck, doubling as a World Series leg and the World Championships.

She swum 750 metres in 9:08, seventh-fastest in a star-studded field of 60, led for much of the bike leg and ripped her rivals apart with a 16:43 5km run to claim a maiden world title.

You'd be hard pressed to meet a more reluctant world champion.

“To be fair, I've never really missed the top ten in two years,” she ponders.

“I still don't really back myself, ever. I don't know why. I don't expect too much of myself.

“It's a bit sad, but I think if you aim low you're never going to be disappointed. If I was to go into a race going 'I'm flying, I'm going to absolutely nail this and win it', that's just not me.”

At the root of that mentality is the trauma of sitting out of her sport for two years with injury, powerless to match the expectations she placed on herself after a fine junior career.

She had two operations on a stress fracture in her left foot, found in 2014 and worsened in 2016 when a bone exploded from her foot when going for coffee with a friend.

“Before the injury, triathlon took over my life,” she said.

“I'm proud of myself, with what I've achieved and overcome in terms of years of injuries and two steps forward, one step back.

“We’re not robots. We can’t perform every day and if you don’t win, the next day, you still continue to train and you still continue to fight for your dreams.”

Taylor-Brown will hope to go to Tokyo having twice beaten the best in the shape of USA’s Katie Zaferes and Bermuda’s Flora Duffy and at the head of a world-class British squad.

She needs to get selected, with only three quota places between herself, Jess Learmonth, Rio bronze medallist Vicky Holland and 2013 world champion Non Stanford.

Taylor-Brown spins between self-doubt and security - until you mention the Olympics.

“I will expect a lot of myself in Tokyo,” she says.

“I'd like a top five performance, so I'd aim quite strongly for that. With it being my first Olympics, I'd just want to enjoy it.

“I’ve opened my eyes and realised it is just triathlon, and I do it because I love it. I'm not saving lives, I'm not saving the world.

"If it puts a smile on my face, I'm happy. I think that's the thing.”

Sportsbeat 2020