It’s a familiar tale: two of the world’s best triathletes, living together in the same small house just north of Leeds, training together three times a day, going into an Olympics as both the closest of allies and the biggest of rivals.
But this is not 2012, and this is not the Brownlee brothers. A couple of miles down the road from where Alistair and Jonny now live (in separate houses), history is repeating in a friendship that has become almost familial in its closeness.
In one bedroom, 2013 world champion Non Stanford. In the other, 2014 Commonwealth medallist Vicky Holland.
And that is almost all that comes between them. This is not just a story of cooking duties shared, the same swim sessions or mutual running and biking routes. The two have reached the ultimate relationship benchmark: finishing each other’s sentences.
Take, for example, the topic of working together in races, and the habit of their male counterparts of shouting and swearing at those saving energy in others’ slipstreams.
Stanford: “I’ll get frustrated with people who aren’t working, but I’m not as vocal as the boys. I don’t think the best way to encourage someone is to be nasty to them…”
Holland: “…especially in the girls’ race.”
Stanford: “It’s more, ‘That’s awesome, keep coming through.'”
Holland: “It’s knowing how to coax those girls into something, rather than forcing them…”
Stanford: “…whereas with men you can peer-pressure them by calling them names…”
Holland: “…whereas that doesn’t work with girls.”
Stanford: “You have to think of the best way to get the whole group to work together.”
Olympic years bring both spectacular sporting opportunity and unparalleled pressures. In 2012 the contrasting fitness and character of the Brownlees put a recurring strain on the brothers’ relationship.
Alistair, relaxed and laissez-faire, could inadvertently wind up Jonny by getting up for early-morning swim training at the last possible minute. Jonny could annoy Alistair by sitting in their shared car with the engine running while he waited.
Stanford and Holland are different in that they are more alike. One hails from Swansea, the other from Gloucester. Holland is three years older. But as triathletes, preparing to race this weekend in Cape Town, they both dovetail and drive each other on.
Holland: “We’re not anywhere near as polar as the boys. I think if you’re early you’re wasting time. You should just be on time.”
Stanford: “I’ve rolled with it, and I’ve got more like Vicky. I’m a couple of minutes early.”
Holland: “I’ve made her worse.”
Stanford: “It doesn’t stress me out.”
Holland: (mock fury): “‘WHERE ARE YOU?'”
So far at least, all advantages. In training, each has a benchmark. “It keeps us both honest,” says Vicky, “because if you want to back it off and go a couple of seconds easier, they’re not going to. They’re not giving an inch, so why should you?” In the frantic moments before races each is an ally to the other.
But what about in races themselves, when pressure can rewire the most resolute of personalities? Who takes control? Who decides the tactics?
It is a new challenge for an old friendship. In 2012 Holland’s Olympic focus limited her World Series racing. In 2013, the year Stanford was crowned world champion in Hyde Park, Holland was off the pace. In 2014 Stanford was injured. In 2015, as both sought to qualify for Rio, strategies naturally meshed.
Holland: “In Chicago we went out with the same aim: getting on the podium. To do that we had to get out hard on the run, and get all the other contenders gone within the first kilometre. And instantly Non went to the front. And I just tucked in behind.”
Stanford: “I was quite happy to lead it…”
Holland: “…and I was quite happy thinking, ‘Non’s dragging this out…'”
Stanford: “It’s never been a verbal collaboration. It’s instinctive. We both know each other, and it just happens.”
But what if it no longer suited one of them to collaborate? What if, in Rio, the two are together with 4km of the run to go, and there is one medal between them?
Friends for life. Elite athletes when it counts.
Stanford: “If it came down to it in a race, we’d just be racing.”
Holland: “That’s it. We’ve always said that the advantage we have going into races is that we know each other so well. We are our own little team; we know everything about each other, and we know we’ll help each other.
“But we also know when it comes to the run, it’s a race. And then it’s about who gets to the line first, not, ‘I’m going to run this pace because it will be better for Non’. We’re absolutely racing other.”
Could one deliberately throw in a tactic – say, a sudden injection of pace – that you know would hurt the other?
Stanford: “Oh, well that’s racing.”
Holland: “Absolutely fair game. The ideal scenario at the Olympics is that we come off the bikes and we’re running away for gold and silver. But if at that stage one of us wants to put a surge in because they know it will hurt the other, or try to drag it out from 3km to go, that’s fine. That’s racing.”
Stanford: “We would never jeopardise each other. I would never try to not hand her water.”
Holland: “No dirty tactics. Just race tactics.”
You might wonder how a friendship could survive such stresses. Can a shared love of Friends repeats and Don’t Tell the Bride really compensate for the fear of coming second not just to the world but to someone in your own house? The answer, as always, is a united one.
Stanford: “You train three or four times a day. If you are obsessing over every detail of every session, you would just have anxiety all the time.”
Holland: “It’s never been an issue.”
Stanford: “In London last year I had an absolute shocker. But I don’t remember thinking, ‘oh no’, Vicky was fifth. It was more, ‘Well, at least she had a good race.'”
Holland: “Even after training we don’t harbour anything. All we’re thinking about as we walk back into the house is, ‘when’s the food coming? Who’s cooking?'”
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