From Leeds to the top of the world: Brownlee brothers inspire the next generation

Alumni news

Triathlete Jonny Brownlee has completed the set – Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals. As the 50,000th child crosses a Brownlee Foundation finish line, his legacy goes beyond the competitive arena.

“Leeds has become a focal point for triathlon in the world,” says Jonny (History 2012, Hon LLD 2013). “That’s down to the universities, the training squads, the elite coaches, the world series event, and the facilities with the Yorkshire Dales and swimming pools.” 

And, of course, the Brownlee brothers.  

Born and bred in Leeds, Alistair (Sports Science and Physiology 2009, Hon LLD 2013) is the most successful triathlete in Olympic history with two gold medals. Jonny is the most decorated, with three Olympic medals to his name – as well as a world championship, and countless European and Commonwealth medals. 

Both have been awarded the MBE for their services to triathlon. 

Their success draws and inspires athletes at all levels. It led to the creation of the Brownlee Foundation, which is introducing children to sport across the UK. 

“The idea was born from the legacy of the London Olympics in 2012,” Jonny explained. “We set out to help children from all backgrounds to get active. We run free, non-competitive triathlon events, where it’s all about removing barriers and giving children a positive experience. We then host follow-up events afterwards if children want to keep doing it.” 

The Foundation has come full circle, with the 50,000th child crossing the finish line at the same Leeds location as the first ever event 2014. 

You can listen to the full interview with Jonny in our Leeds Voices podcast.

When Jonny was younger, there were no such pathways into triathlon. He was introduced to swimming by his mum, running by his dad and eventually – fortuitously – triathlon by his uncle. “He was one of the few people in the UK who did triathlon at the time. We went to watch him compete, then decided to give it a go – which meant travelling around the country. But if I told my school friends I was doing a triathlon, they probably thought I was horse riding and shooting.” 

Jonny’s ensuing success on the international scene came about during his time at Leeds, where he benefitted from the University’s sporting facilities and training groups. “I enjoyed my time at Leeds,” Jonny said. “Mine was a very different experience to that of most students – I did exams all over the world when I was racing abroad. I lived at home at first, then with Alistair. But I loved it, the triathlon club was growing and when I left there were three or four squads. I loved going out training with newcomers, showing them the cafes of Yorkshire, then going off and racing on the international stage. 

“It was perfect going into 2012 as well because it gave me something to focus on that wasn’t just Olympics.” 

It was the London Olympics which catapulted the Brownlee brothers into the public spotlight – and where Jonny gained a bronze medal. “It was the best triathlon race there has ever been,” Jonny said. “I get goosebumps talking about London 2012.” 

As home favourites, Jonny and Alistair handled the pressure remarkably well – even after Jonny was given a time penalty for overstepping the transition line. “I’ve never had one before or after. I was just a bit eager. I’m proud of the performance, that I didn’t let the penalty get to me, and I’m proud of the British crowd for putting on such a show. 

“They were so loud you couldn’t hear athletes around you. People stood five deep, and yet I could pick out the voices of old school teachers and friends in the crowd.  

“I remember crossing the line, embracing Alistair, and realising we’d done it.” 

Earlier that summer, Jonny graduated from Leeds, four years after his degree began. “I did two years full time then split my third year over two years. That allowed me to bridge the gap between school and becoming a professional athlete. I think sometimes if you jump straight in from school you have too many hours, train too much, get injured and get worse.” 

So is that the reason Jonny has remained at the top of the sport for so long, as those around him have retired? Already this year, Jonny has been competing in the World Series, and he took silver in the European Triathlon Championships in Madrid. “I only realised how long I’ve been doing it at an event last year when I saw a lot of the people I used to race against are now coaches,” Jonny says.  

“I try and look after myself with sleeping and eating. But I think the main thing is the enjoyment. If the training was a struggle it would be hard to keep going. But for me, it’s the best thing in the world.  

“And through the Brownlee Foundation, I’m incredibly proud that we’re able to help the next generation experience that joy, too.” 

Further information

For further details, email Ed Newbould, Digital Communications Officer, University of Leeds at