2021 was quite a year for Jessica Learmonth. What’s on the cards for 2022?
For someone who “never grew up thinking I wanted to be an Olympic champion”, her relatively short journey from a supermarket charity triathlon to Olympic Games Mixed Relay Triathlon gold medallist, was quite the story.
Life moves fast however and an athlete career can be a short one, so in the second part of our interview series with Jess, we look ahead to the 2022 season. There are lots of opportunities available, decisions to be made and qualification obstacles to be overcome along the way…
Commonwealth Games hopes
Tokyo 2020 was far from the first Major Games experience for Learmonth. In 2018 she won two silver medals – individual and mixed relay – at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. The opportunity to race again – this year in Birmingham – is certainly on her mind, but with only one Team England place remaining, there will be competition just to make that short trip from Leeds to the West Midlands.
It’s a big goal. “I’d love to go. It’s quite difficult actually trying to plan my year when you’ve not been selected – it would have been nice to get that automatic selection done, but obviously I missed out. G and Soph hit the criteria and so totally deserve to be selected. I’m hoping to be selected, but I’ve just got to find out now what I need to do to get that third spot.”
“I would guess that they would do it from Leeds [Ed. the WTCS race in June]. I’m really looking forward to it as always, I love Leeds. I’ve very biased, but it’s good.”
[Ed. since our conversation, the updated qualification process has been released for Team England which (broadly) indicates automatic selection can be achieved via a podium at WTCS Leeds 2022 PLUS (at least one) further podium at one of these two events: WTCS Yokohama 2022 / World Triathlon Cup Arzachena 2022]
Team GB: Strong, and getting stronger
Jess was one place away from automatic qualification at the season ending WTCS Abu Dhabi last year. As we discussed earlier this year with Sophie Coldwell, that closing 5km run their would prove to be a head-to-head battle to join Georgia Taylor-Brown with early selection, Sophie coming out on top in that one.
One thing that race did confirm – not that it was really needed – was the strength-in-depth of women’s short course triathlon in Great Britain. I wondered at the time when, pre-race, I referred to it as the ‘Strongest GB team ever’, if I was getting carried away. It was a considered opinion however, not one I put out without thought. When seven Brits finished in the top 12, it proved to be more than words.
Recent circumstances could see that whole team get even stronger. Together…
“It was mad – I don’t think we’ve ever had so many Brits on the start line. When we all asked to go originally, a lot of us couldn’t get in. It was only when they went down the waitlist that we all got a start.
“It’s unreal how strong the girls are and how, touch wood, injury free everybody was. Over the years we’ve had a strong British team, but it’s very rare that we’ve been firing on all cylinders – me, Jodie, Vix, Non, we’ve all had a few injuries here and there – so it is pretty mental how strong we are.
“It’s been so nice recently because Vix has moved back to Leeds, Non is also back in Leeds, and so we’ve been doing run sessions together as a group. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to do that. Me and Georgia usually do, but I was injured all of the Olympic prep and then literally when I started running, she got injured. It’s really been refreshing, it’s been fun, motivating and we’ve had a really good laugh – it’ll just go from strength-to-strength.”
Going to the (Arena) Games
A dominant winner of the inaugural SLT Arena Games event in Rotterdam two years ago, Learmonth missed out on the London and Rotterdam events last year. That’s something she hopes to put right this year, with Arena Games gaining additional status too:
“I think so, I’m hoping to do it. I wanted to do it last year but I was in the middle of quite a bad injury, so I wasn’t able to. I liked it, I thought it was brilliant. Certainly when we did it the first time, it was when Corona had kicked off and I really enjoyed the concept.
“I do think you have to take it with a pinch of salt – it’s completely different to a normal triathlon. Just because of the weight [Ed. an input into the Zwift algorithms] and how people are better on certain treadmills for example. Someone like Georgia, she’s a way better runner, but on a curved treadmill I can probably even run a bit faster because I’ve got a shorter cadence and am a bit heavier, and she has a really long cadence – things like that actually make things different. As long as you take it as a different sport, then it is brilliant.”
I said after being one of the few people on-site in London last year, that it would be a great day with a crowd packed. That is something Jess is looking forward to experiencing in April too.
“It’s all under one roof, it’s good fun – so yes, I’m going to give it a whirl again. I remember thinking [Ed. watching the London event], it would be great with spectators. It’s also quite relatable to people, as in a pool people can see how fast you are swimming, they can see your watts on the bike – but in a lake for example, they haven’t got a clue how fast you are swimming. People can sit at home and think ‘I could keep with them’ for so long, I think it will be good.”
Good luck if you can keep up with the Learmonth swim speed for any length of time. I think I’ll just watch from the stands….
Intense racing and wide feet!
Another ‘Super’ success in 2021 for Learmonth was the Super League Championship Series. Currently being profiled in the new Every Second Counts documentary, success on course may have looked easy – three event wins and a nice cheque at the end of it – but while the racing was short, that was far from the full story.
“It’s funny looking back thinking that yes, it was after the Olympics. It was so intense. I was quite lucky because I had Jon [Ed. Jess’ partner] with me, so it made the traveling so much easier. He was enjoying the ‘circus’ as it is. But yes, the traveling and everything definitely paid its toll in Malibu.
“Like you say, I don’t think you can tell that much from watching the races, but behind the scenes the amount of athletes picking up illnesses, little niggles and things like that from week-after-week. Not just that, but if you are kind of leading the series or up in the rankings, you are getting interviewed every day, you are having photographs for the tops and things – you don’t actually have that much spare time.
“You fly in and see the course, and you’ve got to know what you are doing — that’s the other thing in the Super League! For me, I’ve got really wide feet – random I know – but I have to take three pairs of shoes in some of the races, because I can’t get back on the shoes that I’ve already taken off. Stuff like that, it’s mentally draining.”
That strength-in-depth of the British women’s squad should provide a degree of flexibility in the year post-Olympics, as Jess explained:
“I’ll still do the World Series, but I feel like we’ve been given a bit more of a free rein for the year. I think for the [British] women it’s a lot more relaxed because we’ve got so many girls, we literally can’t all get race starts.
“I don’t think that us qualifying three slots for Paris is going to be an issue. If we suddenly had lots of injuries, then they might start saying ‘listen, stop messing about, we need you to get some points!’, but I think that’s why we’ve kind of been given a bit more leeway.”
That opens the door to dabbling in a new format. Well, as soon as her bike is ready that is:
“Yes, well basically I wanted to use this year to try some new stuff – and as we’ve missed a year [Ed. with the Olympics delayed], it is a bit more rushed – and 70.3 has always appealed to me. In training I love threshold and that type of training, and I was actually going to try and target Lanzarote 70.3, but I’ve literally not got a bike, so we’ve had to cancel that idea!
“That’s a bit of a shame, but at some point I’ll have a TT bike and will be able to target another race, but I can’t really do that yet, so right now I haven’t got another race planned. ”
Could a trip to Utah be on the cards?
Would the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship – subject to qualification of course – then potentially fit in to her plans?
“Yeah, I’d like to certainly. I’d be keen to just get in there and get involved. I’ve got massive respect for all of the 70.3 athletes and I don’t presume at all that I’d be any good at it. It will take me a long time to kind of get the hang of it as it is completely different racing.
“I don’t have a clue… the drafting, the rules, it all baffles me!”
I pointed out that Taylor Knibb has seemingly made the switch from WTCS to 70.3 look simple. “Yeah, but I’m not Taylor Knibb!”. True… Taylor ‘only’ has an Olympic silver medal, I quickly pointed out. That got a laugh…
“She’s been making it look easy, but I really don’t think it is as easy as that!”
Lots to look forward to then. Will Jess make it to the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship this year? We await to find the answer to that one.
If she does though, don’t expect Lucy Charles-Barclay to have the massive lead on the field she did last year in Utah at T1. There is no chance that Jess Learmonth is giving away 90 seconds in the swim to anyone.