To be any chance of getting a podium finish on the ITU’s World Triathlon Series the numbers are pretty intense. Success requires a special kind of all-round athlete who is mentally tough, isn’t afraid of a bit of pain and is able to produce a sub-30 minute 10km run off a hard 40km ride, and after an intense 1500m swim.
If you are struggling to come to terms with the maths, picture the machine-like way the Brownlee brothers, Spain’s Javier Gomez and his compatriot Mario Mola have been tearing up the world circuit with their take no prisoners approach and their explosive run leg.
Quite simply they have taken the sport to a new level, and several years ago for the talent scouts of all the world triathlon federations, it became acutely obvious that if their country was to be competitive, they needed to heavily invest in finding a new breed of athlete.
For Australia, it was no different. In fact, given our past successes, it was imperative that Triathlon Australia rebuild the men’s program and find us the new Brad Beven or Greg Welch to fly the flag on the international stage.
Well, after searching the country far and wide, Australia has found such an athlete, and without putting too much pressure on the young lad, his name is Jake Birtwhistle.
For many years the Australian triathlon pundits have been saying that he is the one to watch and, much to the disgust of Athletics Australia who had been grooming him as a middle distance runner, Jake was on the radar of Triathlon Australia’s talent scouts since he was a youngster.
Without a doubt, he is the best triathlon talent to come out of the Apple Isle since the legendary Craig Walton, but what Birtwhistle has that Walton didn’t possess is blinding foot speed. That necessary ingredient needed to give yourself a chance to win the elusive Olympic Triathlon Gold Medal.
The fact that Birtwhistle made the jump across from athletics to triathlon is in large part due to the efforts of another Tassie legend Craig Redman who first saw Jake when he was in the Tasmanian school’s team at the National Championship in Devonport. Redman’s wife was involved with the team as the manager, and she was quick to tell her hubby that he needed to have a look at this very talented kid.
“That was the first time I had seen him,” Redman said. “He loved his athletics, and I really wanted to encourage him to keep running because it was obviously a weapon with the ability to change speeds and all the stuff you learn on the track.”
“We built a really good relationship with his running coach Kim Gillard, who was a very good runner in his own right. Kim did a really good job looking after his training program, and between Kim and I, we oversaw his programs of swimming and biking and putting it all together while he still dabbled in both.”
Jake lived in Launceston while Redman was in Ulverstone, so they were a 100km apart. A lot of the training was prescription but every weekend Jake along with another athlete, Dylan Evans, would make the trip up the coast.
“They would train with my squad on Saturday and Sunday and head home Sunday night. That went on for a while, but we always knew at some stage that we couldn’t give him what he wanted, and he needed a daily training environment and to be with a high-performance squad,” Redman said.
From an early age, Jake clearly knew how to win, establishing himself as one of the hottest properties in junior athletics representing Australia as a junior at the World Cross Country Championships and picking up 11 Australian titles on the track in middle distance events and steeplechase, setting age and open state records.
As recently as 2013, Jake was still combining track, cross country and triathlon, representing Australia at the junior worlds in triathlon and cross country and picking up the under 20, 3000m championship at the Zatopek meet in Melbourne, winning the final in 8:11.32.
“Over time I just grew fond of triathlon and eventually decided that I could be pretty good at triathlon, and my goal is an Olympic Gold medal. Our country has a great record in triathlon, and an Australian definitely has more chance of medalling in triathlon than athletics,” he said.
As soon as Jake finished year 12, he made the decision to go full-time triathlon making the jump across to Jamie Turner’s squad, affectionately known as the Wollongong Wizards.
“I worked with Craig Redman and the National Talent Academy program for three or four years, and we had discussed it. For me, at the time, the choice was either Jamie Turner or Craig Walton.”
“I had done some work with Craig and his team up on the Gold Coast, so I had a feel for it and spent a week with the Wizards up in Falls Creek in 2013. I decided I liked Jamie’s group and got along well with the athletes, so I went back in January for the month and straight to Wollongong.”
As part of the Wollongong Wizards and as Triathlon Australia’s poster boy, Jake had an extensive and very supportive network during the dangerous time where there are increased expectations in terms of results, sponsorship and media coverage – it is easy for an athlete to get lost.
In the past four years, we have witnessed Jake’s rapid evolution. From winning the Australian Junior and Under 23, the Junior Series title, the Mooloolaba Oceania Cup and the World Junior Duathlon Championships, to finally making the grade and having a short stint on the World Cup scene before stepping into the big time of the WTS [World Triathlon Series] and scoring his first podium in Hamburg in 2016.
Jake made his debut in the World Triathlon Series just as the world of Olympic distance triathlon embarked on its frantic journey towards Rio 2016. But his bid for a seat on the Olympic Team’s jet for Rio came unglued when he failed to perform at the two automatic qualification races.
“What I did wrong was leave selection up to chance and have someone else determine my fate. My focus now is to race well when it counts, so that team selection is sorted early.”
“Missing Rio was pretty heartbreaking because I came so close. But I think realistically, and the results over the past 12 months since that team was announced have shown, that it was a year too early for me. I am only getting to that level now where I am one of the best in the world.”
Coming out of a stunning offseason, the whole triathlon world was inspired by Birtwhistle’s insane early 2017 season form, racing with confidence and maturity beyond his years to dominate the world’s best over the short course at the Super League Hamilton Island event.
“It was nice to be right up there in the mix, pushing the pace, digging deep and making things happen. It is kind of weird to look back and see how fast my progress has been.”
“I don’t really think about it too much, but I guess things have come a long way in a couple of years. This season I will be going out there expecting nothing less of myself than to be on the podium. I need to have ‘in the race’ mentally and tick all the boxes. That will put me in the position I need to be in,” he said.
Season 2017 not only kick starts the new Olympiad, but it is also the gateway to the Commonwealth Games in 2018. In April, Jake arrived on the Gold Coast for his first World Triathlon Series of the year with his focus on performing in front of his home crowd and securing the first spot on the Commonwealth Games Team for 2018.
While his fifth place locked in the Commonwealth Games spot, the way the race panned out and his performance, where he faded in the final 5km, left
“It is hard to say, about the Gold Coast race. With what I was doing I think I had an okay race, but I wasn’t overly happy with it. It was bittersweet to get the Commonwealth Games qualification, tick that box, and be happy and super excited about going forward with that. But a fifth place on the Gold Coast wasn’t exactly what I was after.”
“I would have liked a better second half of the run, but it was the finish line that kept driving me. I just wanted to get there. I started suffering big time in the last two kilometres, and it felt like the longest five kilometres I have done for a long time.”
“I really didn’t know if the other Aussies were coming, so I was pushing to just hold them off. It is great to get the Comm Games spot locked in immediately. I am happy to nail it the first opportunity and in my first WTS race of the year.”
There was some conjecture that Jake left his good form on Hamilton Island, with only a short break arriving on the Gold Coast tired and not in the shape he needed to race against more seasoned athletes.
“Obviously everyone is different, but it is hard to use that as an excuse. Hamilton Island definitely did take a lot out of us and probably more than what I expected. So there wasn’t a lot of quality work done between the two events that were three weeks apart.”
“I think it is possible that the older guys handled the workload of Hamilton Island better, but then it could have gone the other way because they say younger people bounce back quickly.”
“Looking at it, if Hamilton Island had been just one day of racing, I think it would have been more beneficial for a young person doing that super quick kind of racing, to bounce back and be right back into their program pretty soon afterwards. By the time day three came along you had to dig pretty deep to race and do well there,” he said.
What was not obvious at the time was Jake’s discontent with his training environment, and his desire to move on from Jamie Turner’s squad to explore something new.
In a mini-bombshell, since the Gold Coast WTS Jake has now severed ties with Jamie Turner and the Wizards, and has commenced working with former Triathlon Canada National Senior and Olympic Coach, and British Triathlon Head Coach, Joel Filliol.
“I met with Joel after the race on the Gold Coast and had a chat. We have been speaking a bit since then and decided that we wanted to try this new arrangement out.”
“It has been an ongoing thing, and I wanted to try something different to what Jamie’s plan was. Our relationship got to a point where it was time for me to chase what I want, what I believe in and give that a try. So I am not left wondering in ten year’s time thinking, ‘what if’. What if I had tried this back then.”
“I have been with Jamie for over three years now and from where I was as an up and coming junior guy to now being one of the top in the world is a pretty massive transition in a few years, and a lot of that is because of him and his ways. He certainly has taught me a lot, and it is something I will continue taking forward with me where I am going.”
“As the old saying goes, you work on your strengths and chip away at your weaknesses, and I have a bit of room for improvement. I thought a bit more effort could have been put into what I was doing. I obviously don’t want to take a step backwards with the biking or the running to improve the swim, but I do want to improve the swim.”
“If you look at all the races I have done well at, it has been the races where I have had a good swim or the races that have come together on the bike, but that is not a chance you want to take to guarantee being up there at the front of the race.”
After [WTS] Yokohama Jake will head over to Europe and join Filliol’s group (which includes Mario Mola and Richard Murray) and will be based between Banyoles Spain and Font Romeu in France.
“What I liked after talking to Joel was that Richard and Mario don’t follow the same training program, and contrary to what a lot of people would think, they are not out there pushing each other all the time on the run.”
“They are different kinds of athletes and Joel has given them different training programs. That is something that sits pretty well with me, as I am not looking to go into a group environment and be one of the group. I want to go into an environment that is very specific to my needs, and it sounds like Joel will be very good for that.”
Jake said the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in 2018 is a massive priority for him and will be his primary focus.
“Obviously, I will be racing the WTS and doing all that through the year, and trying to keep progressing there but the medium-term goal is the Commonwealth Games. It is exciting because it is not only my first big championship and a big Games event, but for it to be in Australia as well makes it that little bit cooler as well. It is going to be awesome to have the home support.”
The success, or otherwise, of this move remains to be seen, and we can only wish Jake well in what has to be the biggest decision of his career.
But with the fate of the nation’s leading athlete and our number one Olympic medal hope now being in the hands of an international, there must be some raised eyebrows at Triathlon Australia.