Just three years ago on one of triathlon’s killer courses, Jake Birtwhistle survived his toughest day in the office – one that tested him both physically and mentally.
A day that defined his start towards his dream – a place on an Australian Olympic team – a team he missed in 2016 but has his sights squarely set now on Tokyo 2020.
March 29, 2015 in Auckland was his debut in the big time – his initiation into the World Triathlon Series – at just 20 years of age.
The kid tipped to be triathlon’s boy most likely after a stellar career as a junior – a boy who grew up on the streets of Launceston and born to run– like Thorpey was born to swim.
He had drifted away from a more than promising career in track and field much to the despair of keen local athletics judges who held high hopes for the emerging young distance runner.
But after conquering all before him as a junior in the triathlon world and representing Australia in the IAAF World Cross Country he was ready to take the leap into triathlon big time.
A place opened up in the WTS round in Auckland and Australian officials elevated the kid who had won the Youth Olympics in Sydney at 17 and who was ready to take his place in the big time, albeit nervously, with open arms.
It was a day he remembers only too well. A day he was happy just to finish, battling on to cross the line in 38th place in his first ever WTS race – 16 others didn’t finish.
“It was like I’d been thrown into the deep end, particularly over the toughest course,” recalled Birtwhistle this week, some three years on as he prepares for Sunday’s Grand Final showdown.
“But as the year went on I actually snared some top ten finishes –including ninth in the very next round in Yokohama.
“And those results – and results in the middle of the field kept coming. I knew I just had to keep hanging in there but it was a massive jump.
“Now I’m stepping up to the podium … It’s nice to finally be in there … you just have to stay focused and believe that your time will come … but I was impatient, I kept pushing and I wanted it as soon as possible.”
Come this Sunday afternoon on the Gold Coast, some three years later, Birtwhistle will be vying for his first overall WTS podium having charged through his best ever season – and still only at age 23 – after three WTS podiums; a Commonwealth Games gold and silver tucked away and a running reputation that has seen him produce some remarkable performances against the world’s best.
Birtwhistle sits in second place on the rankings on 4101, trailing two-time world champion Mario Mola I(Spain) 4925 with Vincent Luis (France) 3810 and Richard Murray (South Africa) 3722 next.
Former world champion and Olympic silver and bronze medallist, GBR’s Jonathan Brownlee, who won that day in Auckland and other top ten finishers on the day in Pierre Le Corre (FRA), Fernando Alarza (ESP), his fellow countryman Ryan Bailie, Henri Schoeman RSA )and Richard Varga (SVK) –will all line up against Birtwhistle in Sunday’s decider.
Also in that field that day was the amazing Spaniard, Mola – who finished 15th but who has had a 2018 WTS season that looks like this - Second, Fourth, First, Second, First, First, First – from seven starts.
Missing was also his other training partner from the Joel Filiol group, talented Frenchman Luis, who is currently third in the title race.
They are now witnessing first hand a changing of the guard with two of the greats of the past decade – two-time Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee – who is also in Sunday’s field and four-time world champion Javier Gomez – amongst others, gradually moving on to long course.
“We are racing with the new generation with a new bunch of young guys taking on the world and it’s like you never know when the time will come,” said Birtwhistle.
“But I guess you could see it happening with Alistair and Javier in particular.”
And what’s it like training with our major opposition in Mola and Luis?
“It’s interesting,” said Birtwhistle, “now that Vincent has joined the group and there is now all three of us on top going into the Grand Final.
“What I have noticed that they are just human too, they have their bad days and their injury scares … it happens to the best ... they just have their ways of dealing with it and get the good results.”
Birtwhistle will be joined on the Australian team by an all-star support cast in Olympic trio Aaron Royle, Ryan Bailie and Ryan Fisher and other Commonwealth Games young gun Luke Willian, who will all relish racing at a home WTS grand final.
“This season has been a bit up and down,” said Royle. “Some solid races, with some not so great. A few very good team performances in the relay as well which I’ve been very privileged to be apart of.
“I’m sitting in 19th place on the world series rankings so far and with the Grand Final to come, I guess the only way is up … can’t wait.”
Australia’s women will be once again be led by 2017 WTS silver medallist Ashleigh Gentle, who has been well supported this season by the likes of Natalie Van Coevorden, having her best season to date, as well as 2016 Grand final bronze medallist Charlotte McShane, emerging youngster Emma Jeffcoat and Commonwealth Games Mixed Relay gold medallist Gillian Backhouse.
“It’s a very different scenario than leading into Rotterdam last year. I was going into the Grand Final ranked second in the World, and that’s not going to be the case this year.
“I will only have four scores on the board but that won't hinder my motivation to do the best I can in the Grand Final.”
Gentle will be boosted by her return to the Gold Coast and will be determined to finish the WTS season on a high note.
She is sitting in ninth and will be determined to move up the top ten with the likes of Van Coevorden, Charlotte McShane, Emma Jeffcoat and Gillian Backhouse all pushing for their best performances of the year.
Her 2018 season has not gone according to plan but Charlotte McShane aims to turn that around.
“I’ve been really disappointed in how I’ve raced and been able to perform,” said McShane.
“I haven’t been able perform the way I wanted to, however my training in 2018 has been the most consistent ever - so I’m looking to end on a high. I’d love to go out there and have a cracking race to put the rest of the year behind me.
Asked what it meant to pull on the green and gold suit, Natalie Van Coevorden said: “I am lucky it’s an experience I get to do many times in a year and have the ability be able to represent my country at one of the highest levels. I feel a great sense of pride and privilege that I honour greatly.