Alan Birtwhistle summed up his son Jake’s extraordinary run to win Australia’s opening medal of the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast with “we knew he’d have to have his running shoes on today!”
His boy Jake has always been a good runner, in fact a very good runner, now becoming a great runner and to be a world-class triathlete you have to be a great runner
And in just 14 minutes and 36 seconds around the streets of Southport– the world class split time for Jake’s five kilometre run leg – the “silver streak” from Launceston took another massive leap up the elite men’s triathlon ladder.
Like most people watching today’s triathlon unfold, Alan Birtwhistle and wife Carmen were somewhat concerned, even for them, when 23-year-old Jake so far back after the swim (16th) and the bike (12th) that they knew the runner in him would have to pull out something pretty special.
And one by one Birtwhistle started reeling in some of the best triathletes in the world and holding off some of the others, behind him to claim a remarkable silver medal.
In front of him was England’s Olympic champion Alastair Brownlee, his silver medal winning brother Jonny and Rio bronze medallist and eventual gold medallist Henri Schoeman from South Africa and his Australian team mate Matt Hauser – the just turned 20-year-old reigning world junior champion – who would dig deep to charge home for fourth.
Behind him was the man most likely to catch him, dangerous South African, Rio fourth placegetter and former training partner Richard Murray.
If Alan and Carmen had their doubts…then so did Jake.
“I honestly thought I would struggle to finish in the top 10 or the top 8, I knew I could run but I realistically gave myself no chance,” said Birtwhistle.
“I guess I just dug deep and gave it everything and the support of the home crowd was unbelievable and something I’ll remember for a long time I’m sure.
“I was taking it one step at a time and just kept taking them off one by one, running my own race as the numbers kept ticking off.
“I was really happy the way I was able to put together that run after the swim bike that I had.”
And when asked whether he thought he had it in him (to out run almost the entire field) he admitted: “No not really…. those guys up front were the strongest swim bikers in the sport in the world…. in saying that they are really good runners too.
“I would say I am one of the best runners in the sport in the world and I thought I could lose the gaps but didn’t expect to pull that many back…and finish second…. I’m stoked with that.
“No doubt there will be plenty more (medals to come by Australia in these Games) but it’s pretty awesome; it’s a huge relief off my shoulders; I have been looking forward to this for a long time and to come here and execute a race (like that) I can’t really ask for much more.”
But it was Hauser who actually gave Australia’s exciting new generation of triathletes a real show when he mixed it with the Olympians in the swim and the six-strong breakaway on the bike which took the lead after the 20km bike stretch to almost 30 seconds on the Birtwhistle/Murray led chase pack.
Hauser was having the race of his life, mixing it with the world’s best as Birtwhistle and the third Aussie Luke Willian, bronze medallist in last year’s Under 23 World Championship also chipping away in his step up to a world class Games field.
When it looked like Hauser would drop out of contention, he found a second wind and produced a stirring finish to close the gap on eventual bronze medallist, Marc Austin from Scotland in the closing stages.
Willian ran himself to absolute exhaustion – finishing eighth and giving the Aussies three in the top ten – splitting the Brownlee brothers – Jonathon who was seventh and Alastair who snuck into 10th.
It was a great day in the office for the boys and one that could be a launching pad for resurgence for triathlon in Australia.
Meanwhile earlier in the day, Australia’s women’s team couldn’t match the tearaway tactics that eventually saw Flora Duffy win only Bermuda’s second ever Commonwealth Games gold medal.
The 30-year-old was second out of the water and second off the bike behind England’s eventual silver medallist Jessica Learmonth before running away with the gold in 56 minutes 50 seconds, with Canada’s Joanna Brown third.
Australia’s top ranked hope, Ashleigh Gentle, admitted her usual strong run leg let her down as she ran home over the final five-kilometres with the fourth fastest run time to finish a gallant fifth.
Armidale’s Gillian Backhouse, who was a close up fourth out of the 750m swim certainly made the most of her encouraging start to piece together the best race she could with a solid ninth place finish.
Fellow Games debutant, Wollongong-based Victorian Charlotte McShane faded on the run to finish 11th.
The Australian girls, as disappointed as Gentle was not to win a medal, are priming themselves to perform again in Saturday’s Mixed Relay, with only two of the three to be included.
“I was disappointed with my run – something that I have been able to rely on in my career but not today and disappointed I wasn't able to win a medal,” said Gentle.
“From the start, Flora and Jessica broke away and they did that in almost every race on the World Series last year so none of us were surprised.
“Those girls wanted to work together because it benefitted both of them; it would have been nice to have been more organised on the bike some of the girls from different countries I didn’t even see on the bike, they hid themselves really nicely; it is what it is and that’s racing.
Gentle said Australia would again have a great team in the Mixed Relay, no matter who races, “We have six great athletes.”
Backhouse was pleased with her performance and said as hard as she tried she just couldn’t go with the “tearaway twins” Duffy and Learmonth.
“The swim was ferocious today I was on their feet for the first half of the (750m swim) and they pushed the pace and it just strung out and it was just Flora and jess by the end of the swim and Sophie Coldwell and me in no man’s land behind I did everything I could in the swim and you have to be happy with that you always like to be up the road with those two kudos to both of them; they have really pushed and changed the sport over the past couple of years.
“You really have to be up there in the swim or you are not in the game; I have always been a strong swimmer but the swim has really lifted to that next level which is really exciting.
“I love seeing the sport evolve it keeps us on our toes and keeps us interested; I love sprint distance and Olympic distance, they both have goods and bads; really I would love to race the relay, I have only really raced the recent Triathlon Australia Invitations since we finished second in the World Championships in 2015 but then we won gold last year; it would be nice to be part of it but who knows.”