For any parent, seeing their child enjoy success in any form is all they want, but for Andrew Learmonth, seeing his daughter Jess stand on top of the podium at the Olympic Games was something he never even dreamt of.
At the start of 2021, the chances of Jess making the Games looked slim after a hip injury left her sidelined for a couple of months, but once she was back competing in May, there was no looking back. She took to the start line at AJ Bell 2021 World Triathlon Championship Series Leeds in June and stormed to an impressive silver medal.
On 27 July in a very wet Tokyo, Andrew sat at home in Minskip, Boroughbridge with his family to watch his daughter take on the biggest race of her life. She was competing at her first Olympics and in traditional style led out the swim before finishing in the top ten.
“The Olympic race was more stressful than any other race we’ve watched her compete in,” Learmonth said. “We think it’s amazing when she races in any race, but we and Jess try to view every race as the same as any other.
“People magnify the Olympics and so there is more pressure but Jessica saw the Olympic race just the same, so we were trying to match that too. In the back of your head though, you are still going ‘oh god it’s the Olympic Games and I hope everything is going to be ok’.
“All I wanted to do was sit there with a stopwatch and watch the race. I know you get time differences on the TV, but I needed to check what was happening with Jessica and another athlete. I just wanted to focus on the race alone, so Beverley and I sat there in the comfort of our own home until 10:30pm, which felt like the longest evening ever.”
Learmonth was fully aware that the number of challenges that all athletes had to undergo to just get to the Olympic Games meant that starting the race was an achievement in itself.
“Whatever Jessica does we’re fully behind it,” Learmonth added. “It would have been lovely for her to get a medal in the individual and we knew that when they were on the bike there was a chance for her.
“But you have to be honest, and I was relieved to even see her on the pontoon. With all the covid stories we heard about before the race, I was pleased she was racing because she could have got all the way to Tokyo and not race because she caught covid or had to isolate because someone else caught it. There were a lot of ‘what ifs’ in the race but as long as she does the best she can we don’t mind on the result.”
“The relay felt a bit strange,” Learmonth continued. “On paper, I think it was pretty obvious that we had a chance of winning a medal as long as nothing went wrong and then suddenly you realise there is pressure and more ‘what ifs’, but all the ‘what ifs’ weren’t logical, they were silly ones that added up.
“When I watched it, I kept thinking well done Jessica you’ve done this and that. When she’d finished her leg, I was relieved, because she’d passed over to Jonny [Brownlee] in a good place. But I realised that all the other parents would be thinking the same as what I had done through Jess’ leg.
“At that point, with Jonny, Georgia and Alex I thought we could win this. It was the middle of the night and was tired and the only time I was screaming at the TV was when Vincent Luis [FRA] came up on Alex on the bike. I was shouting ‘you’ve got to get on him’.
“We knew how the race progressed it could still be a medal and then it got further along, and we could win gold. We went to bed thinking ‘yeh she’s won a gold medal’.”
The celebrations came in thick and fast for the family from the local community, but Andrew maintains that the moment is Jess’ and although the family held a party for her return, she won’t change her mindset.
“I’ve felt a little bit embarrassed because we’ve had texts and cards which are so wonderful, but we didn’t get the gold medal. People were acting like we’d won the medal and we hadn’t. So, it has been a bit surreal, and I don’t think we were really prepared for it. I don’t think we’ll ever have any trouble keeping Jessica’s feet on the ground. She treats this like a day job, and she always thinks there will be another race.”