Words: Tim Heming
When paratriathlon made its Paralympic debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the wheelchair men raced, but the women did not. With the sport being limited to six classes for its Games bow, the axe had to land somewhere. To retain gender equality, the visually impaired women got the nod at the expense of the men.
Jade Jones-Hall and Lauren Parker might have given this news a cursory glance, but it directly affected neither. They’d never taken part in a paratriathlon. Jones-Hall couldn’t swim and was preparing to race her wheelchair on the athletics track in Brazil. Parker was training for the Ironman World Championship, looking to one day follow fellow Australians Michellie Jones and Mirinda Carfrae to the big title on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Fast-forward to the Commonwealth Games on Gold Coast in April, and these two upstarts are duking it out in the paratri wheelchair division. In a dramatic finale, Jones-Hall overtakes Parker to win gold - and the Aussie overturns her chair in the finish chute as she slips to bronze.
What this shows is that paratri is evolving fast, both in terms of its global stature and its depth and calibre of competition. Yet while it’s quite feasible a new star will emerge to contest the medals in Tokyo, it’s also a fair bet to say Jones-Hall and Parker will be in the mix too.
Theirs is a rivalry which underlines another special facet of paratriathlon - that competitors can share a dedication to sporting excellence while coming from contrasting backgrounds.
Jones-Hall has been readied for parasport success from an early age. Born in Middlesbrough without a thigh bone, she was just turning a teenager when a sports day visit by legendary Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson inspired her into wheelchair racing. She’s since gone on to compete at both London 2012 and Rio before her attention turned to paratri in November 2016. The Commonwealth Games victory was just her fifth race.
Parker, eight years her senior, was toying with turning professional at triathlon when a bike crash on a training ride in April last year left her with a broken scapula, ribs, back and pelvis, a punctured lung, and no feeling from the waist down. Within nine months she was back on the podium as a paratriathlete in the Oceania Championship and the International Triathlon Union termed it the fastest comeback they’d ever seen. Even less experienced than Jones-Hall, the Commonwealth Games was just her third paratriathlon.
The two should clash again on the Gold Coast for a world championship showdown in September, and we can discover whether the English woman’s improvements in the swim and handcycle, or the Australian’s better handling of the technical racing chair will win out.
Despite working in multisport for 30 years, paratriathlon’s rapid evolution has even surprised Dean Jackson, the founder of Huub, who have been designing and providing racewear for paratriathletes for the past 7 seasons.
“At the beginning it was simply the right thing to do,” Jackson explains. “We’d no idea how big it would be and I wasn’t considering the Paralympics. Athletes just needed help with their suits.”
Huub began working with wheelchair competitors Phil Hogg, then the British No 1, and Joe Townsend, who, like Jones-Hall, would also claim Commonwealth gold.
“Athletes wouldn’t approach us for bonuses or big contracts, but just to ask if we could make a suit that fits,” Jackson continues. “If we couldn’t do that, then why are we in the wetsuit business? We’re now working with countries that may never win medals, but it’s still the right thing to do for the DNA of the sport.”
Before this starts sounding a little too altruistic for a commercial brand, it’s worth noting that the challenge of optimising suit design for different body shapes and sizes has been a catalyst for innovation in Huub’s research and development department.
“Joe has no legs,” Jackson explains. “So he needs all the buoyancy he can get. Some of those mega buoyant materials have crossed over to other areas, such as the new Brownlee Agilis wetsuit.”
However the kit performs, it never looks better than when it is being shown off on the podium, and given Jones-Hall’s law degree has culminated this summer with a 2:1 from Teesside University, expect rather more success as she transitions to life as a full-time athlete.
“I went straight from school to A Levels and then on to university, so I’m looking forward to being able to focus on training,” she explains. “I’ve spent a lot less time in the race chair and a lot more time in the pool and on the bike, but I still feel like I’m catching up in respect to those two disciplines.
“There’s a lot I can improve on but the transition from athletics to triathlon was made much easier through the support of my coach, Ian Thompson [Tanni’s husband and former coach] and British Triathlon.”
If Jones-Hall’s potential strikes fear into her rivals, then it should be mirrored across all the paratri categories because the British contingent have much room to excel, according to Paralympic performance director, Jonny Riall.
“If we boiled down Rio into purely an assessment of performance, we underperformed,” Riall says, despite Team GB jointly-topping the medal table with four medals in the six classes. “Significant changes were needed to see significant improvements. These happened quickly, and I think the fruits of those shifts are being seen now.
“The two Commonwealth gold medals were a reflection of two different changes. Jade’s was testament to her desire to challenge her talent, and we were ready to identify it and support a very experienced athlete in a brand-new sport. It was something we had to be better at.
“With Joe, it was testament to his determination to be better, but also an acknowledgement of the direction the team were heading. Nothing less than this would have been acceptable any longer.
“I would say most people’s steepest learning curve wasn’t the swim, bike, run element of either coaching or training. It was, and still is, the question of ‘what is elite – and how do we live it regardless of whether we are a staff member or an athlete?”
It’s a mark of Riall’s own ability that he’s adapted with the changes as the sport has grown over his nine years in charge. His tenure has also allowed him to witness a series of watershed moments such as the first elite paratriathlon in Hyde Park alongside the World Triathlon Series in 2009, the first world champions crowned over the sprint distance in Hungary a year later, the first time athletes could access UK Sport funding, and that first Paralympic competition alongside the Copacabana in Rio...
“For me, the most pivotal moment in our journey towards Rio was being able to confirm to George Peasgood, Clare Cunningham and Phil Hogg that they’d made selection to the team after three successful invitational requests,” Riall explains. “It was an honour to pass on the news, and to take the biggest team to the sport’s first Games.”
There were tough moments too, such as telling athletes that their classes would not be represented in Rio, and their dreams were dashed.
“To lose 10 athletes overnight from a team we had collectively worked so hard to develop was heartbreaking,” he says. “Many left never to return which is a huge shame. However, we have athletes who went away and are now back winning world titles which shows their commitment to this wonderful sport.”
The story for British paratriathlon is one of success built on success. If somebody is on the start-line they are there to win a medal, and as Riall looks ahead to Tokyo 2020 the challenge becomes how to be better prepared than any other team.
“The flight time, jet-lag, climate and culture are all things that could throw people off track regardless of how fit and fast they might be,” he says. “We agreed on a philosophy to take a large team to Rio. If somebody qualified a slot for GB, we proudly accepted it to showcase the athletes’ hard work in creating a foundation for the future.
“Tokyo is about selecting the highest performing team possible. My hopes are we have a team who are all there for the same reason and that staff simply help them do what they do best. If that happens, I think it could be a special moment.”