Great Britain's triathlon World Champion Georgia Taylor-Brown has had a rollercoaster ride to the top of her sport. Tokyo 2020 talked to her about frantic races to the first buoy, injury setbacks and her fantastic end to a year that has seemed straight out of the movies.
The battle to the buoy
A mass of flailing arms and legs, people grabbing at your clothing and pulling at your head, fists hitting you in the face as everyone rushes towards a single goal.
No, this isn't a new movie about a zombie apocalypse. It's how Great Britain's Georgia Taylor-Brown describes the terrifying swim to the first buoy in an elite triathlon race.
"It's just a massive pile-up! All sorts happen, people pull your legs, pull on your tri [triathlon] suit, grab your head. It's just awful - you don't know what's going to happen," she explained in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
"Anyone could just appear and belt you in the face out of nowhere. I've been punched in the face before."
It's also the reason the 2020 world champion has developed the one and only strategy she takes into races.
"I'm trying to up my speed so I can get closer to that first buoy quicker than everyone else, so I'm not part of that melee of madness."
It's perhaps surprising that apart from that one tactic, Taylor-Brown doesn't plan her races at all. As she says: "So much can go wrong, and if I planned something and it didn't go my way, I think I would definitely panic."
But the volatile nature of the triathlon, where competitors in Tokyo will race to complete a 1,500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run, is all part of the appeal of a sport that has become one of the most exciting features on the Olympic calendar.
You just don't know what to expect.
Navigating the nightmare of injury
If the race to the first buoy is scary, some of Georgia Taylor-Brown's injury stories sound like they are straight out of horror movies. But perhaps they are the reason she's learnt to expect the unexpected.
Back in 2014, having just graduated to the senior ranks after a second-place finish in the junior world championships, Taylor-Brown felt a pain on the top of her foot. Weeks later, when the pain had not subsided, she went for an MRI scan which revealed a navicular stress fracture, which stretched a third of the way down the bone. Then after six weeks of complete rest and recuperation with her leg in a boot, she had another scan which showed the fracture had worsened - it now stretched two thirds into her bone.
But this was just the beginning of a nightmare period of injuries.
After having surgery and two screws put into her bone, Taylor-Brown suffered another fracture in a metatarsal as a result of having not walked on her foot for such a long period of time. It led to another six weeks of recuperation.
Then just as she was about to start running again, disaster struck.
"I went to the cafe with my friends and I was walking back to my uni house and I was like, 'oh, it feels really strange', like it was pulling on the outside," Taylor-Brown explained.
"And I go to the house and I looked and there was just this lump on the side of my foot on the inside.”
When she visited her doctor, the news she got was not what she wanted to hear: "Turns out one of the screws had started to push its way out of the bone."
To put it another way, Taylor-Brown's bone had burst. In total she was out injured for 16 months, but it could have been worse.
“They even said to me, you might never run again, because of the seriousness of the injury and because I was osteopenic and the fact that it doesn’t have a good blood supply it’s very, very hard to heal the bone," she explained.
“They did say, ‘look you’re going to have to be prepared for the worst here’.”
Thankfully for the many fans of the sport of triathlon, Taylor-Brown's worst fears were never realised. And it says something about her resilient personality that she is able to look back on the events with positivity.
“Who knows, if I didn't get that injury I might have ended up just going too hard at such a young age and I wouldn’t be doing triathlon now.”
Turning promise into performances
Taylor-Brown is very aware of the dangers of going too hard when you're young. Her dad, a retired "800m runner back in the Seb Coe era" and mum, who was a national-level swimmer, encouraged her to stay away from running throughout her formative years because of the harsh impact it can have on your body.
Swimming, on the other hand, was something she has practised since the age of four. Her background in the sport gave her such a level of endurance that when she did start running cross-country in her early teens, she found herself naturally suited to it.
“I was only running once a week, twice at a push, but still coming top ten in nationals,” Taylor-Brown explained.
Eventually, with swimming already taking up 18 hours of her week and her obvious promise as a runner, her mother suggested she try triathlon.
It proved to be a fateful decision, but one that in the early days didn't seem to have paid dividends.
“I was not very good at all at the start," recalled the Leeds-based athlete. "I just had to get used to being tired all the time. I would just cry all the time at training camp.”
Cycling, in particular, seemed to drag her down, particularly the four to five hour training rides she was required to do when she broke into the British Triathlon Talent Squad at age 15.
“I'd always end up getting in the van and just being ferried around the rest of the ride and eating jelly babies and Jaffa cakes!”
But with time, Taylor-Brown's star quality began to shine. As a junior, she won consecutive European Championship gold medals, before moving into the senior ranks where, injuries withstanding, she has gone from strength to strength.
Sitting on top of the world
In June of last year, Taylor-Brown came first in the 2019 World Triathlon Leeds. The victory was special for her in many ways, not least because it was a race that took place in her hometown. It also marked the first time she had topped a World Triathlon Series podium in her career and it looked for all the world that she was on the perfect trajectory heading into an Olympic year.
And then came the horror show of 2020.
After the COVID-19 pandemic sent much of the world into lockdown, the Olympics were postponed. At first, it seemed like a hammer-blow for Taylor-Brown.
"Psychologically I was struggling with that sort of thing and not knowing, where do I go from here? Is there any point training anymore?"
But even though many competitions were cancelled that year, 2020 was far from over for Taylor-Brown. This past September, at the 2020 Hamburg Wasser World Triathlon - in a one-off race that would decide the results of the season - she became a World Champion.
In a field of 65 elite women, Taylor-Brown took control midway through the run, powering her way to the front of a pack that included 2019 World Champion Katie Zaferes (USA) and eventual silver medallist Flora Duffy (Bermuda). It was a lead she would never relinquish as she stormed home to become champion of the world.
Even then, Taylor-Brown refused to think of herself as a World Champion in the days and weeks following the race.
"I didn't accept that world champs title, because I thought it's not really world champs. It's strange and other countries can't be here and it was thrown on us last minute," she remembered. "But then after a few weeks I thought, to be honest, I earned it.
"I became a bit more proud of myself and realised what I'd achieved. It was Katie Zaferes (American triathlete) who said 'you were the one who put your head down during lockdown and you beat everyone there and you obviously got the best training in. So you need to accept that you are world champ'."
I think you'd be lying if you didn't say you were aiming for a medal.
I'm not just going to a race to take part but at the same time I don't put that pressure on myself.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Every good script needs a happy ending. And on 4 November 2020, Taylor-Brown got one step closer to hers when she was named on the Great Britain team for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
But as she prepares to compete in the greatest sporting event on earth, she is determined to make it a pleasant experience.
"Just enjoy it. It would be my first Olympics and could be my last Olympics, so I just have to enjoy it," she said, before adding "I think you'd be lying if you didn't say you were aiming for a medal. I'm not just going to a race to take part but at the same time I don't put that pressure on myself."
And one thing that will work in her favour is the fact that she's raced in the Olympic venue before, after taking part in last year's test event in Tokyo.
"It was pretty amazing," she said of the course. "On Odaiba Bay where we swim, just the whole ramp and the mass blue carpet, it was very, very cool and I really liked the Olympic course."
In many ways, Taylor-Brown's triathlon journey has played out like a movie, from the dramatic battles in the water through to the career-threatening injury setbacks and a triumphant return in a year of unprecedented adversity that saw her named World Champion.
But perhaps the greatest Hollywood moment is still waiting for her in Tokyo next year, as she steps out at Odaiba Bay for a chance to swim, cycle and run her way into the history books.
The terrifying battle to the first buoy is sure to be a must-watch moment when the Tokyo 2020 Olympic triathlon competition begins on 27 July 2021.