Home > Feature

Bring it On – Tristan Woodfine and Joanna Brown

The BIGGER the challenge, the STRONGER these two former Kids of Steel become.

Joanna Brown and Tristan Woodfine are second-year university students, teammates and friends whose names have been linked together since they were young teens. Both are from small towns in eastern Ontario. Both found their way to the Bytown Storm youth triathlon program approximately five years ago, won Ontario high school cross-country championships, and were gold medallists in triathlon at the Ontario Games, all the while maintaining excellent marks at school. And, when it came time to choose a university, both opted for the University of Guelph, a hot spot on the Canadian university running scene and home to a Triathlon Canada regional training centre.

Craig Taylor, head coach at the centre, is delighted to have Woodfine and Brown on what’s currently a nine-person squad. “Tristan and Joanna probably had the smoothest transition to university life of any athletes I have coached in the program. A successful transition involves a mix of doing well academically, adjusting to living away from home, handling the training load, avoiding injury, and just being autonomous and mature. They are organized, dedicated, very coachable kids. Few athletes have come into the program as prepared and fully formed as these two.”

Taylor says their successful transition and excellent first year of training at the centre is due to Woodfine and Brown themselves, their former coach and their families. “It speaks to the quality of Bytown Storm coach Greg Kealey that these two are the best triathletes we’ve seen in the five years I’ve been here. But it’s also a testament to their families-they both come from stable households that provide them with a lot of emotional support.”

Since Brown, 20, and Woodfine, 19, have had a similar trajectory so far, it’s no surprise they have exactly the same goals right now: to enjoy each day, and to do everything they can to make the Canadian triathlon team that competes at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Woodfine regroups after an injury disrupts his 2012 season

As this past season moved into full swing, Tristan Woodfine was on track for some personal best performances. His first year of university had gone superbly. He’d won an academic entrance scholarship and the Brian Maxwell Memorial Track Scholarship. He loved his courses, especially philosophy, got along with his roommate and took advantage of the kitchen in his residence to cook extra food and meet his huge calorie requirements. Despite his deep attachment to Cobden, Ontario, where he’d been an active soccer player, Nordic skier and triathlete, Woodfine didn’t get homesick and says his parents coped well without him. “My mom was probably very glad to have her car back, since I’d used it so much to get to training and races when I lived at home.”

Training in his last year as a junior (ages 16-19) was going exceptionally well and Woodfine felt he was in the best shape of his life. “Tristan came into our program and redefined what kind of load someone can handle in their first year,” reports Coach Taylor. “He took care of his body and was great at training camp. He met a standard we call the world standard in swimming, which puts him near the front of any race. He’d been chasing this for years and finally hit it.”

In late May, the team was training at altitude in Sedona, Arizona and then travelled to Dallas, Texas for an International Triathlon Union (ITU) race. The day before the race, while moving out of the way of a car, Woodfine fell off his bike riding over an uneven patch of road and fractured his radial head. (In layperson’s language, he broke his elbow.)

Woodfine then tried to regroup. In 2011, he’d won the opening race in the Teck national junior series. He’d finished 22nd with the fifth fastest run at the ITU World Junior Triathlon Championships in Beijing and, this year, with improved swim times, he was aiming to be at the front of the race. “He could have folded his tent right there, brought the whole team down and been full of self-pity,” Taylor says. “Instead, on the way back from the x-ray he was already discussing a revised training plan and how quickly he could turn things around to still qualify for the junior worlds.”

Woodfine lost a month of swim training and couldn’t maintain the swim fitness he’d worked so hard to acquire during the year. In July, he was 20th at a Panamerican Triathlon Confederation (PATCO) junior world cup race in Edmonton, while in 2011 he’d finished top five at this same race and been the first Canadian male. “It was a tough race, and I finished too far back to qualify for worlds, so I had to shrug that off and keep moving forward.” At the provincial championships in Ottawa on August 4, Woodfine was again disappointed. “In Ottawa, I was 10 seconds from the lead pack after the swim, which was a good swim for me, especially considering the fracture, but I lost a lot of time on the bike, so coming up to the run I was 90 seconds down. I managed to get up to seventh place, but it was a bittersweet race. It wasn’t how I wanted to finish.” The third weekend in August, his season ended with a flat tire during the bike portion of the Pushor Mitchell Kelowna Apple Triathlon, the junior national championships, a sprint race in which he’d placed third in 2011. Of the flat tire, Woodfine says, “I can’t seem to find any good luck this year. It’s alright, though. The whole season hasn’t exactly been bright and awesome-it’s been more of a learning process than anything else.”

“Tristan is among the top guys his age in the world,” Taylor says. “We know from testing he has the engine. We know from performance he is the fastest junior runner in the country and one of the best in the world. He proved in Beijing he really does have the potential to be a senior national team member for Canada and compete at major games. Tristan is solid and he doesn’t fold when the going gets really tough. I wish he did not have to go through this adversity, but, on the other hand, he’s demonstrated incredible focus and perspective throughout this process.”

“I cannot tell you how important this attitude is going to be next year, and four years from now, when Tristan is chasing a spot on Canada’s Olympic triathlon team.”

Brown enjoys some great results in her new age category

Just how tough is Joanna Brown, two-time national junior champion, two-time Canadian junior triathlete of the year and 2010 world junior bronze medallist?

“At the 2011 world junior championships in Beijing, Joanna was coming off an injury-plagued season. She was in the second group on the bike and rode up to the lead pack. It was a rainy day and a very wet course, and she crashed twice. Each time she got up and rode back to the lead pack, and she did it solo,” says her current coach Craig Taylor.

“What could have been one of the worst races of my career turned into a really big lesson on never letting go and never giving up,” Brown recalls. “It took a long time for my wrist to get better. I ended up getting an x-ray eight weeks after the race and my wrist was still broken. I learned from that race, but I definitely don’t hold it in my mind.”

The 20-year-old is currently executing superb race plans and having a solid debut season in the under-23 age category. She’s slipped on some ice a few days before her first ITU Pan American Cup race in Clermont, Florida in March and finished 20th. She was second at two subsequent races in Mazatlan, Mexico in April and Dallas, Texas in June. In July, Brown won a Pan American Cup race in Magog, Quebec, also capturing the under-23 national championship held in conjunction with this event. In late August she competed at the ITU World Triathlon Series sprint distance championships in Stockholm, Sweden against many women who had raced at the Olympics. In October, Brown travelled Auckland, New Zealand for the ITU World Triathlon age-group championships.

Brown, now in her second year of university, credits her great season with her decision to attend University of Guelph. “I had to decide if I wanted to go to the United States on a running scholarship, stay in Ottawa to go to school near my family, or go to Guelph. I chose Guelph. There are some big advantages to staying in Canada and benefitting from what Triathlon Canada has to offer-Craig Taylor is an amazing coach and has a very talented squad, and I just love it here.”

After she won the Governor General’s medal for the highest academic standing when she graduated from high school in Carp, Ontario, Brown did her last year of high school over two years so she could concentrate on triathlon and entered university a year older than many of her peers. “My last year as a junior was extremely difficult because I had some injuries, but this past season Craig stressed the importance of consistency and staying healthy-even if it means you are a bit undercooked, you are ready to go. This has turned out to be the perfect strategy for me.”
This past summer, Brown became an ambassador for Fast and Female, a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower girls through their participation in sports. “I have only made a few speeches so far, but in these I’ve tried to communicate that it’s really important to find something you love to do and put everything you have into it.”

One gets the sense speaking to Brown that the thing she’s enjoyed most about this race season is that she’s growing up. “I spent so many years of junior racing from behind, because I would have a weak swim and be chasing for the whole race. I have worked hard to improve my swim in the last couple years, and the best feeling is when I am able to either bike up to the lead pack or even start the bike with them because of a good swim. Finishing the bike with the lead pack helps so much with my confidence, and I know it is just up to me to do everything I can in the run.”
Brown is clearly pumped about the future-her own and that of Canada’s youth wing. “In the next couple of years, I want to become active on the World Cup circuit and in World Triathlon Series races. We have many talented Canadian women coming up right, and it will be great if we can all go to some of these international races and make a name for ourselves together.”

“Ultimately, I have my sights set on the Olympics. This is what motivates me every day and what I am working towards: the next Olympics, and then the Olympics after that.”

Theresa Wallace is a contributing editor at Triathlon Magazine Canada.