In a crazy finish to rival the Julie Moss collapse at Ironman Hawaii in February 1982, Jonny Brownlee was cruising to the win at the World Triathlon Series Grand Final and the World Title in Cozumel when he started wobbling in the heat. With 400 meters to go, Jonny fell down with eyes rolling back in his head.
Seeing his brother in trouble, Alistair Brownlee abandoned his duel with Henri Schoeman of South Africa, picked up his virtually unconscious brother and supported him for a quarter mile toward the finish as Schoeman raced ahead for the Grand Final win.
Barely dragging his brother to the finish, Alistair assisted Jonny to continue, wrapping his arm around him and helping him stumble forward stride for stride. At the finish, Alistair pushed Jonny over the line where he fell in a heap in second position. Then Alistair walked across 3rd. Crucially, Richard Murray held on for 4th across the line and points leader Mario Mola finished one second later in 5th. Because Jonny Brownlee did not win, his finish gave Mola enough points for the World Title whether or not Jonny was subsequently disqualified for receiving outside assistance.
Schoeman finished in 1:46:50, 18 seconds ahead of Jonathan Brownlee and Alistair Brownlee. Richard Murray took 4th, 45 seconds back of the winner. Mola took 5th, one second back of Murray.
“First of all this was not how I wanted to win the world championship,” Mola told ITU media. “Luckily I was able to be in the top five considering Jonny didn’t win the race. To be honest, I was already considering that the role of Alistair was to help Jonny. Considering that, I thought, ‘Well I’m going to be second again, but at least I will fight until the end.’ And when I heard Jonny isn’t feeling well, I thought ‘I need to fight to the end.’ We want everyone to be safe after the finish line, it’s not the way I wanted it, but that’s triathlon.”
This was Mola’s first elite ITU World Championship title. He won the 2009 ITU junior world championship in which he beat Jonathan Brownlee for the gold. Mola’s world championship comes after elite men’s ITU World Champions wins by fellow Spaniards Javier Gomez and Ivan Raña.
As of 15 minutes after the finish, Jonathan Brownlee was still listed as finishing 2nd, which would give him a provisional 2nd place in the season long Columbia Threadneedle World triathlon Series points chase. With a lot of money on the line for subsequent finishers, officials will review a protest made by the Spanish delegation which could result in the disqualification of Jonathan and possibly Alistair Brownlee.
If the results stand, Mola will win the World title by a total of 4 points and Jonny Brownlee will take 2nd. If the Jonathan Brownlee is disqualified Richard Murray will finish the Grand Final 2nd and Mario Mola will finish 3rd - and win the season long World Title by a larger points margin.
On the crucial swim leg, Alistair and Jonny Brownlee swam 16:52 and 16:53, 2nd and 3rd behind Aurelien Raphael. Crucially for Jonny Brownlee’s World title points hopes, Mario Mola was 22nd, 24 seconds behind the leaders. On points, If Jonny Brownlee wins and Alistair Brownlee finishes 2nd, Mola can still win the World Title if he finishes 3rd. If Alistair Brownlee wins and Jonny finishes 2nd Mola needs to finish 5th to take the World title.
Starting the bike, the big question was: Can the Brownlees open up a big enough lead to include one more top runner in the front pack to out finish Mola and save the World title for Jonny?
The key candidate for that honor will be Henri Schoeman, who finished 3rd at the Olympics and was firmly ensconced in the front pack of the bike at Cozumel.
By Lap 2, the Brownlees and Henri Schoeman led a pack of 9 who had a 38 seconds lead on the 48-man chase pack in which Mola was 12th, 40 seconds back. By Lap 3, the gap to chase pack was 45 seconds. By Lap 4, the gap was 47 seconds. The 5th lap was key as Jonny Brownlee put pedal to the metal and led the front pack to a 1:05 lead on the chasers, in which Mola was 14th and 1:06 down. By Lap 7, the gap increased to 1:26 and by the finish of the 40km bike leg, Brownlee led the 8 men at the front and had a 1:31 advantage on Mola.
Helping out, Schoeman looked as strong as he was at Rio. On the other side of the coin, if Schoeman can win this Grand Final, Jonny must hope that he, Alistair and someone running with Mola among the chasers – Ryan Bailie, Cristian Grajales, Aaron Royle or Richard Murray – can outrun Mola.
As the run started, the three leaders were the same men who made up the Rio Olympic podium, only in reverse order – Schoeman, Jonny Brownlee and Alistair Brownlee.
After Lap 1, Schoeman and Jonny Brownlee led brother Alistair by 1 second and Mola was 1:21 behind in 9th. Mola left behind all but Ryan Bailie who ran in 10th right at Mola’s elbow.
After Lap 2, Schoeman, Jonny and Alistair maintained the lead, one second apart. Mola was in 10th and Ryan Bailie ran a bit ahead in 9th at 1:15 down.
Lap 3 revealed the decisive momentum. Jonny Brownlee took a 7 seconds lead on Schoeman, and Alistair Brownlee stuck one second back of Schoeman in 3rd. While Mola surged into 6th place, he fell 6 seconds back of fellow super runner Richard Murray in 5th – providing all the points cushion Jonny needed to wrest the World Title from Mola - barring a shocking turnaround on the final lap.
On the final lap, Jonny Brownlee rocketed away to a 100 meter lead. If he had enough awareness, he would have to hope that Murray would hold off Mola to the finish.
But heat exhaustion and fate had other ideas.
World Triathlon Series Grand Final
September 18, 2016
S 1.5k / B 40k / R 10k
1. Henri Schoeman (RSA) 1:46:50
2. Jonny Brownlee (GBR) 1:47:08
3. Alistair Brownlee (GBR) 1:47:08
4. Richard Murray (RSA) 1:47:35
5. Mario Mola (ESP) 1:47:36
6. Ryan Bailie (AUS) 1:47:40
7. Crisanto Grajales (MEX) 1:47:46
8. Jelle Geens (BEL) 1:47:52
9. Fernando Alarza (ESP) 1:47:53
10. Adam Bowden (GBR) 1:47:55
Video of the very dramatic finale