From grassroots to the global stage:
the story of Royal Windsor Triathlon, as told by triathlon legends John Lunt and Jasmine Flatters
The next Royal Windsor Triathlon will be the 30th edition. A key race in the calendar since the early days of triathlon, Windsor has been instrumental in the growth of the sport in the UK. We sat down with John Lunt, Human Race founder, and Jasmine Flatters, awarded an MBE for her services to the sport, to learn more about how the race began, their thoughts on the last 3 decades and what’s next for triathlon.
The Windsor story
“I suppose it all started long before the first Windsor Race,” John reflects. “Around 1987, I used to race the 220 Triathlon series and one day, after chatting with John Lillie, founder of both the 220 magazine and race series, I started managing the transition zone for his events. Living and breathing triathlon, I set up Human Race in 1990, staging the first event in October 1990 – the Kingston Marathon and half Marathon. This set the scene for a number of coincidences that all came together to launch the Royal Windsor Triathlon.”
Jasmine adds, “I was chair of the Datchet Dashers running club in Windsor at the time. Every year, we organised the Datchet Dash, a race that went through Datchet, Windsor and Slough. We had to have permission from the police and the council, so we had built a lot of these relationships already. We also had a wonderful community of volunteers.”
“Jasmine and I met after her husband took part in the Kingston event,” recalls John. “Her contacts were invaluable for us moving forward with Windsor. I also had 2 good triathlon friends who had recently started working at Windsor Leisure Pool. I began thinking that Windsor would be a fantastic place for a triathlon.”
Not that there weren’t any obstacles on the way. “We were told 3 times by the police that it wouldn’t be possible,” admits John. “But in hindsight, I think they were just testing how confident we were in our ability to put on such an event and how determined we were.”
Though triathlon has roots in the 1970s, by the late 1980s, it was still a very new sport in the UK with a small but tight-knit following. “Being part of the 220 series ensured all race directors worked closely together. We would all go and help out at each other’s events! It was a very steep learning curve,” John explains.
The inaugural Windsor took place in June 1991 with Spencer Smith and Sarah Coope taking the win. “The first year was a bit of a mish mash!” John admits. “We probably had about 300 people. The transition was in the Garden and leisure centre car park. We swam in the river upstream and then downstream and we had to keep the bike and run routes out of town.”
Standing the test of time
“In 1995, Windsor was the National Championship race and was featured on BBC Grandstand which was an absolute highlight for me. This gave us the energy and momentum we needed to open up discussions with the Council so we could take the race into the heart of the town. Around 1995, Buckingham Palace opened its doors to tourists whilst Windsor Castle started charging a fee to visitors. What this meant for us is that the Council was suddenly a lot more open to the idea of a race that would bring visitors back into Windsor,” explains John.
Reflecting on why Windsor has stood the test of time, John believes its success came down to people. “You just need to have good people that want to make it happen. We built a really talented team and got to know the town. Slowly we got the whole thing to work. It definitely did not happen overnight!” John acknowledges. “A good organisational and financial base allows your event to come back the next year whilst you build relationships with local clubs and community members to help more triathletes get involved. You must be engaged and aim to be a force for good if you want an event to be sustainable.”
“I was living locally” says Jasmine, “whilst John would be in town regularly. We worked hard to build relationships with local businesses, shops and restaurants – we wanted this event to be put on with locals – not in spite of them. We also made sure to give prizes to age group athletes which I think helped us stand out from other events.”
“In 2000, Windsor was the qualifying event for the Sydney Olympics – I will never forget it!” recalls John. “It was definitely a worry. If there was a crash, we would have no one at the Games but luckily, they didn’t! This was a huge milestone for us. Similarly, the buzz after we won the London Olympics bid in 2005 was palpable at our races. In the lead up to the 2012 Olympics, and Alistair Brownlee’s Gold medal, triathlon really got a huge boost in the UK. It was an honour to a part of that exciting period for the sport”.
A changing sport
When looking back at the first race, John admits “There has been an awful lot of change! It is probably easier to look at what hasn’t changed – and that is Alexandra Gardens has remained the focal point throughout.”
Having only missed part of 1 race since 1991, Jasmine is a stalwart of the Windsor triathlon scene. She confesses that she preferred the days when registration was the day before the race but recognises that “we have tried to move with the times and give the athletes what they ask for.”
When looking at triathlon more widely, John adds that “it used to be quite rough and ready! No rules and regulations, we would make it up as we went a long – it was a lot of fun. Today, there is a lot more technology involved which is a great step forward. From an admin point of view, we used to stuff envelopes and get cheques in the post. In 2009, we went fully online – which saves a lot of paper and a lot of time going to the bank!”
For Jasmine, the biggest difference is the amount of choice triathletes have now compared with in 1991: “When we were doing Windsor in the early days, there weren’t many quality races around so people would come to Windsor as they knew they were going to get a good quality, safe event.”
Chuckling, Jasmine adds: “I remember the early days when it was hard to get people to remember the order of the sport – swim, bike, run! When people would write about the sport, they would put it in the wrong order, but now, people just know what triathlon is.”
After three decades, John admits it is the community that keeps him in the sport. “I’ve always been involved; I just love the sport and the community.” Jasmine agrees 100 percent. “It is definitely the people. There is a tenacity amongst triathletes and a sense of belonging.”
The future of triathlon
“Events face an uncertain time” John muses. “Brexit has had an impact over the last few years. This virus is going to affect people’s cashflow. Hopefully the Tokyo Olympics next year will give triathlon another boost.”
The picture is rosier over the longer term. “Triathlon has bedded itself into the Olympics which is always positive. We just need to keep it fresh: innovative technology, new people coming through, new competitions.”
In terms of diversity and inclusion, John explains that “over the years we have tried a lot of different approaches to make the sport more inclusive, from women-only triathlons to children’s events to boost participation from a younger age. We have worked with triathlon clubs like Windrush to help more triathletes from BAME communities participate. We have an LGBT wave at Brighton & Hove Tri. There are little pockets of activity to help boost inclusion and things are changing slowly.”
“We all need to work together, from the governing body to event organisers to support the development of a wider range of triathletes as there is talent everywhere – whilst the sport can bring benefits to anyone”, says John, acknowledging there is definitely room for improvement.
For those in two minds as to whether they can do a triathlon, John points out that people “who enjoy a challenge should seriously think of having a go at the sport. It can be a tough challenge but very enjoyable as well!”
Jasmine concludes, “It is not as daunting as it first appears. A sprint or Olympic distance is within reach and these shorter distances are great for beginners, people with busy work and family lives, and as we get a bit older! People tend to enjoy their first race so much they are usually ready to sign up to their next event on the finish line!”
Do you want to be part of the historical Royal Windsor Triathlon? Register your interest for 2021 and join us at the next race!