Words: Tim Heming
London’s Hyde Park in 2013, and 17-year-old George Peasgood became the youngest paratriathlete to win a medal on the world stage.
True, the sport was also in relative infancy, but for the teenager from Saffron Walden, it was an achievement as solid as the bronze he was handed on the podium.
Peasgood’s life was irrevocably altered at the age of two-and-a-half when he skipped across his garden and an untied shoelace caught under a ride-on lawnmower, dragging his ankle into the blades.
Multiple corrective surgeries followed with the upshot of a left leg longer than the right, and a left foot three shoe sizes smaller, with almost no sideways movement in the ankle.
Given so many of us find any beggarly excuse not to exercise, a genuine impairment from such a young age could have snuffed out any inclination toward competitive sport before it had taken hold. However...
“Firstly, having an amazing family who’ve always been sporty helps,” Peasgood explains. “They knew how active I was before the accident and wouldn’t entertain a reason for me to be less energetic. Also, not remembering anything to do with the accident, means I never considered it a reason to stop.”
The journey into paratri and that London race followed, but if it is hard to reach a first podium on the world stage, defending that position is often tougher - and for Peasgood, you could multiply the challenge 10-fold.
Why? Because thanks to the vagaries of paratriathlon and its need to streamline classifications ahead of the Rio 2016 Paralympics, his class for athletes impaired below the knee was mixed with that of below-elbow impairments for 2014.
When he returned to London in the following May, he raced 4mins faster... and finished ninth. He was losing minutes on the run. His job just got a hell of a lot harder.
“Being honest, categories can only ever be truly fair if they were to only include people with the exact same impairments,” Peasgood says. “However, I do feel I am at the more impaired end of the spectrum in my category.
“Looking at how individual sports classify athletes would lean towards placing me in a pure leg impairment category - I actually believe I could compete as a better triathlete with a blade instead of my left ankle.
“But on the contrary, I love a challenge and wouldn't ever want to compete where I wasn't being pushed like I am now. I’m consistently improving with better training and don't think there is a reason in 2020 and 2024 I won’t be a medal competitor.”
The results back it up. Peasgood is having a standout season. He’s already won twice with victories in Japan and Italy, and was second in a world cup event at Eton Dorney in May.
Yet the truth is his performances have improved steadily over the past five years, and in playing the long game there’s a sense his development comes as much from attitude as ability.
Some of that may be due to the mindset forged from adversity after the accident, but credit too should go to the support network - including brother Jack, who recently helped guide visually-impaired paratriathlete Dave Ellis to the European title in Estonia.
The spark for paratri itself was lit at a memorable Talent ID event at Loughborough University in 2011.
“It was on the 26th November and I remember feeling like new doors could be opened,” he recalls. “Derek Jones of Walden Triathlon Club pointed me in the direction of Jonathon Riall [British Triathlon’s head coach for the Paralympic Programme], but I didn’t know much of paratriathlon.
“I was found to be classifiable, I partook in some testing, and was placed under the then-called affiliate squad, now better known as talent squad.
I was also allocated a coach that Jonny knew well, Steve Casson, and he still coaches me to this day.”
Peasgood also benefits from support from UK Sport and the National Lottery, and sponsors Huub and Leigh Day, and being based in Loughborough brings the benefit of training with 2014 Commonwealth champion Jodie Stimpson and double-gold medal winner at the Youth Olympics of the same year, Ben Dijkstra.
He’s already enjoyed the Paralympic experienced too, and while the Rio Games represented the pinnacle and culmination of careers for some British paratriathletes, for Peasgood is almost came too soon.
“Rio was more of a trial Games for me,” he explains. “In 2014 it was a major stretch goal, 2015 it was unlikely but definitely possible, and 2016 brought another improvement and I realised I could race.”
He would eventually finish seventh in the 11-strong field, leading out the 750m swim by a not insignificant 51sec from the eventual winner, Germany’s Martin Schulz, holding his own on the 20km bike, before posting the slowest 5km run leg - the wrong side of 21mins.
“Looking back I'm not disappointed with my race at all,” he says. “I proved to myself and others what I could achieve while being young and in a hot climate. Knowing that I was nowhere near my peak and not expecting to medal, I enjoyed the race - and leading for almost half of it. I was also less competitive than I am now.”
The final line is borne out by results. Schulz finished three-and-a-half minutes ahead in Rio. At Eton Dorney in May - just shy of halfway through this Paralympic cycle - the gap was 75sec. Come Tokyo 2020, it’s likely to be down to the wire.
Peasgood is starting to get noticed in wider realms. His form on the time-trial bike has been rewarded with a guest spot on the British team for the UCI Road World Championships in Italy in August and then he will focus “100%” on the Paratriathlon World Championships in Gold Coast, Australia in September.
Gold Coast was also host for the Commonwealth Games in April where the men’s and women’s wheelchair classes were on show as paratriathlon made its debut, and it already holds fond memories for Team GB’s Joe Townsend and Jade Jones-Hall, who both won gold for England.
Having finished fourth in the world championship in Rotterdam last year, Peasgood is looking to step on to the podium this time. It’s been five years, after all, and if he does, in a maturing sport against faster opposition, it will even top the feeling of 2013.
“Paratriathlon is moving towards such a high level that on a good or bad day you can be on the podium or at the bottom end of the field. It will depend on my preparation and how everyone else races on the day, but if I manage to win a medal, I think I could get emotional.”