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Jason Kenny interview

Mark Bailey
10 Nov 2016

Jason Kenny, Britain's greatest ever Olympian, chats to Cyclist about fame, marriage and his diet of bangers and mash.

From the cheery opening ‘Hi-ya’ to the friendly farewell ‘Ta-ra’, Bolton’s famously down-to-earth track cyclist Jason Kenny shows no sign during our interview that his new status as the joint most successful British Olympian in history will trigger a cataclysmic change in his character or ego. 

Kenny is not an athlete you will find mingling with luvvies on the A-list party circuit or aping Cristiano Ronaldo by commissioning a life-size wax statue of himself for his bedroom. Despite owning six Olympic gold medals, he remains happy to spend his days tinkering with motorbikes in his garage or rustling up bangers and mash in his kitchen. Even talking about his success leaves him feeling bewildered.

‘It was a bit of a blur really,’ says Kenny, 28, reflecting on the three gold medals in the individual sprint, team sprint and keirin events at the Rio Olympics that catapulted him level with Sir Chris Hoy at the top of Britain’s all-time list of Olympic heroes. ‘Once I got the fourth one it felt like they started racking up all of a sudden. I remember when I got the third [at London 2012], I hadn’t really thought about it, then someone said I was eighth in the list of the most decorated [British] Olympians and that was pretty cool. Then in Rio I started chipping away and moving up the rankings and it is just mega, isn’t it? It is just a cool list to be on.’

Kenny is still in humble disbelief that he now owns more gold medals than Olympic titans such as fellow cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins and rower Sir Steve Redgrave, who have both earned five. ‘I don’t compare myself in any way to those guys, you know. What they have done individually is phenomenal. You have got Brad winning gold medals alongside winning the Tour de France. You’ve got Chris who pretty much created the British Cycling scene as we know it today by winning so many medals. Then you have Sir Steve Redgrave who did it over five consecutive Games, which is just ridiculous. So I don’t compare myself to them at all. It’s just a great honour to be there on the list alongside those names.’

One track mind

In an age when athletes are expected to segue seamlessly from sweaty athletic performance to polished post-event publicity, the spotlight-dodging Kenny is something of an anomaly. His blushing reticence is even more noticeable given that he is married to the endearingly effervescent track cyclist Laura Kenny (nee Trott), who with four gold medals is already Britain’s most successful female Olympic Champion. But Kenny enjoys living a quiet life in rural Cheshire. 

‘I left Rio the day after I finished racing as I’d been away from home for so long and I just wanted to get back to the dogs [two sproodles called Sprolo and Pringle] and get the house sorted. There was no immediate celebration as such. We just wanted to get on with life. Before the Olympics you have to put your life on hold and I had a big long list of things to do that I’d put off.’ 

As it turns out, one of those little things was getting married in a secret ceremony in late September. But Kenny is content to spend his days doing what he happily describes as ‘the boring stuff’. 

‘I like maintaining my bikes in the garage or going out cycling on the roads and enjoying any good weather. We’ve got the dogs so it’s nice to get out into the countryside when we can. I’m always in the garage, sorting out my motorbikes or pulling one of them to pieces.’ 

A self-confessed petrolhead, Kenny has raced cars in the Radical Challenge Championship and his collection of motorbikes has included a KTM Duke 390 and a Kawasaki Z1000SX. He ‘relaxed’ after Rio by combining his love of cycling and motor circuits in the epic Revolve 24 bike relay event at Brands Hatch. 

‘Revolve was a fun challenge and because we did it as a team we had good camaraderie. I did it with my dad, my uncle and my father-in-law and it was a good laugh. It was funny watching people suffer. There were a few challenges – obviously the main one on the track, but also the nutrition and the recovery in between stints – but it was good fun.’

Golden couple

Kenny admits that his relationship with his wife has been a huge help in his professional life. The couple are releasing a joint autobiography, out this month, in which they discuss the many sacrifices it has taken to reach the top. 

‘In a way it has been a challenge because as athletes you have to be selfish. Maybe in some relationships someone is playing the supporting role while the other one is the full-time athlete, but we are both playing the supporting role and we are both the athletes. So there is a compromise. But the flip side is that we understand the trials and troubles we go through so we can support each other.’

The sprint star admits he is unlikely to win any gold medals for romance. His proposal was a casual affair: ‘It was just a random day really. I’m not very good at sitting on things, so once I bought the ring that was it really. I think it was a couple of days after I bought the ring. We were just watching telly one night and I just thought, “Ah, sod it.” I just asked and that was that really. Laura didn’t seem to mind.’

Cooking is not a strong subject in the Kenny household. ‘No, we’re not going to win any awards for that either. I do the lion’s share of the cooking. Our favourite is bangers and mash, which isn’t the best for nutrition. It has good protein content so that’s how we sell it to ourselves, but with mash dripping in butter and gravy it’s probably not ideal.’

Kenny likes to joke that he is ‘a miserable sod’. That’s not strictly true. He’s full of wry, self-deprecating quips. It’s just that, unlike many athletes, he has no interest in courting fame for fame’s sake. If he wins medals, it’s because he is a ferocious competitor. Public attention is merely a by-product of that success. It’s telling that of the many rewards for his success he is most proud of the day a new Bolton leisure facility was named the Jason Kenny Centre. 

‘Things like that are really nice. That’s a sports centre so it feels close to my heart. I was always down my local leisure centre as a kid so it is good to be associated with one.’

The prodigy

Kenny was born in Farnworth, near Bolton, on 23rd March 1988. As a child he was a fan of football, tennis, swimming and cycling. ‘I remember I always wanted to ride. My brother Craig is four years older than me and I was always chasing him. We had quite a big garden and my dad would guide us round while holding the saddle.’

He first sampled the steep banking and spine-rattling speed of the Manchester velodrome at the age of 11 or 12. ‘My uncle went with a few mates from work and I had a go on a taster session. He thought it was something me and my brother would enjoy. We both loved it and we got into a kids’ club there. I started going once a week and got introduced to a bit of racing.’

The young rider soon benefitted from the expansion of the Lottery-funded British Cycling system. The Olympic success of Chris Boardman (1992), Jason Queally (2000) and Chris Hoy (2004) was inspiring progress. 

‘When I was about 13 British Cycling was testing everyone with a racing licence and I had just raced the nationals. I got tested and got invited onto the Talent Team. Then when I was 16 the Olympic Development Programme was made, which took me through to the age of 18. And then when I was 18 the Sprint Academy was formed. So the steps appeared in front of me and I just took them. I was fortunate in that sense.’

In a flash of what was to follow in Rio 10 years later, Kenny won gold in the sprint, team sprint and keirin at the Junior World Championships in Belgium in 2006. ‘I had been to the Junior Worlds the year before and there were guys like [four-time world champion] Max Levy and [triple world champion] Kevin Sireau racing. I went out in the early rounds but it was good to race. I worked really hard for the next one and it was my first real international success. Back then everything had come relatively easy. You wonder what the fuss is about as you just get stronger and faster every day at that age. But when I got on the senior squad it all changed. As a junior I was doing 10.3 and in the seniors the standard was 10.099 so it didn’t seem so far away. But then I realised how hard that final step was going to be.’ 

Going for gold

At his first senior World Championships in 2008, Kenny finished fifth in the sprint. He hasn’t forgotten the disappointment. ‘That was my first setback, but I think that helped me and showed me it was going to be a real fight. From that point on, I got my head down.’ 

Kenny has fond memories of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he won gold in the team sprint alongside Chris Hoy and Jamie Staff and silver in the individual sprint behind Hoy. ‘It was magic, yeah. That was our first experience of dominating a Games. Athens had been really good, but when we went to Beijing we knocked it out of the park. It was great to be part of that team.’

Kenny went one better at London 2012, winning gold in the team sprint with Hoy and Philip Hindes while also taking gold in the individual sprint. ‘It was my first individual win so that was a bit different – a bit mega,’ he says. ‘Especially to do it all at a home Games.’ 

However, Kenny’s performances in Rio were his most accomplished yet, claiming gold in the team sprint with Hindes and Callum Skinner, taking his first Olympic keirin gold and overcoming his roommate Skinner to win individual sprint gold. 

‘We kept things pretty normal,’ says Kenny of the duel. ‘When we got on the track we were trying to win and in the village we were teammates. At breakfast we were still getting the coffees in. You do change a fraction. You’re certainly not talking about how tired you are any more. You just hope the other person is as tired as you are. But we never really thought about it, other than when other people started taking the mick.’

After the intense lead-up to Rio, he’s understandably happy to take a break from the painful lactate sessions, track sprints and brutal gym workouts that were the foundation of his success. You’d forgive the Kennys for glancing across at each other over a dinner of piping hot bangers and mash and exchanging a grin at all they have accomplished. 

‘The truth is that we don’t really think about it too much,’ reveals Kenny. ‘Laura has mentioned about one day making a clock out of the gold medals and we have genuinely spoken about how we might do it. But other than that we don’t really talk about our medals, other than the logistics of where to keep them for safety. They’re sentimental for us but I don’t think anybody would want them anyway. It’s not like you see Olympic gold medals come up on eBay, is it? But after living and breathing every detail of training before Rio, it’s nice to take a step back and be normal for a bit.’ 

It is a quality that Kenny, despite his well-earned success, finds easier than most. 

Laura Trott and Jason Kenny: The Autobiography is published on 10th November in hardback (£20, Michael O’Mara Books). For the 2017 edition of Revolve24 visit revolve24.com

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