Turning to face her best friend, flatmate and training partner Non Stanford, who she had just powered past, she whispered: “I’m so sorry.” Stanford’s response was graciousness personified. “Don’t be silly and congratulations – you were brilliant.”
The pair hugged – and then promised each other they would share some gin and tonics together in the same happy spirit they have shared much of their lives together these past three years. The irony was, as Holland later admitted, that if she had not moved in with Stanford in 2013 she probably would not have beaten her.
At the time Stanford was the world champion, while Holland was seen as a good but not exceptional triathlete who competed at London 2012 only as a domestique for Helen Jenkins. Such was the increase in training volume at first Holland “just got by” but as her body got used to it she adapted and started to see the results.
Individual bronze in the 2014 Commonwealth Games was followed by her first ITU world series win in Cape Town last year after recovering from a heel injury – and now an Olympic bronze.
Holland said: “Without Non, I don’t know if I would have won a medal – but don’t tell her. How do you compute that? That’s a tough thing to think about but at the same time I’ll be eternally grateful to Non. She’s been completely gracious this whole way through and I know she’ll continue to be because she’s a star.”
As Stanford explained afterwards it was not the first time it had happened: Holland had also beaten her in the British Under-17 Championships when they were teenagers, the video of which is still on YouTube. But Holland, who had to take immodium for a stomach bug beforehand, said: “I wanted both of us to do it, and Non is a huge part of what I do. Half of this medal is hers. I moved in with Non at the end of 2013 and I’ve become an exponentially better athlete because of it. I have to give so much credit to her. But I also know she is so strong and she will be back in four years’ time. I wouldn’t bet against her.”
Everyone in the field knew that the American Gwen Jorgensen, who has dominated women’s triathlon over the past three years, was the best runner in the field. Not since Yokohama in 2012 had she lost a race when she was in the lead group coming off the bike. The plan to stop her was not complicated in theory – her competitors had to attack on the 1.5km swim and try to increase the gap on the eight laps of the hilly 40km bike course and take the race away from Jorgensen. Practice, however, proved another matter.
Jorgensen was only 10 seconds behind the leaders coming out of the sea off Copacabana beach and soon joined a leading group of 18 or so riders. They included the British pair of Holland and Stanford but not Jenkins, who was feeling the effects of a tummy bug and soon slipped back.
Spirig Hug, the defending champion from London 2012, did her best to attack – launching surge after surge – but with no one else willing to join her they were merely setting the race up for Jorgensen.
As soon as the 10km run began, Jorgensen and Spirig quickly broke from the field, leaving Stanford and Holland in a quartet with the Chilean Bárbara Riveros and the Australian Emma Moffatt. The two British athletes worked together to drop Riveros, and with five kilometres left they knew they were racing for bronze. And so it proved as Jorgensen powered clear to win in 1:56.16, 40 seconds clear of Spirig, who took silver, leaving Holland and Stanford duking it out for bronze.
But as the pair reached the carpet with 100m to go Stanford suspected it was curtains. “I’d given everything but at that point I couldn’t fight back,” she said. “What more can you do? I’m delighted Vicky has got a medal but I’m gutted it wasn’t me. Hopefully in a few days’ time I will be able to hold my head high and be proud of it but if you don’t win you have lost.”
As Holland put it: “This was what I came here for, to win a medal for GB, but to have to beat your best friend, your training partner, your housemate is hard. I guess after about 5km of the run I knew it was going to come down to a battle between us for a medal.”
As she departed, Holland was asked whether she would be putting the medal up in the house they share together. Thoughtful to the last, she replied: “Maybe give it a few weeks.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010