Swim. Cycle. Run. Triathlon may seem a tad gruelling for most people — though its numbers have swollen in recent years — but the concept is inherently simple.
You get in the water, you jump on your bike and then you pound the roads with your feet.
In that order.
Bryan Keane went about it a little differently. As a 12-year-old, his mother Margaret used to drop him off at the Mayfield Pool to train with the Dolphin Swimming Club and he spent much of the next five years racing at events around the country. He made “the odd final”, but knew he wasn’t destined for aquatic stardom.
Running came next and Keane soon realised he might be more suited to life on dry land, though he had bought a bike and wandered down to Leevale AC with the intention of trying his hand at triathlon. This was back in 1996.
Instead, he quickly became an elite young runner.
“I got sidetracked,” he says, though not with any regret. Numerous races were won at county, provincial and national levels.
Then he claimed a team bronze at the 2000 European Cross Country Championships.
A number of running scholarships were promptly offered. Instead, he opted for Dublin and, ultimately, a first-class honours degree at the National College of Art and Design in fine art print.
It was around then he started cycling.
Club membership with the Dublin Wheelers morphed into two selections on the Irish national team and a pair of seasons living in Belgium with the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy, before he over-trained the third winter and fell out of love with the sport.
Swim. Run. Cycle.
Keane had gone through the steps, if in a slightly skewed order, but today’s life as a professional triathlete was still years away when he returned to Cork to use his qualifications and work mostly as a news photographer.
For nine months, the bike gathered dust and the old flame was only rekindled when he sat down one day to watch the Giro d’Italia on television. By the time he left for Australia to work as a commercial photographer, his sporting ambitions were long dormant.
Then he walked into the Bondi Running and Triathlon Club. Meeting new people in an unfamiliar city was the main priority, but his sporting background soon caught the eye of Jamie Turner. Turner has coached some of Australia’s top triathletes, among them 2014 World champion Gwen Jorgensen, three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander and two-time Ironman champion and 2012 Long Distance World Champion Chris McCormack. He knew talent when he saw it.
“I was very lucky to start doing triathlon in Australia,” Keane said. “They’ve had world champions and Olympic medallists and they have done well in things outside of the ITU circuit, like Ironman, as well. That sets the bar.
“Jamie had a good group of guys going in Woollongong near Sydney. He saw me in a race and asked me down to train. He let me stay in his house… I can’t say enough about him. Meeting Jamie was my biggest stroke of luck.”
That was 2009, nearly two decades since he started swimming, and Keane made up for his late start, at the age of 29, by becoming the first Irish triathlete to claim first, second and third places in ITU Cup races.
All of which he managed in the space of five weeks.
However, disaster was lurking just around the corner. On the Cork-Cobh road, to be exact, where he was knocked off his bike by a car in 2010. Fourteen weeks in a leg brace was the immediate toll, but it took two years for him to shake off the last after-effects and return properly to the circuit.
“When the accident happened, I had just finished 7th at the World Sprint Championships. I was loving life, I was in the form of my life and then that happens. It took a long time to get back, but I was dogged about it.”
That he was.
In 2013, he became the first Irishman on a World Cup podium when claiming a silver in Japan. He finished the year ranked 52nd in the world, rising to 38th just 12 months later.
His 2015 season started with a third-place finish in Cuba. This weekend brings another Continental Cup race, in Puerto Rico.
Continental Cups aren’t the biggest of races, but points secured in these events lead to invites to the big, Olympic qualifying races around the world between March and May. Fifty-five athletes qualify for Rio next year, but the small print deciding their identity is almost impenetrable. Keane’s current results have hovered somewhere in the mid-20s. Those need to come down to somewhere in the mid-teens if he is to make Brazil.
“It’s almost like an arms race. It can get really tricky. Gavin [Noble] when he qualified for London [in 2012] had been injured for the last race and almost didn’t make it. A Colombian guy jumped so far forward on the list he knocked a couple of others off.”
Keane is determined not to leave the margins that tight when the qualifying window shuts in May, 2016. He spent the winter, as usual, training in Dublin. Injuries were negligible and he focused heavily on his bike.
Eight months of races, flights and faceless hotels beckon. Truth be told, he gets sick of wearing “the same free T-shirts” as he traverses the continents, but he’s come too far for too long now not to go the extra miles needed.
You ask him why he does it? Why the early years spent doing dawn runs to the pool, the schooldays spent running around Ireland’s muddy fields or the spell living in the small town of Merchtem just north of Brussels?
“It’s just a love of competition.”
Swim. Bike. Run.