The Kennys v the record books: Tokyo calls for Team GB’s golden couple

It will be one of the key contests of the Tokyo Games: British cycling’s “golden couple”, Laura and Jason Kenny, versus the record books. Laura is already Britain’s most successful women’s Olympian, on four gold medals, while her husband, Jason, travels to Japan as joint holder of the British record for the highest number of career gold medals, along with fellow cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, also on six.

It’s a simple question. With Laura targeting three disciplines on the velodrome’s wooden boards – the team pursuit, omnium and Madison – and Jason going for a possible three with the team sprint, keirin and match sprint, how far will they push their personal, and joint medal counts? Hoy, for one, expects Jason Kenny to overtake both him, and Sir Bradley Wiggins, as Team GB’s most prolific Olympic medal winner.

The couple were married in September 2016, and Laura gave birth to their son Albert in August the following year. But their careers had run in parallel for six years before that, with both becoming fixtures at the heart of the British Cycling “medal factory” in the Manchester velodrome for two Olympic cycles. “The find of the century,” was how the former GB performance director Shane Sutton described Laura in the run-in to the London Games. “A man with no fear of failure,” is Hoy’s verdict on Jason.

Jason rose quickly to prominence in 2008, selected out of the blue for Beijing to form part of the gold-medal winning team sprint trio alongside Hoy, with whom he contested the match sprint final, taking two medals at his first Games aged only 20. The pair rode London 2012 together, with the question of who should be the single GB selection for the match sprint a constant undercurrent; in the event it was Jason who got the nod, winding up with two gold medals.

Laura, née Trott, meanwhile, was fast-tracked into the squad late in 2010, at the point where the then performance director Sir Dave Brailsford was getting concerned about how his squad would perform in the home Games. Initially expected to be a sprinter, she was identified early on as one of the more driven members of the youth squad, according to their then coach Darren Tudor. “Nothing would get in her way,” he said.

The stories of Laura Kenny’s hardness are legion. Her tendency to train and race so hard she would make herself sick has been well documented, most notably at the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Less so one story from 2012, about how she removed stitches from her own chin using a pair of sterilised nail scissors, after a spoke from a broken wheel in a race had pierced both her nose and cheek.

To outsiders, the couple appear like chalk and cheese. Laura is visibly driven and given to externalise everything, “quite emotional, never settling,” as her former teammate Joanna Rowsell says, with a superstitious side: “lucky bracelets, necklaces etc,” said Rowsell. She rapidly attained the leader’s role in an older squad of team pursuit riders. “She will never be complacent,” said the former team pursuit coach Paul Manning, pointing to “an unease with what she sees as a mediocre performance”.

Her other half, on the other hand, is self-deprecating for an elite athlete, playing down his obvious ability, hiding the fact that he has to work hard year on year, and seeming to revel in the fact that he has a much lower profile than Laura. “Basically, Laura earns lots of money and I don’t,” he told me wryly a few years ago.

“Laura wears her heart on her sleeve. Everyone knows what she’s thinking,” Hoy said. “Jason is emotional but hides it well. Very few people have ever seen him frustrated or angry.” Given Jason’s sporadic form, coinciding with Olympic cycles, it might seem reasonable to assume that he is not as driven as his wife, but Hoy isn’t so sure.

“He has to train full-time for several years in a cycle, it’s not like he just rocks up for six months before a Games. He might seem as if he doesn’t care that much, but if not, where does that drive come from? I’d say he’s particularly dangerous, because other athletes get nervous on the big night, but he doesn’t have that fear of failure.

“He’s like a big cat in the Serengeti. He lies around not using any energy. He walks more slowly than anyone I’ve ever seen. He goes to the loo from the track centre, and 10 minutes later you’re thinking: ‘Where has he gone?’ and he pops up. Everything he does is slow, until he has to go and hunt and kill his prey. Then there is a transformation … 99% of his life he seems to be on standby, and when he turns it on it’s quite remarkable. I’ve never seen anyone like him.”

Both the couple have taken time out during this extended Olympic cycle. Laura gave birth to Albert, then returned rapidly to training and racing; Jason spent a year drifting, having begun to contemplate retirement prior to the Rio Games. It was his first decent sabbatical since before the Beijing Olympics. His spur to return was the birth of their son and specifically the task of working with Laura to tidy out their garage to create a gym to enable Laura to resume training after Albert appeared.

The Tokyo track programme will contain added spice for the couple, because there are three days when both have finals: the women’s team pursuit and men’s team sprint on day two, for example, and days five and six, if everything goes to plan. Jason has said in the past that while he and Laura support each other, there has always been an element of competition, for example when the pair moved on to two gold medals apiece. In Tokyo there will be a sense that it’s not just about the couple and the record books and the other nations, but also very much about each other.

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