From volunteer to Team Leader: Sunderland-born Jonny Riall targeting more than medals at 2022 Commonwealth Games
It was 2002 when Jonny Riall got his first taste of the Commonwealth Games.
“I spent a month in Manchester volunteering for Team England,” he told The Echo.
"I was basically in a primary school that had been gutted and turned into a friends and family lounge, so it was basically where athletes, friends and family could come and be a bit more relaxed.”
But the next time Riall will go to the Commonwealth Games, it will be in a completely different guise.
The Sunderland-born coach, who has been British Triathlon’s Paratriathlon Head Coach since 2013, has gone full circle – having now been appointed Team Leader of England’s triathlon team ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, to be held in Birmingham.
It tops off a remarkable rise over the last two decades – and is an honour that isn’t lost on Riall as he targets another impressive medal haul at what could be a landmark home games.
“To feel like you’ve kind of gone full circle to be leading your sport, your team into a home games, it’s really special,” he admitted.
"Honour and responsibility come hand-in-hand.
“The team leader role is a performance role, and there’s no getting away from that. England athletes have an illustrious record at Commonwealth Games - Alistair Brownlee and Jodie Stimpson have both been champions, our relay team have won, and in 2018 we had our wheelchair athletes with us and they won both their races.
“So there’s no getting away from the fact there is a responsibility to maintain that performance level.”
But the role is about much more than that for Riall.
Having been part of running and triathlon clubs in Sunderland – and latterly Whitley Bay – he knows only too well how the grassroots side of sport can benefit from positive role models at the elite end.
So for that reason, Riall is targeting far more than purely podium success in Birmingham when the 2022 games roll around.
“Sport for me is about way more than medals,” he added.
“If it’s just medals then I think it’s a bit empty. I think the British public is past that - to have that sport on the TV every four years and to win a few medals is fine, but people need to feel a connection to it.
“For me, that’s the transformation that sport has taken.
“In the last five or six years there’s been pretty horrific stories of conduct and culture and behaviour just gone wrong - and there’ll be many industries way worse than sport.
“So the medals are important, but how you win medals is equally important.
“It’s what we stand for as a team and how willing we are to live up to that responsibility.
“We have an incredible opportunity to inspire younger athletes and the general public to get on a bike, go for a little swim and just generally be encouraged to be more active and get involved in sport.
“We’ve got to be really open and on the front foot to say that as a team we’ll do everything we can to support genuine inspiration, and inspiration that turns into action.
"From my side, you know that the sport at a grassroots level needs to benefit as well,” he continued.
“So a lot of what matters to me is just making sure that we enable the local sport - in Birmingham but further afield as well - to feel a connection with our team.
“It would be very easy to become quite protective, so it’s making sure we get the balance of protecting the athletes but capitalise on everything a home games will hopefully give us as a sport.”
And Riall is also looking to make some changes behind the scenes – which he feels will benefit Team England’s coaches and athletes.
Having spent most of his coaching career working with paralympians, Riall is now aiming to bring together all triathletes under one performance programme.
It’s a move that isn’t without its risks, but one which Riall is confident will reap major rewards.
"Team England have got a motto which I buy into, and it’s about being united in our diversity.
“A dream for me is that we are, in my mind, the first team that really makes the most of a really diverse team
“At this game, we have our visually impaired athletes. More often than not when we go to international competitions, we normally operate two different teams - there’s my team looking after the paralympic athletes and another team looking after the olympic athletes.
“But for these games, I’ve set out that we will have a team that will collectively support everybody. It throws its challenges, but it’s worth the risk in my mind.
“One massive success factor for me is that we can go through that experience and if you’re a coach on the paralympic side then you’ll come out the back of that with experiences working with olympic athletes and vice-versa.
“And if you’re an athlete, you’ll have a real opportunity to properly engage on an intimate level with athletes who are on a different programme to you.
“That for me isn’t about performance - it’s about environment, culture - and that’s something I really want to get right.”
And it’s changes like that which Riall is aiming to bring in his new role.
The medals are one thing, but the Sunderland-born coach is targeting far, far more.