THE journey to the top for Nowra-born Jonathan Goerlach has been tougher than most but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thirty-five years ago, Goerlach was born in Shoalhaven Hospital and growing up, he was just like any child, trying his hand at numerous sports, such as tennis, cross country, athletics and Australian Football.
But at age 15, his life would change forever, when he was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome Type II – presenting him with moderate hearing loss, no peripheral vision and night-blindness.
Within the next three years, the former Bomaderry High School student would eventually give up all his sporting ambitions – seeing him not participate in anything for eight years.
After what he called a ‘rough patch’ after not achieving as much as he had planned to in his life, he finally returned to the competitive arena – following his categorisation as an athlete with a disability – when he joined the Leichhardt Rowing Club as well as attending adult learn to swim classes.
“I’d had a fear of the water since the age of three when I nearly drowned,” Goerlach said.
“But I started to get over that fear by learning to swim, along with being out in the open water when rowing.”
Having lived in Sydney for a number of years, Goerlach admitted he needed a ‘change from the all consuming life in Sydney’, so he decided to move to Amsterdam, where he lived for 18 months.
This time abroad, where he travelled and experienced cultures around the world, re-energised him – so much so, he got back into middle distance running.
“When I first got into running again, I unrealistically thought I’d be a chance for the London Paralympic Games, but I quickly realised I wasn’t at the level I need to be at,” he said.
“To put it in perspective, the top three vision impaired para-runners of the 5km run in Rio were quicker than the winner of the same race in the able-bodied Olympics.”
Then in 2012, upon his return to Australia, Goerlach decided to get involved in triathlon – a decision he hasn’t looked back on.
“When I got back to Nowra, as a 29-year-old, I started being coached by Performance Triathlon Coaching’s Corey Bacon,” he said.
“As he was based in Canberra, I would regularly do the five hour trip, catching the early morning bus to Moss Vale, before catching a train to Canberra, before two more buses to reach Corey [Bacon].
“I did this for about one year before making the move full-time to Canberra.”
This move, which also saw him enrol at the University at Canberra, was aimed to improve on his first ever triathlon at Penrith in April 2012, followed by his first international race in Auckland that same year in September.
Two years in Canberra was followed by a two and half year stint in Melbourne – but his ascendancy in the sport wasn’t without its hurdles.
“Two years out from the Rio Paralympics, an event I had been training for, they announced that only three of the five paratriathlon classes would be medal events at the 2016 games,” he said.
“Unfortunately, my vision impaired class was not one of them – which was massively deflating for me and a number of my team mates.
“It made me reassess my next move, because I really wanted to compete at the Paralympic Games – I even considered changing sports, to either running or rowing, but two years out was not enough time to get up to a necessary standard.
“So I decided to stick with triathlon, because I could still compete in every other event on the calendar, just not the Paralympics.
“And looking back on it, I don’t think I would have been competitive for a podium finish in Rio anyway.”
This decision proved to be the right one, because 2018 has been Goerlach’s best to date – a calendar which has included races at the St Kilda OTU Paratriathlon Oceania Championships and Devonport ITU Paratriathlon World Cup, before racing at the Yokohama ITU World Paratriathlon Series.
“At Yokohama, my preparation wasn’t as good as I would have liked it to be and as such, I didn’t really have a the race I had hoped,” he said.
“I ended up finishing in seventh, out of the 10 racers, but only one minute behind third.
“The biggest issue, which is always the case, was my swim – I just fall too far behind and can’t catch up
“The level of competition is improving each and every month and you’ll be punished if you are slightly off your game.”
So after Yokohama, Goerlach skipped the second of three world series event in Iseo, Italy to concentrate on improving his swim leg, but also find a new guide who could commit for the upcoming key races.
“Selecting a guide is a difficult task, because you need to find one that is ideally committed long-term, but preferably has also competed at an elite level themselves,” he said.
“I was lucky enough to find Sam Douglas, who himself is a professional 70.3 triathlete, who works with Triathlon NSW and has been involved in the sport for 15 years – he had a level of experience you can’t buy and is a gun on the bike.
“Leading into Edmonton we had a training weekend together in Sydney before competing in a duathlon together at Penrith, where we placed second against all the able-bodied athletes.
“The biggest change I saw was in our tandem bike leg – I took advantage of Sam’s superior cycling and bike handling abilties and we recorded my fastest ever time on a bike.
“This bike improvement, combined with my run leg, which is one of the best in the world, we were confident of a podium finish in Canada.”
This improvement mixed with a better preparation, Goerlach was set for his assault on the third and final World Paratriathlon Series sprint event of the year at Edmonton, Canada.
“Generally, I come out of the water more than two minutes behind the lead pack and that’s just too far behind in this sport,” he said.
“But in Edmonton, we completed the 750m course in 12:05, easily the quickest time I’d ever done.
“Even more impressive was that I was on the back of the lead pack, half of which we overtook on the first of six laps on the bike leg.”
At the end of the hilly bike leg (28:42), Goerlach and Douglas were in third, behind the team from United States (winners of four of the past six world titles) and Canada.
“The closest I’d ever finished to the US team was 2.5 minutes behind, so to be only 30 seconds behind them at the final transition, I was stoked,” he said.
“But I knew the job wasn’t done and we quickly overtook the Canadians [Jon Dunkerley], before getting in front of the US team [Aaron Scheidies] at the end of the first of two laps.
“From there, we powered ahead before easing off in the final 800m, because I was really hurting and was starting to produce signs of heat exhaustion in the 28 degree temperatures.”
In the end, the duo crossed the line in a time of 1:04:56, more than 30 seconds ahead of their US rivals.
“It was amazing to cross the line in first – years of hard work had gone into that moment,” he said.
“It’s without a doubt the biggest win of my career to date.
“I was totally surprised with the result, especially as I didn’t know how well Sam and I would compete in our first triathlon together.
“It all came together in that race and it proved to myself I have the ability to race with and beat the guys I’ve been chasing for six years.
“Some of the other top athletes in the rankings weren’t at Edmonton, so I still have a lot of work to do.
“My next goal is to try and replicate it on September 15 at the Gold Coast Paratriathlon World Championships.”
Goerlach, 35, who aims to be the best in the world, received more good news this week, as it was announced that his vision impaired class would be one the medal events in Toyko 2020.
“I’m over the moon to be given a chance to compete at the Paralympics but it’s also bittersweet, as a number of my team mates have missed out like I did in Rio two years ago,” he said.
“It’s the nature of Paralympic sport, not everyone can be involved, otherwise the 4,500 athletes at the games competing would triple, which isn’t logistical.
“Hopefully more can be involved in Paris 2024.”
Goerlach has recently moved to Wollongong to be coached by former Olympian Brendan Sexton, ahead of the world champs and Paralympic qualifying which runs from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.