As a junior, Tim was soon marked out for great things. His swift and easy running style made him ideally suited to take his place in the new wave of triathletes who used their pace in the third discipline to distance their cycling and swimming peers.
Bad luck was never far from the heels of the young Don however, with stolen bikes and crashes all looming large in his early career. One aspect of his abilities was never called into question: stomach for the fight. He quickly gained a reputation for being one of the bravest emerging talents, often attacking from the front on the bike to stir up the action. His willingness to take races by the scruff of the neck often left him staring at silver medals rather than gold, as more canny rivals took advantage of his enthusiasm to split the field, but a strong character was starting to shine through.
Those 2nd places were beginning to make Tim look like the nearly-man. A Silver at the 1998 European Junior Duathlon Championships was followed by another at the same season’s European Junior Triathlon Championships. Fortunately for Tim, his family and supporters, they were merely indicators of the good things to follow, as he shrugged off those disappointments to become World Junior Triathlon Champion.
He made a quiet but successful transition to the senior ranks, featuring in 1999’s ITU World Cup series. In losing out to Spencer Smith in a thrilling finish to the Windsor ITU race that still lives in the memory of the huge crowds who lined the streets below the castle, Tim displayed the guts that he would need to call upon again and again.
Wintering in South Africa to prepare for his attempt to qualify for the Sydney Olympics, a bike crash broke his wrist and wrecked his plans. Those renowned reserves saw him bouncing back to secure his spot in the team by winning at Windsor (so laying the ghost of the previous year) and then showing well at the European Championships. Sydney was no disappointment, as Tim, still only 22, raced home in 10th spot, just one place behind his GB team-mate and pre-race favourite, Simon Lessing.
A great start, with a first ITU World Cup podium appearance in Gamagori, petered out, leaving Tim disappointed with 8th place at the European Championships. 2001 became the season where Chris McCormack took swung attention back to the bike leg. Tim’s running prowess was seriously compromised by his relative lack of strength on two wheels, and, in his own words, was “found out.”
By now firmly settled into life in the wine-growing paradise of Stellenbosch, South Africa, Tim set his sights back to the UK and the Manchester Commonwealth Games. A set of bizarre incidents derailed his progress again, the most eyebrow-raising being a pulled back muscle as he stooped to remove a stone from his shoe at the Stockton-on-Tees qualifying race. The contrast between the sun-drenched Cape and sodden Durham was too great for Tim’s body… From there things just got worse, meaning no selection for Manchester, an unthinkable consequence just a few years earlier in the afterglow of Sydney.
It was time for Tim to call upon his mental reserves and make some tough decisions. Later, he would call his disastrous 2002 “the best thing that ever happened to me,” as he reconsidered everything he had been doing up to that point. The biggest and most disruptive choice Tim made was to part company with his coaches and go it alone. Drawing upon his own feelings on how his career had been heading and a willingness to make his own mistakes, Tim believed that his performance could be vastly improved with a refocusing of training priorities. More than anything else, this meant wheeling the Trek out of the garage and hitting the road. It was over those thousands of punishing training miles that the next phase of Tim Don’s progress began to take shape.
Coaching himself and racing himself back to fitness with good results in Japan and Korea, Tim headed to the US at the end of the year for a crack at the World Duathlon Championships. The new happy and relaxed athlete astounded the experts when he and Greg Bennett ran away from a field containing the best duathletes on the planet. Television pictures of Tim chatting and laughing alongside the world’s number one triathlete as they crushed the opposition are readily remembered by tri fans everywhere, and they were out of their seats applauding as Bennett was the next to feel Don’s power, the young man from Hanworth racing away to a famous solo victory.
Tim had always been known as a quick running triathlete – his 3:46.60 1500 metres personal best (Stellenbosch, 2001) is the envy of many track athletes – but now he was putting everything together. For 2003, Tim engaged the services of his old pal, the recently retired triathlon luminary Craig Ball as coach. The partnership was an instant success, with Tim’s first ever ITU World Cup win at St Anthony’s. Salford was a real test for Tim. He competed wearing a black armband in memory of his grandfather who had passed away just a couple of days before the race. His efforts to chase down the race-winning break endeared him to the massive crowd, but brought him only 4th place in reward. Now Tim was consistently finishing in the top five in big races, and his good form was confirmed when he was Great Britain’s best finisher in the Athens Olympic trial.
A slipped disc at the back end of the season proved that nothing is ever certain in the world of Tim Don, but an amazing display of dedication and hard work delivered him to Madeira for the World Championships (and second qualifying race) to good enough shape to take 4th and book his Athens ticket.