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In the inaugural Olympic triathlon mixed relay, it was all fast, furious, and strategic action with exciting results. While it looked like Britain might lead wire-to-wire—after pulling ahead at the end of the second leg—big moves by the closing French and American anchor legs turned it into an all-out sprint to the finish.
A quick primer on the relay: Four athletes each do a mini-triathlon (300m swim, 6.8K draft-legal bike, 2K run) in the order of woman-man-woman-man. Here’s more on how mixed team relay works.
In such a short event, a lot comes down to which athlete is matched against which athlete, team order, and speed. While Great Britain had to be considered the favorites after their performances in the individual races, France has been dominant the last few years with four world titles, and the U.S. took silver at the world championship this past fall and looked to close the gap. But it all came down to who could outmaneuver whom.
As expected, Britain’s Jessica Learmonth pushed the pace on the swim in the first leg and opened a tiny gap over the field. The U.S.’s bronze medalist Katie Zaferes was right on her heels, with Maya Kingma (Netherlands) and Laura Lindemann (Germany) all quickly latching onto the back of Learmonth’s wheel.
The four of them pulled away—and the race stayed like that for a while. Even as gaps opened and came back together, once the women tagged off to the men it looked very similar. The same four teams stayed out ahead for much of the second leg.
Then a decisive move was made. The big difference came when 2016 silver medalist Jonny Brownlee used the fastest run of the day to finally put some daylight between himself and American Kevin McDowell, and tagged off to the third leg with a nine-second lead over the Americans.
And in this quick fast format, it seemed like Britain might never look back.
By the time the women were out of the water in the third leg of the relay, Great Britain’s silver medalist Georgia Taylor-Brown had pulled far ahead and was time trialing by herself off the front. France’s Cassandre Beaugrand and the U.S.’s Taylor Knibb looked like they’d be trying to chasing her down—except that Knibb quickly dropped Beaugrand and cut the gap down all by herself, only to then get outrun.
And then there we were on the final leg, set up for high drama. As they dove into the water, Britain’s super-runner (and silver medalist) Alex Yee had a 17-second gap over American Morgan Pearson, who was just 11 seconds ahead of France’s incredibly dominant multi-time world champion Vincent Luis. While Luis has seemed invincible over the last few years — particularly in the mixed relay — he underperformed in the individual triathlon event with a 13th earlier this week, and he wasn’t going to let a disappointing result like that happen again.
“You basically have to empty the tank in 15 minutes for a 20-minute race,” said Luis, “so you can imagine what my last five minutes felt like.”
“He’s an absolute legend,” said Yee about Luis. In an odd twist, it turned out Luis had given advice to Yee as a young up-and-comer looking to get into triathlon.
By the time they were out of the water, Luis had caught Pearson. The duo charged after Yee, trying to shut down the 20-second gap, until Luis decided go it alone. He stood and attacked as Pearson bent over to close the straps on his shoes, and the Frenchman was gone. In an absolutely Herculean effort, he solo’d to catch Yee and attempted to drop the young Brit too (who hung in there). Pearson wouldn’t give up either, though, hammering on his own to narrow the gap down to five seconds going into the final transition.
“My goal was just to play as smart as I can,” said Pearson, who had been disappointed by his 42nd place in the individual race as well. “I was just trying to be smart and fast.”
It was all going to come down to the last two-kilometer run.
Yee shot out of transition and never looked back, running just under 4:30 minute/mile pace. Pearson was slower to get his shoes on, but gritted his teeth, caught Luis, and kept sprinting towards Yee’s back. But it wasn’t to be.
“I felt very confident with Alex Yee on the last leg,” said Learmonth after the race—when asked how nerve-wracking it was to watch her teammates.
It was Yee first across the line for the first-ever triathlon mixed relay Olympic gold, where the result saw him quickly mobbed by his teammates. Pearson followed for a silver for the U.S. 14 seconds later, and Luis locked down bronze for France another nine seconds back. It was high drama and high excitement for the athletes finally able to leave the Games with two triathlon Olympic medals.
The athletes all echoed how much the team format met to them and how much they have supported each other over the years.
“To win my first Olympic gold medal is obviously very special and to win it as part of a team is even more special,” said Brownlee, who took silver in the men’s individual race in Rio in 2016 and bronze at the London Games in 2012.
Triathlon Mixed Relay Results