Commentary: The World Belongs to Taylor Knibb
And she's only 24 years old.
Maybe it’s because I’m staring down the barrel of my 40th birthday, but every time the commentators at today’s race in St. George reminded us that the newly-crowned 70.3 World Champion Taylor Knibb is only 24 years old, I couldn’t help but sigh wistfully. 24 years old. Chances are, you probably had the same reaction. What were most of us doing when we were 24 years old? Probably not the same thing as Taylor Knibb.
Knibb took up triathlon at 12. In the decade that followed, she rocketed straight to the top: three straight U.S. age group championships, two world junior championships, a world Under-23 championship and a spot on the national team by age 19.
At 23, she became the youngest woman to ever qualify for the U.S. Olympic triathlon team, and she took home a silver medal in the mixed relay event. She followed that up with a win (on a road bike, no less) over tri legend Daniela Ryf in the Collins Cup and victory at the World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton. Now she’s a 70.3 World Champion. And – as 24 year olds are wont to do – she made it all look so easy.
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It’s not, of course. Knibb’s success is the direct result of hard work, and every success she has is absolutely earned. The world is her oyster, and therein lies the problem. Where does she go from here? Knibb is facing what my colleague Tim Heming refers to as the “Knibb Paradox” – she’s too good to not not have a go at the Olympics, and also too good to not dominate the non-drafting scene.
Some might argue that it’s not possible to have it all, that Knibb is going to have to pick one or the other. Should she go for Olympic gold in Paris, when she’s 26, and/or LA, when she’s 30? She’s said in an interview with our very own Bob Babbitt that she’s got that in her sights.
But she’s also said she feels a certain affinity for middle-distance racing, Mirinda Carfrae, in giving us her predictions for this race, said she felt Knibb was more suited to 70.3 over the standard distance. We had more evidence today.
If Knibb wants to make big money (and what 24 year-old doesn’t want to make big money?), she wouldn’t have much of a problem collecting prize purses at CLASH, PTO, and Ironman 70.3 events. Sponsors would fall over themselves to have their brand aligned with Knibb.
This so-called crossroads came up at the post-race press conference today, when someone asked whether she’d choose short- or long-course racing. “Well, that’s kind of a big question to put on me right now,” Knibb answered diplomatically before pointing out that she’s already heading back to short-course racing at WTCS Bermuda in just nine days. Beyond that, who knows?
But before everyone on the internet chimes in with armchair coaching advice for what Knibb should do next, let me make a suggestion: Don’t. Knibb may be unique in her success, but our Knibb Paradox probably isn’t even one she’d recognize – when you’re 24 years old, anything is possible. (And yes, I realize the irony of using the Ironman slogan here.) Let her figure out what she wants.
It used to be that there was a very clear checklist for a career as a pro triathlete: either you progress from short-course to 70.3 to Ironman as you age up, or you stay in short-course until you lose the speed and retire in your 30s. After today’s victory, social media has already begun speculation of how Knibb would do in an Ironman, even though she’s given no indication to date that she’s interested in doing that anytime soon. If she does, great – if not, that’s great too.
“People ask me, ‘Oh, have you done an Ironman?’ and I’m like, ‘no’” Knibb said after the race. “And then they say, ‘Oh, you’ll get there someday.’ You don’t have to do longer distances if you don’t want to. You do whatever’s best for you at that point in your life, especially if you have a lot going on. If you can race, pick whatever distances suit you.”
This answer reveals a maturity far beyond her 24 years, and underscores the most important point we should all remember about Taylor Knibb’s career: It’s her career, not ours. As we’re seeing with this younger generation of triathlon, which includes Knibb and fellow young short/middle/long course champs Gustav Iden and Kristian Blummenfelt, triathletes no longer need to pick a lane. Today’s athletes have the knowledge and science to allow them to treat racing like an all-you-can-eat buffet: take a little of this, a little of that, and go back for seconds of what you enjoy most.
Maybe Knibb will be an Olympic gold medalist one day. Maybe she’ll win the next five years of 70.3 World Championships. Maybe she’ll do both. Maybe she’ll do none of those things and pull a Gwen Jorgenson on us, deciding she wants to chase down a whole different challenge altogether. No matter what she chooses, we should be excited just to be in the audience at the Taylor Knibb show. Because if there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that it’s sure going to be fun to watch.
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