This weekend, at expos and dinners and events going into 70.3 Oceanside, I kept getting one question: Who did I think was going to win? Who looked good? What was going to happen?
Yes, triathletes always ask this, but there was a void and an urgency to the question this time around—a desire to be told who to care about after the last two years, a sense that they didn’t know who to root for now. It was as if no one could remember any big names other than the big names that have long been the big names. And so people were left with the usual suspects: Alistair, Lionel, Daniela have to still be the favorites, right? Right?
But the stories had changed in the last two years. We just didn’t know what the new stories were yet.
We know now. We know now that Jackson Laundry isn’t to be overlooked. We know that Taylor Knibb has truly arrived. We know of Luisa Baptista (and her exuberant fan base). While there are diehard triathlon fans who maybe had all those picks going in, most of the crowd did not. Most of the triathlon fans watching Oceanside didn’t really know what was going to happen or what to expect. They didn’t know how things had shaken out and changed in the last two years. They just knew that things had changed, the stars have changed.
(For the record: I picked Ashleigh Gentle and Alistair Brownlee going in. So what do I know.)
At drinks and dinners and events then coming out of 70.3 Oceanside, I kept hearing one thing: Triathlon is really, truly back, isn’t it? It felt back. It felt in full force and intensity again, full of all the Type A triathlete-ness that’s been missing—and I say this with love. It felt like a return to a time when we worried about how far apart rolling starts were going to be and whether there were transition bags for bike and run. It felt filled with regular pre-race anxiety and regular workouts and regular triathletes doing triathlon things.
A lot of the triathlon industry will tell you that regular triathletes don’t really care about the pros. They don’t care whether Daniela or Holly or Paula wins. They care only about their own race and their own performance.
I don’t think that’s quite right. I don’t think all the people who were screaming as Lionel Sanders and Rudy von Berg sprinted for the finish and straight into a bank of photographers were screaming because they didn’t care. I don’t think when Luisa Baptista yelled something out in Portuguese the crowd that yelled back at her did it because they didn’t care. I think they cared a lot. (I also didn’t think there were so many Brazilian triathlon fans in southern California, but I was wrong about that, too.)
People didn’t care about triathlon until Julie Moss crawled to the finish and ABC’s Wide World of Sports aired the moment live to the country. It was a star-making moment. It’s the moment your random relative at Thanksgiving still asks you about. “Have you done that one in Hawaii?”
No one really knows when a star-making turn is in the making, not even the athletes in the middle of it. Especially not the athletes in the middle of it, because they’re too busy making it happen.
A year ago, when Taylor Knibb took the last automatic qualifying spot for the U.S. Olympic team, a lot of people had to Google “Taylor Knibb.” Now, she’s on her way to being a full-blown star. If she wasn’t before, she definitely is after this past weekend. When Gustav Iden won 70.3 Worlds in 2019, he did it on a road bike he’d bought and in a hat he found during a run (which has since become his thing). He’s now making meme videos talking trash to other pros and cementing his legend star status.
This past weekend, another new crop of stars fully emerged.
Usually these things happen slowly. Old stars get slower, get beaten. That happens in stops and starts; sometimes the people who beat them keep beating them, more often it’s a one-off and we don’t hear their names again. Old stars still win a lot; they were stars for a reason. Usually new star-making turns are exciting inside the sport, but hard to extend outside the sport. A story becomes a story in hard-to-predict bits and moments.
But those moments have been missing for two years. Maybe that’s why the ones we had last year were so definitive—Flora Duffy’s gold medal, Kristian Blummenfelt’s world record. (For whatever reason his gold medal didn’t resonate as much globally, it wasn’t as much of a moment. It was a part, but only a part, of his myth. Which stories become star-making stories is hard to predict.) But these moments were largely missing for two years and so they’re coming all in a rush now. The upending is happening not slowly, but all of a sudden, one weekend at a time.
It’s hard to know which Oceanside stories will ultimately stick. It has to do as much with media magic and appeal and packaging as anything. So it’s hard to know if it will be Laundry or Baptista or Knibb or the von Berg-Sanders duel. But some of them will become the new stars of the sport. Some of them already are now. We just didn’t know it yet.