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Australia’s Ashleigh Gentle capped off an incredible long-course debut season with a huge win at the PTO U.S. Open over an all-star field. Patience paid off as temperatures climbed in Dallas and leaders began to fade in the heat.
It all started off with an auspicious bang, as American Taylor Knibb somewhat surprisingly exited the water with British superswimmer Lucy Charles-Barclay—someone who’s not used to feeling fingers tapping her toes. The duo went through T1 with a lead of a minute over the chase group that included Olympian Flora Duffy.
Out onto the bike, Knibb took over. She was able to put time into her aquatic compatriot, as Charles-Barclay seemed to struggle with her equipment, needing a replacement electronic shifting battery, getting stuck in the biggest gear for the first two laps, and losing multiple hydration bottles throughout the ride. Knibb showed the fine cycling form we’ve seen recently at events like 70.3 Oceanside in April and at the Collins Cup last year. Behind her, a chase pack with names like Holly Lawrence, Paula Findlay, Flora Duffy, and Lisa Norden were moving together, but still were unable to put substantial time into Knibb.
Knibb rode into T2 with a 3:30 lead over second place, and continued to run alone ahead, on her own, maintaining her lead over the entire field as temperatures climbed above 90 degrees F. Though she slowly continued to pull away from second-place Charles-Barclay, there was still action in the chase field behind her. With about seven miles to go on the run, fast-moving Ashleigh Gentle passed Flora Duffy and Tamara Jewett (a lap down) on her way toward the front of the race with Charles-Barclay in her sights. Though Jewett was behind overall on the day, the speedy runner impacted the day’s results by helping pace Gentle forward.
With about four miles to go, we saw Knibb stop running and walk for about 30 seconds at the crest of a very small hill, and the wheels began to fall off. At the time, she still had a three-minute lead on a fast-charging Gentle, but that lead began to decay.
In the end, Knibb almost led from wire-to-wire to finish the day clear of the field. But behind her, the race for silver and bronze ended up being crucial, with Gentle passing Charles-Barclay for second place in the last half of the run, leaving the Brit to round out the podium in third with a time of 3:40:32, as Gentle would continue to gain on Knibb in the later miles of the run.
With a mile-and-a-half to go, we saw Gentle’s consistent efforts pay off, as Knibb faltered in the heat to be passed for the win, despite being almost seven minutes down off the bike. Gentle would break the tape in 3:37:18, only 1:15 ahead of Knibb—who had led for most of the day and finished in 3:38:33.
“I had to dig. That was really really tough,” Gentle said, just minutes after crossing the line with the fastest run split of the day. “[I was] honestly feeling just horrible on the start of the bike ride. Being on my own a little bit, watching the group ride away. It was really discouraging, but I was just trying to keep my head in the game.”
Despite the sub-par bike, Gentle’s quick feet helped buoy the run as Knibb struggled. “I absolutely didn’t expect to have the run I did,” Gentle said. “[Heading out of T2] I wasn’t thinking about Taylor’s time split. I didn’t want to know. I just really had to focus on myself. I just tried to manage my pacing well, and I guess it paid off.”
For Knibb’s part, second place was still a win, and it was all she could do to stay upright. “[The finish line was] so close, but so far, I’m just grateful to get to the finish line, I don’t know how I made it,” Knibb said. “I was just dying, overheating, I couldn’t move any faster.”
When asked about her breakthrough long-course season after the disappointment of a DNF at the Tokyo Olympics, and an upcoming wedding in the near future, Gentle became emotional and added: “It’s been a really good year, it’s been a lot of fun, I’m really enjoying the sport again.”