Recalled: Team USA’s Yokohama Podium Sweep

Watch the return of WTCS racing this weekend.

Photo: Delly Carr/World Triathlon

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This weekend, the World Triathlon Championship Series picks up with the race in Yokohama, Japan. The second-largest city in the country and 30 minutes away from Tokyo, Yokohama has been the site of some illustrious performances in draft-legal racing, particularly among U.S. women. Last spring at the WTCS Yokohama, Taylor Knibb qualified for the Olympic Games with a convincing win, and in 2019, Team USA posted their first podium sweep in three years there. Here’s a look back at the former. 

You can watch all the action this weekend on TriathlonLive. The brodcast of the women’s races starts at 9 p.m. ET on Friday, May 13 (10:16 a.m. Saturday local time in Japan), with the men’s race three hours later at midnight on the East Coast.

Until 2015, the women representing the U.S. in the World Triathlon Championship Series had yet to sweep a podium in any race. That all changed on the Gold Coast of Australia in 2015 when the trio of Gwen Jorgensen, Sarah True, and Katie Zaferes went one, two, and three respectively, becoming just the second-ever nation to sweep the medals since the championship series launched in 2009. 

Two more podium sweeps followed in somewhat quick succession, but after 2016—with Jorgensen returning from triathlon to focus on running and True stepping up to Ironman and 70.3 competition—the U.S. women were without their most experienced powerhouses. But not for long. Zaferes gamely stepped in where Jorgensen and True left off, and by 2019, she was undefeated going into Yokohama in mid-May.

So it was no surprise when Zaferes emerged from Tokyo Bay among the top five of the 44 women who started that morning. And it was actually not too surprising, either, when her Team USA compatriots, Summer Rappaport and Taylor Spivey, were right alongside her. Rappaport, ITU’s (now called World Triathlon) Breakout Female Star of the Year in 2016, had a couple of podiums to her name in smaller races—although she’d yet to place in the top three at a WTS race. Spivey, a Californian who’d nabbed national titles in surf lifesaving and swam collegiately, was arguably the strongest swimmer in the group.  

What was surprising? That the trio of Americans—along with four other women—were able to put two minutes on the remainder of the field over the course of the 40K bike leg. In an Olympic-distance race with athletes of this caliber, that kind of lead going into the run is nearly insurmountable and three of those seven women were all guaranteed a podium if they could run to their abilities. So once the lead pack rolled into T2,  the race-within-the-race was on. 

Bolstered by her recent dominance in competition, Zaferes wasted little time going right to the front. The thing is, so did Rappaport. The two ran stride-for-stride for much of the race, both showing the power and stamina that made them prominent collegiate runners at Syracuse and Villanova, respectively. Although Zaferes may not have been used to having such close company from her countrywoman on the run, it proved to be beneficial for both of them. 

“Summer pushed me on the run for the whole entire thing,” said Zaferes, who split a 34:07 10K to Rappaport’s 34:25. “I tried to be more tactical with the little pushes, and that last lap I just really knew to push the hill and continue pushing over it, because I didn’t know if she was coming up behind me.” 

As for Spivey? With the bronze medal in her sight, she battled hometown favorite Yuko Takahashi of Japan nearly the entire 10K for that final podium position. In the final stretch of the race, Spivey unleashed a kick that Takahashi could not match, and crossed the finish line just nine seconds ahead. 

“(The podium sweep) is pretty incredible,” said Spivey. “I saw the two girls battling out at the front, and I just did my best to get that third spot.”

On the women’s side, no nation has swept the podium at a WTS since then (Knibb, Rappaport, and Spivey came close at the 2021 Yokohama race with a 1, 2, and 4 finish last May.) And if podium magic does happen again on Saturday in Japan, it will be with a new trio of Americans: Neither Zaferes (who is expecting a baby) or Rappaport (who is recovering from an injury) are racing, although Knibb and Spivey, along with Erika Ackerlund and Kirsten Kasper are all on the start list. Of course, it could be another country’s turn for a podium sweep with a number of top British and Japanese athletes getting ready for the start of their season—but they’ll all have to upset Olympic gold medalist Flora Duffy, who will have a tough time sweeping, with no other Bermudians in the field.

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