Olympic Medal Favorites: The Women
The women’s circuit is the Wild Wild West in that any woman can win on any given day.
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While the men’s ITU circuit is top-heavy with the Brownlee brothers and Javier Gomez dominating, the women’s circuit is the Wild Wild West in that any woman can win on any given day. Indeed, when Paula Findlay of Canada endured a hip injury after the 2011 World Triathlon Series event in Kitzbühel, Austria, four different women won the remaining four ITU World Triathlon Series events.
With London being a flat and fast runner’s course, and with tactics often playing a big part in all endurance sports at the Olympics, it’s likely that the 2012 medalists will be the fastest runners with the best kicks. But there are enough strong swim-bikers in the women’s field to make a break possible, opening the door for an out-of-the-blue podium finisher.
Here are just a few of the women who could be standing on the podium come August.
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Laura Bennett, United States. Age at the Olympics: 37
We’ll find out in May whether Laura Bennett makes the Olympic team. If she does, there’s a good chance you’ll see her on the podium in London. What makes Bennett dangerous is she’s a phenomenal swim-biker who can also run, which means that if there’s a break she’ll be able to hang, but if the race is tactical she has ability to sprint with the best of them. Bennett is also a fantastic big day racer—she’s been on the podium at four world championships, won the inaugural Hy-Vee triathlon, and was fourth at the Beijing Olympics despite heading in with an injury. It’s this sort of mettle that sees athletes through to podium spots at the Olympics.
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Anja Dittmer, Germany. Age at the Olympics: 36
Anja Dittmer is one of a handful of athletes who will be participating in her fourth Olympic Games as a triathlete—a right she earned by finished third at the Olympic test event in London last year. And although she’ll be one of the oldest triathletes in London, she holds one of the most lethal, if not the most lethal, finishing sprints in the sport. This puts her in good standing if she’s with the leaders with only a few meters to go.
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Paula Findlay, Canada. Age at the Olympics: 23
Paula Findlay seemed unstoppable when she won five World Triathlon series events in late 2010 and early 2011, but a mid-season hip injury derailed the rest of her season, leading to a 29th-place finish at the Olympic test event in London and a DNF at the Grand Final in Beijing. Nevertheless, some believe that if Findlay had been injury-free for all of 2011, she would have won every race she entered, making her the odds-on favorite for gold in London. Findlay’s stellar swim speed and sprinting ability in the run give her weapons many of her competitors lack.
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Sarah Groff, United States. Age at the Olympics: 30
Sarah Groff became the first American to ever get on the overall podium for the World Triathlon Series when she won bronze last year by racing consistently throughout the entire season, including getting on the podium at the Kitzbühel, Austria, leg of the World Triathlon Series (another first for an American women.) But what’s scary about Groff is despite her career-best results in 2011, she wasn’t in the best shape of her life in 2011, thanks to a twice-broken sacrum that disrupted her winter training. Instead of racing well on fitness, she got by on improved technique and racing strategies courtesy of her longtime coach, Darren Smith. Now that Groff has had a consistent preseason of training under her belt, it’s possible that she’ll have another breakthrough season—and get on the podium in London. She’s a great swim-biker, as well, which means if there’s a break in London she’ll be sure to be a part of it.
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Sarah Haskins, United States. Age at the Olympics: 31
Like the U.S.’s Laura Bennett, Sarah Haskins is not yet on the Olympic team. If she does make the Olympic team over Bennett, like Bennett, Haskins is a contender for a medal. Haskins’ best shot for this is if she hammers the swim and gets into a break with athletes with similar strengths, such as Helen Jenkins of Great Britain and American teammate Sarah Groff. This is how she won silver at the world championships in Vancouver in 2008, after all.
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Andrea Hewitt, New Zealand. Age at the Olympics: 30
Andrew Hewitt ran away from the field at last year’s Beijing Grand Final, securing gold and the biggest win of her career thus far. Hewitt is dangerous because she’s such a smart racer—you often don’t notice her tucked in behind a pack of runners until she outsprints them to the line. She’s also shown that she’s a strength athlete capable of winning on brutal courses, which makes her adaptable to many of the various scenarios that can unfold at an Olympic Games.
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Emma Jackson, Australia. Age at the Olympics: 20
Emma Jackson is part of the Emma-Emma-Emma threesome of Australia and was the most consistent racer in this threesome in 2011, when she finished as the runner-up at the sprint world championships, second at the Hamburg leg of the World Triathlon Series, and fourth at the test event in London. Jackson’s one of the fastest runners in the sport, which bodes well for London’s flat and fast course, but she also has a tendency to miss the front swim pack, and there’s no guarantee that she’s even on the Olympic team right now, given Australia’s depth as a country.
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Helen Jenkins, Great Britain. Age at the Olympics: 28
Reigning world champion Helen Jenkins is a rare athlete in that she can race well in any condition—hot, cold, hilly, flat, all-out from the start, tactical until the end—and this bodes well for her with London’s unpredictable weather and the Olympics’ anything-can-happen atmosphere. If Jenkins gets the buy-in of a few stellar swim-bikers or the help of a potential British domestique, it’s possible that she could swim and ride away from the pack and secure gold in the same way she won gold at the 2008 World Championships in Vancouver. Jenkins’ only real weakness is she doesn’t quite have that top-end sprint speed that can sometimes be the difference between gold and silver, but the way she annihilated the field at the Olympic test event last year shows that this doesn’t necessarily have to be a concern.
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Gwen Jorgensen, United States. Age at the Olympics: 26
Gwen Jorgensen was a virtual unknown in the sport when she finished second at the London Olympic test event last year with the fastest run split of the day. A sub-16-minute 5K collegiate runner at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jorgensen was discovered by USA Triathlon’s college recruitment program and had only competed in 14 international races before her breakout silver medal performance last year. Despite her lack of experience in the sport, Jorgensen’s stellar run speed makes her a legitimate podium contender this summer. But Jorgensen’s tendency to miss the first swim pack and relatively weak bike are vulnerabilities that her competitors could capitalize on.
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Emma Moffatt, Australia. Age at the Olympics: 27
Two-time world champion and 2008 Beijing bronze medalist Emma Moffatt hasn’t been the most consistent racer of late, but she proved last year that she can still win big when she got on the top of the podium at the Hamburg leg of the World Triathlon Series. If she gets back to the form she was in in 2009—when she won three World Triathlon Series events, Hy-Vee, and the Grand Final—she will be tough to beat. And now that she’s working with coach Craig Walton again, it’s entirely possible that she’ll get back to that form when London rolls around. That she knows what it takes to perform well at the Olympics means that she shouldn’t be counted out.
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Lisa Norden, Sweden. Age at the Olympics: 27
Part of the stellar crew that trains with coach Darren Smith in Australia and Switzerland, Norden is one of the world’s most accomplished and consistent triathletes. Although she was sidelined for most of 2011 with a freak calf injury, she finished the season by winning the Hy-Vee triathlon and destroying the field at various domestic non-drafting events. In 2010, Norden was the ITU sprint world champion, the bronze medalist at the European Championships, the gold medalist in Hamburg, and the silver medalist in Kitzbühel, Austria. She and Nicola Spirig of Switzerland are probably the best cyclists in the sport, which means that if she misses the first swim pack it’s likely she can bridge up, and her running speed makes her a dangerous podium contender.
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Barbara Riveros Diaz, Chile. Age at the Olympics: 24
Barbara Riveros Diaz burst onto the scene in 2010, when she came out of nowhere to win the Sydney leg of the World Triathlon Series and then placed second a few weeks later in Seoul. In 2011 she won the ITU sprint world title, placed second in Sydney, won the Ishigaki World Cup, and earned silver at the Pan American Games. Riveros’ superb sprinting speed will play into her favor as she heads into London, but she does often miss the first swim pack, which could put her out of medal contention if the sport’s swim-bikers decide to press at the front. It’s also unknown how Riveros will fare now that she has left her coach, Darren Smith.
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Emma Snowsill, Australia. Age at the Olympics: 31
When Emma Snowsill is on, she’s on, and no one can beat her. The question is whether Snowsill will be on at the London Olympics. Given all that she’s accomplished in the sport—Olympic gold medalist, three-time world champion, two-time Hy-Vee winner—it would be understandable if Snowsill just couldn’t quite get up for London. On the other hand, considering that Snowsill is possibly the sport’s best big-day racer, if Australia selects her for the team, chances are high that she’ll be ready to roll come August. So let’s just put it this way: If she wins gold, don’t be surprised.
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Nicola Spirig, Switzerland. Age at the Olympics: 30
Although Spirig is a two-time European champion, multiple medalist at World Triathlon Series events, and the overall silver medalist for the 2010 series, she was somewhat off the radar last year due to stress fractures that prevented her from racing up to her typical form. These injuries might be a blessing in disguise, however, as they gave her an opportunity to work on her swim—her one major weakness. If her swim is good enough for her to make the first pack in London, her phenomenal biking ability combined with her fantastic run speed make her a contender for a medal—and don’t be surprised if she wins gold. Even if she misses the first pack, she’s known for pulling the pack she’s riding with up to the front, which means there are multiple scenarios through which Spirig can come out a medalist.
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Ai Ueda, Japan. Age at the Olympics: 28
Although she’s never been on the podium at a World Triathlon Series event, Ai Ueda is a multiple World Cup winner and consistently churns out some of the fastest run splits in the sport, making her a podium contender if the race in London unfolds in her favor (i.e. if it becomes a runner’s race). Her primary weakness is her swim, and if she can get that strong enough by August so she can make the first swim pack, her competitors shouldn’t count her out.