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The Olympic Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

For Tokyo Olympian Taylor Knibb, triathlon is a family affair.

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After Taylor Knibb qualified for the Tokyo Olympics by winning the World Championship Triathlon Series race in Yokohama, Japan, the first thing she did when she returned to her hotel room was call her mom, Leslie. Given the time difference, it was about 3 a.m. when the elder Knibb heard her phone buzz, but she picked up right away.

“We talked for three hours,” said Leslie Knibb, 58. “We dissected the entire race. We talked through it all. I’d tell her what the broadcast showed, and she would tell me what it was like for her. We went through every single aspect of that two-hour race. That’s just how we are.”

After all, the pair has been dissecting and rehashing and going over races with a fine-tooth comb for years. They began racing together when Taylor, now 23, was just a precocious tween tagging along with her mom to races. When Taylor was 12, Leslie asked a race director to make an exception to allow her to enter despite her age. He said OK, as long as Leslie stayed alongside her daughter. But it didn’t take long before Taylor took off and began beating her mom. “And it’s been that way ever since,” she said, adding that although they did bond over triathlon, she always let Taylor make the decisions about where and when she wanted to race.

 

“I didn’t want either of my children to pursue something because I wanted them to do it,” she said. “I wanted them to find their passions on their own. I take absolutely no credit.”

Well, maybe she can take some credit.

While Taylor’s journey into the upper echelon of the sport is, in many ways, just sprouting, Leslie’s has much deeper roots. She was introduced to the sport in her 30s by a boyfriend (“he soon became an ex-boyfriend after I beat him,” Leslie joked), and achieved elite age-group results many times over. She never went pro, although she could have. She placed near the top of big races, including the popular Mrs. T’s Pierogies Triathlon and in the Bud Light U.S. Triathlon series. She raced as a semi-elite cyclist and was even recruited by the U.S. Olympic Committee to be a whitewater kayaker based purely on her athleticism—an offer she passed on.

Rather, Leslie viewed the sports as hobbies and opted to focus more on her career—she works as a nutrition professor at American University now—and, later, supporting Taylor and her younger son, Jack. But that hasn’t stopped her from racing every distance, from sprint to Ironman, and reaching world championships in all of them. In 2018, she finished third in her age-group at the Ironman World Championship in 11:15.57. In 2019, she collected age-group wins at Ironman Maryland, 70.3 Mont Tremblant, and 70.3 Atlantic City. (In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a race where Leslie hasn’t claimed an age-group podium spot in the past five years.)

While her competitive fire rivals her daughter’s on the race course, she admits that these days she gets much more nervous for Taylor’s races than she does for her own.

When Taylor took the lead in Yokohama, Leslie, riddled with anxiety, left the house to take their 15-year-old Labrador for a walk. “I just couldn’t just sit and watch. I had a stomachache the whole time. I was better off that I wasn’t watching,” she said. “I couldn’t relax until she crossed the finish line. As her mom, I just want to know when she’s out of the water, when she’s off the bike, and when she’s done.”

Leslie may be experiencing the Olympic dream through her daughter’s eyes now, but she’s also holding on to big goals of her own.

After having her races canceled in 2020, she’s planning to compete at the Olympic and 70.3 distance this season, while also continuing to teach classes. And, of course, she’ll be slightly preoccupied in late July when she’ll be watching—or not watching—Taylor in Tokyo from home.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet that she’s going to the Olympics,” she said. “Beforehand, I didn’t dare to dream about it. You have hope, but you don’t hope too hard. And then she goes and makes it and it’s like, woah, it’s really happening.”