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2016 Olympics Update: Where The U.S. Stands Now

Team USA is looking ahead to Rio with a renewed focus on "going to the Games to win, and to earn medals, and not just making the team."

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Looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics, USA Triathlon shares the status on the U.S. Olympic team and qualification process.

In just two years, we’ll be watching triathlon in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, but so far, we don’t know who the U.S. will be sending or how exactly they’ll get there. However it plays out, Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon’s high performance general manager, emphasizes that USAT is changing its focus in the qualification process: “One of the things is we’re trying to really elicit a focus on and a change in—from a cultural standpoint—is focusing on going to the Games to win, and to earn medals, and not just making the team,” Schmitz says. “A lot of the focus in the past has been on, ‘Hey I want to qualify for the U.S. team.’ We don’t want that to be the bar that’s set for our athletes, but it’s more about going to the Games to achieve, not just going to the Games.”

To accomplish that goal, a committee from USAT will be deliberating starting in August (informal discussions have already begun) to determine the selection criteria for the 2016 Olympic Games. The criteria will then have to be approved by the USAT board of directors, and then the U.S. Olympic Committee. Schmitz believes the qualification process will be similar to the process for the 2012 Games.

“The likely probability is a multi-pronged approach, which may be one or more automatic selection events, and then additional objective criteria, which would enable us to confirm an athlete’s medal potential based on performance on the field of play,” Schmitz says. The additional objective criteria would be in place in case, for example, No. 1-ranked Gwen Jorgensen or defending Olympics fourth-place finisher Sarah Groff had a flat tire in a selection event or got the flu right before—it would allow them to still make the team despite some sudden unfortunate circumstance because they’re both proven to be medal capable at the WTS level.

However, no athletes will be excluded from the selection process—the two rounds of approval are in place to ensure fair and equitable criteria. “We’ll give every athlete the opportunity to meet a threshold or a standard that we feel is commensurate with earning an automatic start,” Schmitz says.

The challenge right now, however, is that ITU has not released the calendar for 2015 and 2016. “Given the realities in Rio, there may not be a WTS event there, so the question is, if it’s a World Cup, where will it be slated?” he says. “So it may be, for example, identifying WTS courses that are similar to what we expect in Rio, and identifying them as being mechanisms that athletes could secure an automatic berth by finish place at competitive events. … There definitely will be a test event in Rio; what we don’t know is will it be a Continental Cup, a World Cup, a WTS race?” Whatever the test event, USAT believes there will be a lot of high-level athletes who attend that race in Rio to preview the Olympic course; however, if it’s not a WTS race, it might not have the same caliber of athletes that would be racing in the Olympics. The test event in London was perfect—it was exactly one year out, on the Olympic course and was a standalone WTS race—it was arguably more competitive than the Olympics, even, as countries could send more than two or three athletes. “What we want to do is make sure that whatever standards we set for a Rio event are commensurate with the level of event that will be contested there,” Schmitz says.

Another possibility, Schmitz says, is building a team around a medal contender by including a domestique, something Great Britain attempted with swimmer Stuart Hayes assisting gold medalist Alistair Brownlee and bronze medalist Jonathan Brownlee in London. “I think there is definitely an appetite for a domestique,” Schmitz says—but only if there is the right combination of athletes. “There are two things that need to be in place: No. 1 is the capability of the athlete to be assisted, and [No. 2] the capability of the athletes to assist. What we don’t want to do is build a team if it’s an unproven commodity. But if we can prove that we can be successful with that as an approach, we absolutely [will do that].”

However, the chance to select a domestique might not come up—USAT will only use a domestique if athletes don’t meet the automatic threshold that is set. For example, if the U.S. athletes have a chance to qualify at two events by finishing top eight and the spots on the Olympic team get filled, then those athletes will go to Rio to race as individuals. Only if those automatic standards are not met, and there is a combination of athletes who would be realistically successful in the Olympic Games, would there be a domestique on the U.S. team. “We’re not looking for a Hail Mary here,” Schmitz says. “We’re looking for something that’s tried and proven, and not just sticking somebody in for kicks.”

ITU’s qualification period falls between May 15, 2014 and May 15, 2016, and athletes must meet ITU’s criteria as well as USAT’s. ITU requires that the athletes on the Olympic team have either won a quota place for their national team at the ITU Continental Olympic Qualification Events; won a quota place for their team at the 2015 ITU World Olympic Qualification Event; or are among the top 140 in the ITU Olympic Qualification List, in the 2015 ITU WTS Series Ranking or in the ITU Points List.

Who to Watch for 2016

While a lot could happen in the next two years, there are a number of athletes who have a good shot at making the 2016 Olympic team.

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) allows for a total field of 55 men and 55 women, and each nation will be able to send either two or three athletes per gender, based on ranking. Only eight national federations are awarded three slots, so the U.S. will likely have three women’s slots, based on how well the U.S. women have been racing, and two men’s slots.

Here’s a rundown of athletes to keep an eye on for Rio.

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The Women

“There’s a very deep field of women, so I wouldn’t write anybody off at this point because a lot can happen in two years’ time, ranging from injuries to favorites, to people who can close the gap pretty quickly and unexpectedly,” Schmitz says. “I think we have a very strong pipeline of young up-and-comers.”

The front-runners:

Gwen Jorgensen (age: 28)
Currently ranked No. 1 in the world, Jorgensen is a product of USA Triathlon’s collegiate recruitment program. A collegiate swimmer and runner, she’s developed her triathlon run speed since her disappointing 2012 Olympic run and has since won an incredible four straight World Triathlon Series titles. U.S. fans are hoping she can stay in peak form through the 2016 Olympics.

Sarah Groff (32)
The defending fourth-place finisher at the Olympic Games, Groff has made strong and steady improvement on the ITU stage—she was the first U.S. woman to ever achieve a podium finish at a WCS (now WTS) event, which she did at the 2011 race in Kitzbühel, and she’s since been a consistent WTS top-10 finisher.

Katie Hursey (25)
After only starting to race triathlon in 2013, Hursey has seen a quick rise in her career, with multiple ITU World Cup victories. “While she hasn’t achieved yet at a WTS level, she’s done so at the World Cup level and certainly shows a lot of promise,” Schmitz says. “Unfortunately her recent injury has derailed her a bit, but we certainly expect her to be back even before the end of the year here.”

Worked their way up:
“[This is] a block of individuals who have kind of been in the [U.S. Olympic] pipeline and have really kind of taken another step forward,” Schmitz says.

Kaitlin Donner (25)
Currently the third-ranked U.S. woman in the WTS rankings, Donner has been racing consistently since late 2010. She’s had strong showings in WTS races this year, with three top-20 WTS finishes, and brought home the bronze from the FISU World University Triathlon Championships in April.

Lindsey Jerdonek (30)
Racing triathlon since 2009, Jerdonek has slowly chipped away, moving up from PanAm Cups to World Cups to WTS racing. Recently, she won the Geneva ETU Triathlon European Cup and placed 14th at the WTS race in Hamburg.

Jessica Broderick (24)
Broderick has been in the U.S. Olympic pipeline since 2008 and is still young compared to her competitors. This season, she’s earned a runner-up and fourth-place finish at ITU World Cup events.

Erin Jones (23)
The young Erin Jones has made significant progress in her ITU career this year—she was fourth for U23 women at the PATCO Triathlon PanAmerican Championships and seventh for elite women. She also placed a very respectable 26th at the WTS race in Chicago.

“I think we have another crop of athletes coming up the pipeline … [who] still have a lot to prove, but they’re kind of on their way and will be names I think we’ll see over the course of the next 12 months,” Schmitz says.

Tamara Gorman (18)
The 18-year-old Gorman is holding her own in the elite field (placed 29th at WTS Hamburg) while excelling in the junior ranks. She’s the only U.S. junior world champion and will be defending her title at the ITU Grand Final in Edmonton next month.

Renee Tomlin (26)
A two-time All-American in track, Tomlin is bringing her run speed to triathlon, with a 13th-place finish at the Banyoles ETU Triathlon European Cup.

Kirsten Kasper (23)
A former distance runner for Georgetown, Kasper is just starting her triathlon career.

Molly Higgins (22)
Part of USAT’s collegiate recruitment program, the former Princeton runner is just starting in triathlon and shows promise.

RELATED PHOTOS: 2012 London Olympics – Women’s Race

The Men

“On the men’s side, at this stage, I would say the game is wide open, just to the same extent it was two years before the London Games,” Schmitz says. “We have a lot of unproven and incomplete packages at this point. But I think the main message is the door is wide open, and we’re very interested in having these men step up. … I think a lot will shake out over the next 12 to 18 months, and I think it’ll be an exciting ride for these guys.”

The proven runners:
“[These athletes] all have some kind of unknown at this point, but at some point in history they’ve shown the running potential that if they can harness everything they could be a threat,” Schmitz says. “To win a medal, it requires two key things: One is to be in the game when the run starts, and [two,] to be able to execute on the run with the world’s best. And I think there are very few athletes in our arsenal who have that capability to run.”

Alan Webb (31)
A 2004 Olympian in track and field, Webb holds the American national record in the mile (3:46.91) and has now switched over to triathlon. “[He’s] still very new to our sport but really held his own in the mixed-relay event in Hamburg,” Schmitz says, “and just had a strong finish … in really his first individual ITU event up in Magog. Although it was just a Continental Cup, he showed he was capable of swimming and biking and running with the best that were there, and it’s certainly a far cry from the WTS level. It was a great first step for him in his trajectory.”

Jarrod Shoemaker (32)
A 2008 Olympian, Shoemaker is the only American man who’s been on a WTS podium, which he did in 2009 in Hamburg. The former collegiate runner missed out on a spot in 2012 Olympics. “As he’s even stated, the game has changed on him—it’s a very different sport than it was five years ago when he won that race,” Schmitz says. “He’s working very hard with a new coach to try and bridge the gap in the areas of his deficiencies … That’s why somebody like Jarrod, if he could turn things around, becomes an exciting athlete based on his run history.”

Lukas Verzbicas (21)
After a prominent high school track and cross country running career and then a short stint at the University of Oregon, 2011 junior world champion Verzbicas showed incredible promise when he switched from running to triathlon. But a bike crash derailed his plans, and he’s yet to return to his previous running prowess. “He’s had some setbacks with his accident, but if Lukas were able to correct things from a swim and bike standpoint and regain his previous form from 2012, he becomes a bit of a threat,” Schmitz says.

Kaleb VanOrt (30)
“[VanOrt] has been exposed with some weaknesses on the swim, and perhaps even on the technical nature of the course in Chicago, but has a phenomenal run,” Schmitz says. “As you’ve seen with run splits at St. Anthony’s and other events—when he’s in the game like he was back in New Zealand earlier this year in a World Cup, where he finished fifth in New Plymouth, he’s somebody who has the capability to be dangerous.”

The veteran:

Hunter Kemper (38)
Gunning for his fifth Olympic Games, Kemper is a strong leader. “He certainly isn’t at the top of the game, but right now he was our top American finisher at PATCO Championships, he was the second U.S. finisher at Chicago, so he still has the ability to shake it up with the young guys,” Schmitz says.

The all-arounders:

Kevin McDowell
A former teammate of Verzbicas, McDowell has had a great early career in triathlon, despite battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “An all-around triathlete who’s really grown up in the sport—he’s won a youth Olympic Games and a Junior World Championship medal, University Games medal,” Schmitz says. “He had a great performance with a World Cup silver in Chengdu in China back in May. He won at the FISU World University Games, and had a good, solid finish in his first ever WTS [27th in London].”

Joe Maloy (29)
“A workman-type athlete who just goes out and gives it his all, he’s a phenomenal racer,” Schmitz says. “He’s somebody who’s been—albeit not a top-10 WTS athlete—in large part is relatively consistent and continues to rise in his performances.”

The strong swim-biker:

Ben Kanute (21)
“Often one of the leaders out of the water and able to control himself in the bike pack,” Schmitz says. “If Ben were able to turn his run into more of a weapon, he’d be a force to reckon with. Until then, he will be targeted more for playing team roles and events like the Mixed Relay.”

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