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Sarah Groff lied in bed the night after the Olympic triathlon constantly replaying the final mile in her head. After getting dropped in the first few miles of the run, she gradually clawed back up to the leaders and rejoined Nicola Spirig, Erin Densham and Lisa Norden at the front with just over a mile remaining. After the race, Groff said she was thinking, “‘I have to be really smart at this point.’ They always say don’t think about the outcome, but at that moment I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I could end up with an Olympic medal if I do things right.’”
She bided her time and anticipated one of the other three to either make a move with a kilometer to go or to wait until the final 100m. That didn’t happen. Nicola Spirig of Switzerland unleashed her kick with 300m remaining and caught Groff off guard. “It was sooner than I anticipated,” she said. “In my race plan I hadn’t expected somebody to make a move that soon.”
One person in this leading group had to miss out on a medal, and at this point you probably know Groff was left holding the short straw. She asked her legs for a sprint but couldn’t respond. The other three pulled away, leaving Groff in fourth, “the hardest position,” as she puts it.
With a day of reflection behind her, Groff is coping with having come so close, yet still waking up without a medal on the nightstand. “Its bittersweet…. It’s hard. But, it’s definitely a mix of emotions,” Groff said the morning after the race. She has a big compensatory smile on her face every time she talks about finishing fourth, and seems tormented by how close she came.
Although no amount of rationalization can make up for narrowly missing the Olympic podium, Groff executed a fantastic race, possibly the best of her career. It was an accomplishment American fans, USA Triathlon and Groff’s supporters should be overwhelmingly proud of, even if Groff herself may feel a little empty.
Groff isn’t the fastest runner in the ITU. She isn’t one of the three fastest runners in the ITU. She put herself in the mix with far more credentialed athletes by executing her race to near perfection. The critical moment came just 3k into the run. Erin Densham was at the front and pushing the pace hard. Groff had tucked herself into the pack to get a slight draft, but the pace was just a little too hot and Groff knew it.
“[Densham] put in a bit of an effort and I made the decision that this is not my race plan, putting in the surge right now, it’s going to cost some people their legs,” said Groff. “I know what I can respond to and what I can’t and at that moment I knew I had to stick to what I know I can do and hopefully I can reel them in because it’s going to pop some people.”
‘Sticking to my race plan’ is often a euphemism for accepting a lesser place, but Groff did anything but. She was able to use her constant pace to actually drag herself back into the medal mix at the most critical time. Had the American tried to stay with the Densham through the entire run, Groff probably would have cracked.
“I think it was about a lap where I was 20m behind or so, then I started catching one by one and moving my way up,” she said. “Once the first girl started coming back to me I started smelling blood a little bit. I started to put in a little more work and a little more effort and just kind of built the pace and then with 2k to go I was right back in that group.
After rejoining Densham, Spirig and Norden, Groff tucked back in and planned to wait for the blue finish carpet before unleashing her bid for a medal. Spirig didn’t let that happen and Groff was beaten by three better sprinters. Finishing so tantalizingly close to an Olympic medal has Groff replaying those final meters over and over again in her head and questions what she could have done to change the outcome.
“I think before crossing over the bridge [with 1K to go] would have made a move and just gone for it. Knowing what kind of athlete I am, knowing how I felt at that point I would have just gone gangbusters and put the hammer down, but hindsight is 20/20,” she said. Although Groff doesn’t have the hardware to validate her Olympic race, she performed as well as she could. On the biggest stage our sport has to offer, Groff put herself in the best possible position to achieve her highest goal. In the end, she didn’t have the final kick to step on the podium, but her performance was truly medal-worthy.