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Tokyo Olympics: Here’s How U.S. Triathletes Will Qualify

The final qualification event is just a few days away.

With the World Triathlon Championship Series kicking off again this weekend in Yokohama, Japan—which will also serve as the last automatic qualifier for American Olympic hopefuls—we’ve updated this article originally published in 2019.

The Tokyo Olympics are finally just months away: men will compete on July 26, women will compete on July 27, and the first-ever Olympic mixed relay event will take place on July 31. The next few months leading up to the Olympics will be by far the most exciting part of draft-legal short-course racing. Olympic berth dreams will come true, hearts will be broken, and—with the increased attention on the sport—we’ll get to know the athletes a little bit better. Adding to the buzz this Olympic cycle will be the inclusion of the fast-paced mixed relay format. As thrilling as it all will be, the qualification process can also be very confusing. Here’s everything you need to know about how U.S. triathletes will earn their spots on the Tokyo Olympic triathlon starting lines.

Why the Mixed Relay Addition Matters

While the inclusion of mixed relay into the Olympic program is great news, it adds a whole new element to the Olympic qualification process. For the mixed relay, each qualified country will compete with two men and two women. Each athlete does a swim, bike, and run before handing off to the next teammate. The order of competitors is female/male/female/male, and the distance for each athlete at the Olympics will be a 300m swim, an 8km bike, and a 2km run.

This is important because only athletes who compete in the individual Olympic events are eligible to be a part of the mixed relay teams, so some teams will consider that when choosing individual athletes for the Games. The skills needed to succeed at the individual events and the mixed relay can be quite different, leaving countries with the challenge of finding a balance that will result in the best chance for medals in all events.

How Many Athletes Get to Go?

While World Triathlon (formerly the ITU) has set in place a qualification system that will decide which countries will receive each of the 110 spots (55 men and 55 women), it is up to each country’s NOC (National Olympic Committee) to decide which of their individual athletes get to fill those spots. The maximum spots any country can earn is three men and three women for a total of six. The process of earning those spots is (as you can probably guess) very complicated, but basically the points system reopened on May 1 after a COVID pause and will close again on June 14, 2021. Athletes and teams can earn points in that time and earn spots for their country (you can read the nitty-gritty here).

There has always been a huge variety in how NOCs decide to allocate their country’s spots and the mixed relay is adding a whole new twist to the equation. Do you let the athletes prove they can perform under pressure and earn their Olympic slot on the race course? Or, do you leave it entirely in the hands of a discretionary committee? Sometimes NOCs decide to “sacrifice” a spot and choose a “domestique” athlete to help a potential medal contender through the swim and bike. The ups and downs of deciding the best way to hand out spots have led to plenty of controversy in the past.

How the U.S. Athletes Will Qualify

While it was originally speculated that USA Triathlon would choose a more subjective system than in the past to leave more flexibility for building an ideal mixed relay team, the reality ultimately was that the pre-COVID Olympic qualification process for American triathletes is not all that different from what it was in 2016. That’s now been adjusted some because of race cancellations and a pause on World Triathlon points for the last year. Before we dive into the details of how Americans will earn Olympic berths, it’s worth noting that the American women are significantly stronger than the American men. The women will easily earn three spots and it’s very plausible that a potential medal contender could be left off of the team because of the depth. If things ended today, the American men would currently qualify for three spots on the Olympic starting list, but that final third spot depends on how well the men race and won’t be determined for sure until June 14. It’s highly possible there are only two spots for the men, which means that the two U.S. male triathletes will also compete in the mixed relay (assuming the U.S. holds onto its mixed relay spot). This gives USAT a lot less flexibility in building their mixed relay team.

The first automatic selection event for the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team was the Tokyo Test Event held in August 2019, where Summer Rappaport was the only American to lock down her spot on the team. Heavy favorite and defending world champion Katie Zaferes crashed at that event.

With COVID, the second and final automatic selection event is now being held this weekend, May 15-16, at the World Triathlon Championship Series race in Yokohama, Japan. Because the U.S. women have already allocated one of their spots, the process now for the men and women in Yokohama is slightly different. Only two athletes total per gender can automatically qualify; after that it goes to the selection committee.

For the American women:

  • The first U.S. athlete finishing on the podium in Yokohama will earn automatic selection (if she hasn’t already earned her spot—ie. Summer Rappaport).

For the American men:

  • The top-two U.S. athletes to hit the podium in Yokohama or the highest-placed athlete finishing within the top-eight overall will be selected to the team.

All remaining spots not filled automatically will be selected via discretion by the USA Triathlon Games Athletes Selection Committee. This means that in theory at the very least one spot will be selected by committee (assuming the men and women both earn three slots). USAT can make its first nominations by May 20, considering athletes’ previous performances and ability to earn medals. They will then make final nominations for any additional spots—ie. if the men secure a third and final spot on the team—after the close of the points window on June 14.

What Will Likely Happen?

It’s risky to overly speculate because things change so fast on the World Triathlon circuit, but we’ll do it anyway: The American women have performed so well that we’d be surprised if the final auto-select spot doesn’t claimed this weekend—it was almost a fluke both didn’t get claimed at the Tokyo Test Event in 2019 with Zaferes crashing and Taylor Spivey coming in 8th but not auto-qualifying since Rappaport claimed the spot in 5th. Because the American women are among the strongest contingents in the history of triathlon at the Olympics, this will leave the committee with a very tough decision about the remaining discretionary spot—who will go and who will stay home?

The selection of the American men will likely be a different story. In 2019, Matt McElroy became the first American male to finish on a World Triathlon Series podium in 10 years. That’s an entire decade of waiting for the U.S. men’s team. It’s possible that both automatic spots could disappear, but we’re guessing the committee will have to make at least one decision about the men’s Olympic team.

Who’s in the Running?

Looking at the starting list for the Yokohama race this weekend is the easiest way to see who will vie for a coveted Olympic spot. The starting list currently shows the following Americans.

Men (Competing May 15)

Morgan Pearson
Matthew McElroy
Ben Kanute
Eli Hemming
Kevin McDowell

Women (Competing May 16)

Taylor Spivey
Katie Zaferes
Summer Rappaport (already qualified)
Tamara Gorman
Taylor Knibb
Kirsten Kasper
Renee Tomlin

The bottom line? It’s about to get exciting. If you’ve never followed World Triathlon, now is a great time to start. Put the Yokohama event on your calendar and tune in at Triathlonlive.tv. We’ll have more coverage throughout the coming weeks on the Olympic hopefuls and how to watch.