This past weekend, Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson locked down their spots on the U.S. Olympic triathlon team. Today we’re learning more about Pearson after his third-place performance at the World Triathlon Championship series race in Yokohama. Stay tuned later this week for insight into Knibb’s breakthrough performance.
Five years ago, Morgan Pearson was at a professional crossroads. He was working a few odd jobs he hated while trying to make it as a pro runner, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. On a whim, he sent an email to the staff of USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program—the same program that is responsible for taking Gwen Jorgensen from a pretty good college runner into a gold-medal winning triathlete in just a few years.
A former star runner at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Pearson was confident his run times would catch the eye of Barb Lindquist and the powers that be at USAT, but his swim times didn’t match the criteria listed online, so he didn’t hold out hope and kept up his running.
To his surprise, USAT was very interested, so much so that they immediately sent him a bike. At the same time, his running performances started catching up to his training. He ran 13:32 for 5K on the road, which landed him his first sponsor.
“I always felt like I was under-performing in running based on my training,” he said. “I was having great workouts and doing 110 miles a week, but the race performances weren’t there.”
But then the mileage caught up to him and he developed a serious stress fracture. So, he finally got on his free bike and got back in the pool for the first time since high school.
Growing up near the Jersey Shore, swimming was Pearson’s first sport. Summers were spent at the beach, swimming, surfing, and playing in the water. While his one older and two younger brothers stuck with swimming as their sport of choice, Pearson realized his real talents were elsewhere as soon as he started running in high school.
“I’m kind of glad I wasn’t better at swimming because I probably would’ve stuck with it,” he said. “As soon as I started running it was just a better fit for me.”
Once he got back in the water, though, swimming quickly came back to him. Plus, he was having fun on his fancy new bike. USAT suggested he try age-group sprint nationals. In 2017, he was doing his first almost-cross-country road trip from Boulder back home to Jersey, and Omaha happened to be on his way. Why not enter?
He won by a landslide, and all of a sudden it was very clear to both Pearson and USAT that triathlon was his true calling.
Following that win, he turned pro in 2018 and finished seventh in his first race—the ITU Mooloolaba World Cup in Australia—which is historically the most competitive World Cup on the circuit. Since then, it’s been a swift rise up the World Triathlon ranks, the likes of which we haven’t seen from an American since Jorgensen.
Not that Pearson is anywhere close to reaching Jorgensen-esque heights yet. His lone win came at the Continental Cup level during his first year of racing and it wasn’t until this last weekend that he broke onto the podium at the WTS level. But like Jorgensen, the hype around Pearson has always been about his world-class run speed. At his third-place finish in Yokohama, he ran faster than everyone except race winner Kristian Blummenfelt. While anchoring the American relay at last year’s Mixed Relay World Championship in Hamburg, Pearson posted the fastest run split of the entire field en route to almost catching the French at the finish. Simply put, if he starts the run near the front, he’s going to be very hard to beat.
“The one mistake I made [in Yokohama] was letting myself get spit out to back of the pack toward the end of the bike,” he said. “I’m not going to let that happen in Tokyo. I want to medal.”
As for how the biggest race of his professional career has been sinking in this week?
“The goal was just top eight and top American,” he said. “I would’ve been fine if I were selected for the team, but I really wanted to auto-qualify. Obviously you still go to the Olympics either way, but to qualify based on the criteria that was set out feels pretty good. More than anything, it’s just a huge mental boost. It’s one thing to perform when there’s no pressure, but to do it when the pressure is on gives me a big boost going into Tokyo.”
A few of Morgan Pearson’s favorites:
- Pump up music: “I don’t listen to music before a race, but if I’m training indoors, I’ll listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flume or Kanye.”
- Bad TV show: “Right now I’m watching ‘Strong’ on Netflix with my girlfriend. It’s pretty entertaining.”
- Athlete he looks up to: Jocko Willink
- Post-race meal: Breakfast the next morning. My stomach is usually upset after the race, so the next morning I’m super hungry.”
- City to race in: “Lausanne, Switzerland, was epic.”