After a 15-minute delay for weather, the Olympic women’s race got underway in the middle of what had been downgraded to a tropical storm. The predicted typhoon didn’t hit full force in Tokyo, but the women still faced the toughest conditions ever seen in an Olympic triathlon with heavy rain and wind in the hours leading up to the start turning to a consistently rainy and slippery course. With the wet roads and countless turns on an eight-lap 40K bike, crashes seemed almost unavoidable.
That was partially what motivated the front contenders and strong cyclists to get away at the start of the bike and stay away in their small group—avoiding the mess behind them.
It was what was expected and it was exactly what happened.
The British super swimmer Jessica Learmonth charged hard to the front on the swim to string it out and get away, exiting the water in 18:24 after the 1500m, with the heavy hitters right there with her, including countrywoman Georgia Taylor-Brown, Americans Katie Zaferes and Summer Rappaport, and Bermuda’s Flora Duffy. The seven-woman group turned to five as Germany’s Laura Lindemann closed the small gap and Rappaport eventually slipped off the back.
While Rio silver medalist Nicola Spirig worked hard to bring the chase group up, the power in that front cycling group simply couldn’t be matched. If they could just keep the rubber side down, it seemed certain the podium would come out of those front contenders. Around and around they biked, as rain came and went, with spectators nervously watching each wet slippery U-turn.
While there were a few crashes in the main pack, the only disaster in the front five appeared to be a flat tire for Georgia Taylor-Brown as the group neared T2. She said she heard the flat with two kilometers to go, but rode it in, knowing it’d take too long to stop and change at that point. “I tried to just keep my cool,” she said. Still, it left the young British star about 30 seconds down on the leaders coming into transition. With Taylor-Brown missing from the front of the run start, it also made the race almost a lock for Duffy, who quickly ran away from the rest of the group.
Two years ago, teammates Taylor-Brown and Learmonth crossed the finish line at the Tokyo Test Event holding hands and were DQ’d. Behind them was Duffy, who was then awarded the win—her first race in over a year, at the time, after coming back from an injury. At that Tokyo test race in 2019, Zaferes also crashed and failed to secure her automatic spot on the U.S. Olympic team—while Rappaport locked down her qualification. Since then, Taylor-Brown has also established herself as one of the top runners in the sport and won an abbreviated world championships this past fall, but hadn’t been seen in the early 2021 spring races.
While Duffy and Zaferes immediately went to the front out of T2, Taylor-Brown ran aggressively to catch back up. As the Bermudian pulled away, alone in the front for much of the run, behind her Taylor-Brown caught Zaferes and the battle for second intensified.
“I just kept telling myself to stay where it was,” said Zaferes after the race, and to not get ahead of herself. “Just keeping the focus was critical.”
But no one could catch Duffy, who ran a 33:00 10K to win by over a minute. After four Olympics and a long journey through an eating disorder, quitting the sport, injuries, and comebacks, the Bermudian was determined to win the island nation’s first gold medal ever—in any sport. As she neared the finish, she finally seemed to believe it had all gone according to plan, and started to tear up before laying down on the ground.
“To be Olympic champion has sort of been my dream since I was a pretty little girl,” she said after the race, also noting it was a relief to deliver after being a favorite for so many years and being Bermuda’s best medal hope in a long time. While a small island nation, Bermuda is known for its triathlon prowess and Duffy was a part of youth triathlon groups growing up. “It’s bigger than me. It’s just going to inspire the youth back home that competing on the world stage from a small island is really possible.”
Coming down the chute, “I was very overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do, what to think. It was just a very very special moment.”
“It takes everyone a lot to get here, to medal. It’s not just me. But it made it extra special to know I had to really dig to get back to this form, to this level, to execute this race today,” she said of all the challenges over the years.
Duffy then got up and cheered for Taylor-Brown, who sprinted for second, and jumped for joy for Zaferes, whose bronze was also hard-won after her own struggles this spring.
Zaferes’ dad suddenly passed away just before the final automatic Olympic qualifying event in Yokohama in May, and in the races that followed the American appeared off her game. She struggled at Yokohama and again in Leeds three weeks later—but was picked by the U.S. selection committee based on her podium potential. It was a tough decision with other athletes also making strong cases with their performances, but the hope was the 2019 world champion’s form would show up on the big day—and it did.
“I felt confident that given some more time I’d be ready for today,” she said afterwards, and it felt good to be right. It also felt good to deliver a medal for her dad, she said, who introduced her to the sport.
“He’s so proud. I saw the rainbow before we started or maybe it was on the bike, and gave a little ‘hi dad’ and I definitely felt him and felt he would just be so happy.”