To secure his spot on the Olympic team, Morgan Pearson needed to be top eight at the World Triathlon Series Championship race in Yokohama. He had finished 8th at the race in Hamburg in 2020—which was declared a championship at the last minute. A top eight was possible again, but for a runner who turned to triathlon just four years ago it was going to take an outstanding race.
That was particularly true given what he’s been through in the last few months. At the finish line, as he teared up, he talked about how his older brother died suddenly in early March and he missed about a month of training in the wake of that tragedy.
“Hopefully, come the Olympics, he’s there with me,” he said, also acknowledging his brother gave him the boost he needed today.
After sticking in a large group through the swim and the bike, Pearson turned to his running background to slowly pick off athletes through the 10K and work his way all the way up not just to top eight but onto his first World Triathlon Series podium.
Dominant Frenchman Vincent Luis led out of the water and onto the bike, and pushed the pace from the front. But despite a number of athletes hammering on the bike, two large groups came together for a massive pack with four Americans mixed in there: Pearson, Matt McElroy, Kevin McDowell, and Ben Kanute. Only the top one of them in the top eight would lock down a spot for the Olympics. With no one letting up, the group stretched out into one long line as it weaved through the nine-lap 40K course. Pearson said he struggled to work his way up on the last few laps.
Clearly it was going to come down to the 10K run.
Serrat Seoane, Salvisberg, Yee, McDowell, Iden, Alarza and Geens have charged and the two groups form one with 41 men. Schomburg was bold but the field are on his tail. All the main contenders are together now. Who will attack?#WTCSYokohama #BeYourExtraordinary pic.twitter.com/izYNAwt242
— TriathlonLIVE (@triathlonlive) May 15, 2021
The 27-year-old Pearson, a swimmer and runner in high school, ran for the University of Colorado-Boulder in college and was introduced to triathlon by USAT’s collegiate recruitment program. In 2017, he did his second triathlon (after having done one in high school) and won the Age Group Sprint Nationals. In 2018, he was named to the U.S. national team in his first year as a pro.
Since then, he’s focused on progressing his bike and swim—but still notably ran a 1:02:15 half-marathon during the COVID year. It was that run speed that served him well in Yokohama. First, he moved up through the large group that had sat in front of him on the bike, while a group of four ran a blistering pace in front of them up the road. Pearson said he felt good and got his legs under him, was in that top eight position sitting in the second pack, but thought “you don’t qualify for the Olympics by being conservative.” He then started to build the pace and go for it, picking off the athletes who were falling off in front of him. His 29:30 brought up to and past British running star Alex Yee with just a bit over one kilometer to go—but he was unable to catch Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt or Belgium’s Jelle Geens.
“I had no shot against them today, they raced better,” said Pearson, noting that he still has room to improve from here. He’s also been a consistent part of the American mixed relay team that hopes to contend for a medal in Tokyo. “I can still get better,” he said.
It was not the only surprising U.S. performance in what was the final automatic Olympic qualifying event. Taylor Knibb took her first podium and the win in the women’s race—making for some tough choices for the U.S. selection committee, which will now have to decide who gets the final women’s spot and the one (maybe two) more men’s spots. For the U.S. men, they currently qualify for three spots in Tokyo, but that won’t be finalized until June 14. They could end up with just two Olympic starts. Kevin McDowell had an impressive 11th place finish in Yokohama to make sure his name is near the top of the consideration list, while favorite Matt McElroy finished in 24th.