After a weird false start that saw almost half the field blocked by a TV boat when the gun went off, officials then corralled the swimmers who had dived in, brought them back to the dock, and let them catch their breath—before starting it all over again.
It was a start never before seen in the Olympics (or any World Triathlon high-level race).
From there it was a hot race of attrition, with the heavy hitters finding their way to the front and the biggest surprises coming from the U.S. men. While France’s Vincent Luis got out of the water near the front and tried to get out of T1 fast and make a small break of nine stick on the bike, they were eventually caught by a large pack led by powerhouse Kristian Blummenfelt (Norway).
At that point, despite a few attempts to get away from the pack in solo breakaways, it was almost certain to come down to a running race—except one of the fastest runners in the field was missing. American Morgan Pearson was charged with a 15-second penalty to be served on the run for leaving equipment (ie. goggles) outside his transition box in T1, but more importantly he appeared to almost immediately start going backwards. Pearson quickly dropped off the back of the Blummenfelt group and then seemed to get spit out the back of the group chasing behind them, which included the other American Kevin McDowell.
By the time they hit T2, Pearson was over a minute down and McDowell—who had never placed above 11th at a World Triathlon Championship Series event—found himself in the unique position of being at the front as the race neared the finish.
With the heat and humidity, the run turned into a brutal race of attrition as one man after another fell off the pace. And there’s no one better at a race of sheer toughness than the Norwegian Kristian Blummenfelt, known for his epic workouts and insane training days.
“I’ve been thinking about this race for so many years,” said Blummenfelt, noting there was a day many years ago on vacation here in Tokyo where he thought: OK, your goal is to win an Olympic gold medal here in 2020.
He also said, afterwards, he and his team had actually hoped and been preparing for it to be hotter, and he thought it felt comfortable out there. (The official weather report was: about 78 degrees F, with 80% humidity, and water temps around 85 degrees F.)
Blummenfelt, Britain’s super runner Alex Yee, and New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde threw in surge after surge, dropping guys off the back—though to nearly everyone’s surprise McDowell still hung in there. And then after those front three opened a gap over McDowell, defending silver medalist Jonny Brownlee, and Belgian Marten van Riel, Blummenfelt simply put his head down and went as hard as he could with a little over one kilometer to go.
“I know I’m not a great sprinter like Alex Yee,” he said, but his fitness and aerobic capacity can’t be beat. He said he knew if he went early and hard, “I could use my engine and really bring it home.” He ended up running a race-best 29:34 to cross the tape in an emotional win.
Wilde said he was waiting for and expecting that move from Blummenfelt—the Norwegian did the same thing in Yokohama to win in May—but even when he saw it coming, Wilde said he simply couldn’t go with Blummefelt. “I could definitely see why those boys got dropped in Yokohama,” he laughed.
The Norwegian powerhouse has been a consistent performer since his breakthrough win at the 2019 WTS Grand Finale in Lausanne, Switzerland, and won the WTCS (formerly called WTS races) event in Yokohama, Japan back in May. The Norwegian men’s squad, which also includes 70.3 World Champion Gustav Iden who finished in 8th, has been known for their hard work ethic in recent years. Still, Blummenfelt looked overwhelmed, elated, and exhausted in the finishing chute, collapsing to the ground.
“I have the best team on the circuit,” he said, pointing to their nearly see-through kits as an example of the technological innovation they’ve been putting into preparing for this race, this heat and humidity, and this course specifically. “To be able to bring it home is unbelievable.”
Yee followed 11 seconds back in second, with Wilde on his heels. And in 6th, 50 seconds behind the winner, McDowell surprised everyone as not just the top American, but the best an American man has ever done at the Olympics. A former junior elite, McDowell was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 18, the day after his first pro race.
“Ten years ago, I was so sick. I didn’t know what would happen, but I was so passionate about this sport. To be up here being in contention at the Olympic Games, I’m living the dream right now,” said McDowell.
Pearson finished seven minutes back in 42nd, with an uncharacteristically slow run in 34:32, noting it was a tough and disappointing day, but he wanted to rally for the relay at the end of the week. “It’s the Olympics, I didn’t want to drop out, I wanted to finish.”