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Recalled: Emma Snowsill’s Golden Moment

In the spirit of the Olympics, here’s a look back at the women’s triathlon event at Beijing in August, 2008—and the woman who won gold.

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With the 2021 Olympic countdown officially on and the rosters being finalized among various countries, the excitement is palpable for the Tokyo games. 

Leading into the 2008 Olympic triathlon, Australia’s Emma Snowswill was a favorite for gold. After all, the then-27-year old had established herself as the first female triathlete to win three world titles, including a 2006 victory where she triumphed over Portugal’s Vanessa Fernandes—her biggest threat in Beijing—by 45 seconds. But “Snowy’s” Olympic build-up had not been without its bumps. She’d been grappling with sluggishness and exercise-induced asthma. Her coach, the famed Brett Sutton (who has also coached superstars Daniela Ryf, Nicola Spirig, and Chrissie Wellington), had temporarily stepped away from the sport. She culled together a team to help her: Her boyfriend at the time, top triathlete Craig Walton, had stepped in to guide her on the bike, and Dennis Cotternal, an elite Australian swim coach to lead her in the pool. But still, as Snowsill recalled in a 2014 interview, “I put so much pressure on myself that, with a couple weeks to go, I had really overdone it,” she said. “[Cotternal said] ‘If you don’t rest now, you won’t be racing in three weeks’ time.’ I learned that backing off was crucial when your body was worn down.”

Somewhat refreshed and refocused, Snowsill arrived in Beijing with the world watching and waiting to see if she would be the one who’d bring the first gold medal back to Australia, where triathlon has a storied history. Others had come close: Michellie Jones and Loretta Harrop placed second in 2000 and 2004 respectively (in 2004, gold medalist Kate Allen, born and raised in Australia, raced under the Austrian flag after receiving her citizenship from the country through marriage.)

With temperatures in the mid-70s and humidity hovering around 78 percent on race morning, the conditions favored Snowsill, who historically competed well in warmer weather. Still, she could leave nothing to chance: Fernandes, then 22, had dominated the international draft-legal scene in the two years prior, picking up a record 20 World Cup wins. Fernandes had beaten Snowsill by over a minute for her first world title in Hamburg, Germany in 2007, and previously, she bested the Aussie by over 40 seconds in a test event on the Beijing course in 2006. 

But Fernandes had begun to show some chinks in her armor in races prior to the Olympics, including a DNF one month prior at a World Cup race in Hamburg. Not to mention there were several other strong contenders, including Snowsill’s teammate Emma Moffat. The race in Beijing was anyone’s to win. 

Leaving little to chance, Snowsill went out hard, emerging from the swim in the Ming Tomb Reservoir in third position behind Americans Laura Bennett and Julie Swail-Ertel—and alongside stalwarts like Fernandes, Ryf, Great Britain’s Helen Tucker, and New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt. On the bike, the lead pack swelled to more than a dozen athletes before the end of the six-lap course, with all of the heavy hitters refusing to give up an inch. 

That was, until the run. The diminutive Snowsill (at 5 feet, 3 inches tall and some 105 pounds, she was the smallest athlete in the field) shot out to the lead like a rocket. Hewitt tried to go with her, but that didn’t last as Snowsill’s short but assured stride put more and more time into the chasers. Running at around 5:22 per mile, Snowsill appeared cool and confident behind her yellow-framed wraparound glasses. But inside, Snowsill recalls being fraught with emotion. 

In the last throes of the race—a seemingly endless blue track—Snowsill drew on the memory of Harrop being run down by Allen in Athens in 2004. (Incidentally, Harrop, the sister of Snowsill’s boyfriend and pro triathlete Luke who was struck by a car and killed, had taken the younger triathlete under her wing after the tragedy, which Snowsill witnessed, and convinced her to return to the sport.) In Athens, Allen made a dramatic pass over Harrop with 200 meters to go to grab gold, and Snowsill wasn’t ready to allow something similar to happen once more. 

“I wanted to make sure someone I hadn’t caught a glimpse of wasn’t charging through the field,” she said. “It seemed like that final straight went on forever. I thought if I stopped and absorbed what was going on, I’d become paralyzed with the emotion. I wouldn’t let myself believe it was real until I crossed the line.”

Snowsill had nothing to worry about. By that time, she had extended her lead to more than a minute over Fernandes. No one was going to steal her moment. Finally, on the last turn, with the finish line in sight, Snowsill grabbed an Australian flag from a fan and charged forward, pumping her fist as a smile spread across her face. It was as fine (and about as fast) of a race as Snowsill had ever had, and she allowed herself to soak in the experience, slapping hands of spectators and waving to the crowd before snatching the tape and solidifying her place as one of the greatest triathletes ever. 

Also winning gold in Beijing? A tall, young German named Jan Frodeno. Snowsill, engaged to Walton at the time, didn’t know much about the talented triathlete at that point. But she soon would: The two married in October of 2013 and now have two children. While Frodeno, a three-time Ironman world champion, is still racing, Snowsill hung up her gear for good in 2014 after a series of health battles. Her legend lingers, and she is still considered one of the winningest women in ITU triathlon history. 

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