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Olympics

Sleepless Nights At USA Triathlon

Last weekend's results at Yokohama mean some difficult decisions in June.

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Ever seen someone with a super important job and say to yourself, “Man, I sure am glad I’m not them?” I have. In fact, I’m saying it right now.

There are four people I’m glad I’m not. And who are these four poor souls? Well, the Olympic selection committee at USA Triathlon. (Keep your eyes peeled here for more on the committee and why the next few weeks will be exciting/horrifying.)

While there’s a good chance the executive team at USAT will be toasting and sipping champagne soon, congratulating themselves on at least one Olympic medal at the end of July, the four people I just mentioned have a terrible job ahead of them in the next few weeks: They have to choose the final member of U.S. Olympic women’s team.

Choosing the Olympic team might sound fun, but I can assure you it will not be. Pick the wrong person, and you look like an idiot. Pick the right person, and you’ll probably still be roasted for a few weeks until the Olympics actually start. This daunting duty is made substantially worse by the current situation with the U.S. women.

Just to catch everyone up, two years ago at the Tokyo Olympic test event, Summer Rappaport had a very good race to finish fifth. And no, not like “the race of her life” or anything, but rather a typical good race to secure herself an automatic qualifying spot for the U.S. Olympic team. The “problem” for USAT was that 2016 Olympian and former world champion, Katie Zaferes, did not have a good race. Not a very good race at all. She crashed and didn’t finish—missing out on the potential for a very nice photo of Rappaport and Zaferes hugging and both making the Olympic team.

Just behind Rappaport’s emotional moment was Taylor Spivey, finishing in eighth place, just slightly out of frame of the rest of the action. While we’ll get back to Spivey in a minute, it’s important to note that her eighth-place finish at the Tokyo event did not earn her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team back in 2019, but it would have if Rappaport hadn’t been an American (or simply hadn’t raced). In other words, despite a very good race, technically because of Rappaport, Spivey was squeezed out. Even worse: If Rappaport had finished two places higher, in the top three in Tokyo, Spivey would have made the team. Yes, it is complicated.

Fast forward almost two years later. The world has gone through a pandemic, triathlon has been effectively sidelined for a whole year, and the U.S. athletes are on the start line again, fighting for a spot on the Olympic team in Yokohama last weekend. This time it’s Taylor Knibb, a 23-year-old from the Washington D.C. area, who actually does race out of her skull to win the final U.S. automatic selection event at WTCS Yokohama. Knibb was not on anyone’s list (definitely not mine) and shocked everyone with a breakaway on the bike that she held into the line. Her only previous podium appearances were in mixed relays, World Cups, when she won U23 Worlds way back in 2018, and a silver at the Edmonton WTS in 2017 where she broke away on the bike with Flora Duffy. Now we have that picture of Rappaport (who took second) embracing her newly minted Olympic teammate—and just out of frame again is “the other Taylor,” with Spivey finishing in fourth.

Almost three minutes back from Knibb’s made-for-TV performance, Zaferes finished with an uncharacteristically bad showing in 22nd place overall (and fifth American). To put it in perspective, in the last seven years of championship-level racing, Zaferes has only finished outside of the top ten nine times in 56 finishes. In other words, she’s in the top ten in five out of six races she competes in. To make a bad situation worse, Zaferes was fresh off the unfortunate passing of her father in the weeks before traveling to Tokyo.

Heartbreaking for both Spivey and Zaferes? Yes. A freaking minefield for selectors? For sure.

Right now if you’re on the selection committee, you’re looking at a U.S. women’s team that is deeper than any we’ve ever seen. You could effectively pull a name out of a hat and still get a medal contender—hence the distinct potential for executive champagne toasting at the end of July.

Obviously Rappaport could medal, as could Zaferes, or Spivey, or Kirsten Kasper—even Knibb on the right day and situation. And in terms of doing everything right, Spivey would seem like a lock for the team, given her performances at Tokyo in 2019 and Yokohama in 2021, along with her pandemic era racing in Hamburg last fall. But of course Zaferes is also seemingly a lock, given her ranking, world title, and previous Olympic experience.

If you pick Zaferes, you leave out a potential medalist who was more or less left off the team from Tokyo and Yokohama due to things somewhat outside of her control. If you pick Spivey, you leave out a potential medalist who was more or less left off the team from Tokyo and Yokohama due to super hard luck.

As fans of U.S. triathlon, we’ll be treated to three American ladies ostensibly vying for three medals (plus one in the mixed relay) in Tokyo in July. Of course this is why athletes race—to see who is faster—and this is why people get chosen for totally unenviable jobs—because someone has to do it. The four people who have to decide which potential medalist to leave off the team will undoubtedly lose a lot of sleep until mid-June and then probably lose more for a long time after that. Glad it’s not me.

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