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When the 23-year-old former U23 World Champion Taylor Knibb got off the bike with a two-minute lead in Yokohama, Japan, the question on everyone’s mind was: Can she hold on to it?
The second question: Where did that come from?
For the U.S. women a final automatic qualifying spot for the Tokyo Olympic team was on the line at the World Triathlon Championship Series race in Yokohama tonight—early morning Saturday, local time in Japan. There was only one spot up for grabs and it would only go to the top U.S. woman on the podium who hadn’t already qualified. (And only Summer Rappaport had already qualified.) For comparison, at that last automatic qualifying race, the Tokyo Test Event in 2019, Knibb placed 16th and was the fourth American.
It turns out, the last two years have done her well.
After a strong swim got most of the top Americans out onto the bike together—Rappaport, Knibb, Taylor Spivey, and Kirsten Kasper—things started to get strung out. As the two front groups came together, Knibb and Dutch triathlete Maya Kingma launched an attack off the front. As the laps piled up, their lead simply built and built.
By lap seven, Knibb joked, “I was regretting that.” But she wasn’t really. On the technical sections Kingma took the lead and pulled the young American along, and on the long flatter sections Knibb tucked and hammered. By the time the two reached T2 they had built up a nearly two-minute lead over the chase pack.
In that pack were those four Americans, all considered stronger runners and all looking to chase Knibb down. And about 30 seconds behind the pack was 2019 world champion, defending Yokohama champion, and strong favorite Katie Zaferes. Zaferes, whose father died suddenly about a month ago, had an abrupt break in training because of the tragedy and a tough road back to the elite level of racing so quickly.
Knibb quickly dropped Kingma and then simply managed to hang strong enough all the way to the finish, running a lifetime best 35:09. With one lap to go on the 10K course, she gestured and yelled at the officials to confirm it was just one lap left, and as she hit the blue carpet she finally smiled and appeared to realize she had done what no one predicted: Won her first World Triathlon Championship Series race when it counted most.
“It was an awesome race,” she said after, thanking Kingma for all the work and for how well it went.
Knibb’s best results to date were a second at a World Cup in 2019 (considered a lower level of racing than what is now called the World Triathlon Championship Series) and 14th at the 2019 World Triathlon Series Grand Finale—ie. the world championships.
Rappaport, who put down a 33:24, did managed to catch Kingma, but couldn’t close to Knibb—and the Americans went 1-2. About 55 seconds behind Knibb and just off the podium in 4th place was the third American, Spivey, and then the larger group of athletes right behind her. “I’m just so happy to be back here and be part of a 1-2 American finish,” said Rappaport.
The USA Triathlon selection committee will now have a tough decision on their hands. With one spot left for the American women, it’ll be chosen via discretion—ie. the committee will consider previous results and podium potential before picking the last female member of Team USA. While Zaferes seems a shoe-in, though she struggled today and came home in 22nd, the U.S. women are so deep and talented it’ll be tough to count out Spivey, who has raced consistently well, or Knibb’s training partner in Boulder, Kirsten Kasper, who finished 14th. (Full results here.) The mens race wasn’t any less of a nail-biter, with up-and-comer American Morgan Pearson running his way onto his first podium.
Did Knibb realize what was on the line?
“I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was just trying to get to the finish line,” she said post-race. But then again, she also acknowledged when it was just her and Kingma out front, she thought: “You can win, I just need to be second.” It seems the Olympic dream is never far from any of these athletes’ minds.
Get to know Knibb, the youngest member of the national team, in this piece from USA Triathlon.