Who Will Make the U.S. Olympic Team?

A dive into how exactly the selection process works now.

Photo: Delly Carr/World Triathlon

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This weekend—after the World Cup race in Huatulco, Mexico—the Olympic qualifying period will close. The USA Triathlon selection committee will then convene to decide two things: who gets the third and final spot for the U.S. women’s team, and who gets the one or two (it won’t be determined how many until after this weekend) spots left for the U.S. men’s Olympic team.

It’s arguably one of the harder decision the U.S. selection committee, or any country’s selection committee, has had to make. As we’ve laid out before, on the women’s side, you have two serious medal contenders in Katie Zaferes and Taylor Spivey—not to mention a number of women who would be the best in many other countries. But only one can go.

How will that process work?

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The U.S. Olympic Selection Process

In one long selection document, which has been revised a few times because of COVID, the criteria to make the U.S. team are specifically laid out.

First and foremost, all athletes could have earned their spots through automatic selection. Two could have earned spots by achieving a podium at the Tokyo Test Event in 2019. Instead, only one was earned with a top eight by Summer Rappaport. And then an additional spot could be automatically earned in Yokohama last month with another podium for the women (because Rappaport had already earned one spot) or a top eight for the men (because no one had earned a spot yet). Taylor Knibb won and took the final automatic women’s spot, and Morgan Pearson’s third got him a slot on the men’s team.

The priority in earning those automatic spots was on courses that replicate the Tokyo Olympics course and that then demonstrate podium potential at the Olympics.

After that, it now turns to discretionary selection for the remaining spots. The committee is then explicit about what it will consider as it selects the rest of the team—and it will not consider any other things (i.e., it won’t consider results outside these periods, it won’t discuss or debate criteria beyond these things):

  • Athletes with a record of top five performances since March 8, 2019—”if it is determined these performances show a capacity to achieve a podium performance in the individual event at the Olympic Games”
  • Athletes with a record of podium performances in sprint or super sprint events since March 8, 2019 or in the mixed relay events since June 7, 2018 and “have the ability to enhance the USA’s chances of delivering a medal-winning performance in mixed relay events”
  • Additional factors like previous success on similar courses or in similar conditions, ability to manage performance pressures, and mixed relay strategy—like who can make a front pack swimming or who can time-trial solo in the later relay legs

However, it’s important to recognize that not one of these things is listed as more important than the other, nor does one come in advance of another. The focus is on maximizing medal potential across individual and relay events.

What That Means for the U.S. Athletes

The points window closes on June 14 and the official quotas will be handed down by World Triathlon on June 15—which is when the U.S. men will know for sure if they get two or three spots. The selection committee—made up of USAT high performance general manager John Farra, independent representative Shane Domer (from U.S. speedskating), USAT Level III coach Kathleen Johnston, and 2012/2016 Olympian Sarah True—will then discuss these criteria, establish a list of athletes that meet the criteria, and then look at previous race data, performances, and even video.

For the men: 

If there are two spots left, then it makes is slightly easier for the selection committee. If there’s just one spot, because the U.S. men didn’t lock down three slots for the Olympics, then it’ll make it harder to decide.

On the long list being considered: Kevin McDowell (who was 11th at the WTCS Yokohama race and was part of the second-place relay team at the world championships in Hamburg last year, anchored by Pearson), Matt McElroy (who in 2019 was the first U.S. man to podium at a World Triathlon Championship Series race in a very long time and has medaled at nine World Cups, but placed 24th and 29th in the last two WTCS races), Seth Rider (who did his first WTCS level race in Leeds and got 17th), Eli Hemming (who has medaled at four World Cups), and 2016 Olympian Ben Kanute (who is making the case almost exclusively for a relay spot).

For the women:

This is the big one. While there are a number of women who will be in that larger consideration pool (including Kirsten Kasper, who recently took third at a World Cup), the majority of the focus will be on two women: Taylor Spivey and Katie Zaferes.

Spivey is currently ranked third in the world. She took 6th at WTCS Leeds last weekend (a very different course from Tokyo) and 4th at Yokohama last month (a very similar course to Tokyo). She was also part of the mixed relay team that took second at the world championships in Hamburg last year, and has performed well in sprint and super sprint events.

Zaferes is the 2019 World Champion and won five World Triathlon Series (what are now being called WTCS) races that year—something Spivey has not equaled. However, just weeks after her dad died earlier this year, she placed 22nd at the race in Yokohama in May and then 18th at the race in Leeds last weekend. She was also part of that second-place mixed relay team in Hamburg.

Who has more medal potential? Both Rappaport and Knibb have limited mixed relay experience, so it seems certain the third woman chosen will need to contribute to the relay team. Who has more ability to carry the relay team to a medal? And then the selectors will have to factor in things like what athlete will France put first and who would be the best match-up, will the third woman need to sit in a group or time-trial solo, who can make a swim pack v. run 2K hard (when most relay events to date have been 1600m)?

There is no clear answer—but we’ll have some answers, either way, by the middle of next week. The decision will be announced on Wednesday at 10 a.m. MT on USA Triathlon’s Facebook page.

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