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Nicola Spirig of Switzerland narrowly beat out Lisa Norden of Sweden in a photo finish at the 2012 London Olympics. Australia’s Erin Densham took home the bronze.
The day kicked off with a one-lap 1.5K swim in the Serpentine Lake and was led mostly by Great Britain’s domestique athlete, Lucy Hall. Water temperatures had been teetering on the threshold between wetsuits being legal and illegal, and a light rain the night before the race cooled the water enough to allow wetsuits. This change should have theoretically made a swim breakaway more difficult, but Hall’s blistering pace helped a group of five, including American Laura Bennett, build a gap.
“It was a little confusing coming out of the water,” said Bennett. “I didn’t realize our little pack was the front pack. I thought they said ’30-seconds down,’ then we got out there and it was us ahead 30 seconds.”
Bennett was in a perfect position, having earned 50 seconds—not 30 as she was told—over the pre-race favorites.
“I had never ridden with the girls I was out there with,” said Bennett. Despite a lack of familiarity, the American tried to take advantage of her position, but it didn’t take.
“I knew the girls that are definitely committed to riding hard were not up front with me,” she said. The first pack quickly swallowed the break, led by Spirig driving the chase effort.
With the breakaway absorbed, most of the main contenders including Helen Jenkins (GBR), Andrea Hewitt (NZL), Densham and Spirig were all clustered together.
Then came the carnage.
Defending Olympic bronze medalist Emma Moffat (AUS) went down in the broad sweeping U-turn around Buckingham Palace. Although weather conditions were ideal during the race, a heavy rain the night before left the roads soaked and Moffat’s tires lost purchase. She hit the pavement hard and was forced to drop out of the race.
The United States’ Sarah Groff was on the other end of a crash. She was riding toward the tail end of the leading group for most of the bike leg and another cyclist went down when the pack was tightly clustered. Groff didn’t see the other athlete until it was too late and rode straight over her midsection.
“I had nowhere else to go,” said Groff. “Either I crash or run over the girl lying in the middle of the road, and I though as I was going over this poor girl I was going to go down, but maybe I’m a better bike handler than I realize, but I just kept on riding… I feel so bad for her.” It wasn’t clear which athlete took the brunt of Groff’s bike handling ability.
While Groff hung on to the rear of the first pack, Spirig never came off the front. She drove hard and didn’t allow herself to drift back into the carnage taking place in the group. Bennett also kept herself glued to the front. Jenkins, the GB favorite, had been riding with teammate Vicky Holland (GBR), and the pair joined up with Hall, who was serving as a domestique for Jenkins.
“We thought of a group of 8 to 10 girls who would be willing to work on the bike knowing that was their best chance, to get away from the faster runners,” said Holland. “Unfortunately it didn’t quite go to that plan. Myself and Helen were really in the mash in the front group. There were a couple girls off the front and myself and Helen right off the front of the next group.”
Gwen Jorgensen (USA), who ran to a second-place finish in last year’s ITU WTS London test event on this same course, lost time in the swim then suffered a puncture and lost contact with the contenders. She regrouped with a small chase pack, but her hopes for a medal evaporated with that flat tire. She was disconsolate after the race.
Canada’s Paula Findlay ran to a comfortable win at the 2010 ITU WCS race in Hyde Park, but after struggling with injuries for the previous year, she wasn’t able to replicate that fitness level that carrier her to multiple victories. She lost time on the bike and eventually struggled to the finish line as the last finisher, tears welling up during the last lap. “I hate quitting and the only reason I would have pulled out was because I was going bad… I didn’t want to quit [because of all of my supporters]. It’s very, very disappointing,” said Findlay.
The lead group of around 20 athletes completed the remaining laps around Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace without a meaningful attack. Spirig’s pace made sure no one got away. The favorites were all together, with the exceptions of Moffatt, Jorgensen and Barbara Riveros Diaz (CHI).
Crowd support for the athletes was phenomenal. Every meter of the bike course was lined with two or three spectators. “The crowd was incredible, it was deafening,” said Densham. The only quiet portions of the race were the brief sections where spectators were not allowed, several athletes noted.
Once out of T2 Densham quickly started driving the pace. Her goal was to drop as many of her competitors as possible instead of waiting until the later stages and leaving the finish to a sprint.
“Pace out of T2 was OK,” said Bennett. The early pace shed most of the front pack including Bennett, but nine athletes including Groff persisted through the halfway point of the run.
Then Groff came unhitched from the leaders. She elected to let herself drift off the pace and it looked as if her chances were over
“I knew they put in a surge and in the second lap, I knew that some would drop off and if I kept going my pace, maybe more would come back and that’s exactly what happened,” said Groff.
The lead group had been filed down to Jenkins, Densham, Norden and Spirig. Then Groff started to catch some of the athletes who had been shelled by the midway pace change. She moved past Hewitt and around the 8K mark Densham’s pace started to lag.
“They were playing games,” said Groff. The American’s steady approach paid off and she made an improbable charge back into the lead group.
With a lap and a half remaining, hometown favorite Jenkins came undone. She struggled to stay connected to the leaders, but it just wasn’t there. She fell off the back and Groff took over fourthposition. Densham’s efforts had eliminated most of the competition, but the medalists still hadn’t been decided. Groff’s gutsy effort meant one of these athletes had to loose out.
With about 400 meters to go Spirig was “the first to blink,” tweeted her coach Brett Sutton, and his pupil took the lead from Densham. Groff just didn’t have a response to this surge and was the first shed out of the group. Despite a courageous and patient performance, Groff was eliminated from medal contention.
“I looked [for a sprint] and it wasn’t there…my goal going in to the race was to be there with 1000m to go and I was,” said Groff, simultaneously proud of her performance yet extremely disappointed to have missed a medal.
After pressing the action during most of the run, Densham paid for her efforts and succumbed next to Spirig’s sprint. The Swiss earn a small lead over Norden, but she had preserved as much energy as possible through the run, never taking a turn at the front. Norden mustered every bit of speed and closed on Spirig, the most feared sprinter in the field, coming down the finishing chute. Still a meter behind with 50 to go, Norden crept up on Spirig and lunged at the line.
The spectators and even Spirig and Norden themselves were unsure who had won. Both collapsed to the ground and waited for the finish to be posted.
“I had a feeling [I had won], but I wasn’t sure,” said Spirig. “I really needed an official to tell me. It was a few minutes and those minutes were really hard. I would have been happy to win a medal, but of course it’s a big difference if you win gold or silver.”
Finally, the photo finish flashed on the big screen. With a margin of just inches, Spirig had out-leaned Norden. When she saw silver was her prize, the Swede said her first thought was, “Bugger!” she exclaimed. “I always seem to come out on the wrong side of the decimal on these close finishes, but I got the silver medal and I’m stoked with that.”
In the end, Spirig was best suited to a race on these pancake-flat conditions. Her ability to change gears in the final meters made the difference.
“My coach Brett Sutton told me how the race would go and it was exactly what he said would happen,” Said Spirig. “I knew I had a good sprint. I was confident I could be there but I had to work really, really hard.”
Densham crossed seconds later for the bronze, then Groff earned the most painful placing at the Olympics: fourth.
“I was all tears over there, but I’m gradually getting my mood up,” said Groff 10 minutes after the finish. “But about five minutes ago I was blubbering.” Emotions over coming so close yet missing her goal of winning a medal again took over after answering questions, but athletes and spectators alike were amazing by her performance.
Four years earlier Laura Bennett was in the same position, having come just short in Beijing. “I feel for Sarah,” said Bennett. “It’s a crappy place, for sure.” The veteran ITU racer was reflective immediately after the race. “There wasn’t anything that was spot on. I think it’s more…maybe it’s time to move on to longer distances. Maybe that intensity level you need [isn’t there].” She was the oldest competitor in the race.
PHOTOS: 2012 London Olympics – Women’s Triathlon
2012 London Olympics – Women’s Triathlon
London, England – Aug. 4, 2012
1.5K swim, 43K bike, 10K run
1. Nicola Spirig (SUI) 1:59:48 Gold
2. Lisa Norden (SWE) 1:59:48 Silver
3. Erin Densham (AUS) 1:59:50 Bronze
4. Sarah Groff (USA) 2:00:00
5. Helen Jenkins (GBR) 2:00:19
17. Laura Bennett (USA) 2:02:17
38. Gwen Jorgensen (USA) 2:06:34