What We Learned at the Rio Olympic Triathlons

As the dust settles on the Olympics for another four years, we reflect on the two races we were treated to, and what this means for the WTS world title, and the next four years.

Alistair Brownlee and Gwen Jorgensen take worthy titles in spectacular fashion

Both hot favourites and in great shape going into Rio, they also had a lot of pressure on their shoulders, Alistair Brownlee was aiming to become the first triathlete to ever defend an Olympic title, and Gwen Jorgensen went into the race almost unbeaten since 2014, keen to make up for the disappointment of London 2012 where she crashed and came in a disappointing 38th.

brownlee-brothers-rio-2016
Alistair  takes gold while brother Johnny comes home for silver in the background (photo copyright Rio 2016: PA)

Alistair Brownlee sat around 5th and 6th in the swim and came out of the water with a surprisingly select group before taking a slightly more conservative approach to the bike than normal. He could be seen lurking around the back of the group at times and took shorter turns than normal, without making his trademark attacks off the front. Whether he felt confident that he had the run fitness to outrun everybody in the group, or just wanted to keep his powder dry for such an important race, they all came off the bike together but both Brownlees and Vincent Luis went out together. Luis was quickly distanced and moved backwards through the pack with both Brownlees clearly moving into gold/silver positions pending disaster. Brownlee senior eventually put in the winning move on the last lap, taking enough of a gap to celebrate on the blue carpet while his brother takes silver and Henri Schoeman took a surprise bronze for South Africa.

BN-PM428_gwen08_P_20160820123223Gwen Jorgensen takes an emotional win (photo credit Wall Street Journal)

Gwen Jorgensen came out of the rough sea swim right at the business end which immediately sent alarm bells ringing for the rest of the field, their only hope being a successful attack on the bike to shake Jorgensen, but the attacks never came with defending Olympic champion Nicola Spirig for Switzerland sitting on the front and towing the field along. With GB’s Non Stanford sitting 2nd/3rd wheel and occasionally taking a turn, Spirig tried to make a break, gaining a few bike lengths at points, but with no-one to help make it stick, there was no way she was going to take the 30 seconds plus needed to put Jorgensen into trouble. When everybody made it off the bike together Jorgensen made the unusual choice to go out full gas rather than winding herself up as she normally does, the only person who could hold her heels was Spirig. They duked it out, exchanging places, words and accelerations right until KM8, when Jorgensen put in an effort that the reigning champion just couldn’t match. Jorgensen took an incredibly emotional gold while Spirig took silver 40 seconds down, closely followed by Great Britain’s Vicky Holland who outsprinted teammate and housemate Non Stanford for the bronze medal.

You can’t win the race in the swim, but you can lose it

160820163313-rio-women-triathlon-large-teaseLisa Norden, silver medalist in London emerges from the water with the rest of the chase group (photo Mathias Hangst/Getty)

A famous phrase thrown around by age group athletes, this is even more important in draft legal racing, where your position in the swim translates directly into which bike group you come out with. If you’re a strong cyclist but find yourself in a group unwilling, or unable to catch the lead group, your race is all but over. This is what happened to podium favourite Mario Mola who missed the lead group, and with it his chance for a medal.

57b5e3fbeac71.r_1471538178968.0-64-700-424Mola attaches his helmet in T1, but his race is already over (photo credit unknown)

Sarah True is an absolute trooper

Jorgensen’s teammate Sarah True was troubled by her leg seizing up at the start of the bike, resulting in her being forced to dismount. The camera showed her violently massaging her knee, attempting to throw a leg over her bike, before returning to the tarmac, pain etched all over her face. She eventually got onto her bike, started riding before stopping and climbing off again, tears in her eyes. She somehow remounted and dragged herself up the hill, before being lapped out by the leaders the next time up the hill, leaving her to be forced to retire. Never before have I wanted to reach out and hug an athlete more than watching her valiantly climb back on her bike, knowing full well she was unlikely to finish.

A bit of butterfly never hurt anyone

7769726-3x2-940x627The women charge into the choppy waters of Copacabana beach (photo credit abc)

The butterfly stroke strikes fear into the hearts of many, but can be extremely useful for beach starts to help you gain some valuable seconds, many athletes could be seen using a mixture of butterfly and dolphin kick to help them clear the shallows and help them clear the waves until it was deep enough to swim effective freestyle.

Vicky Holland is every bit as quick as Stanford on the run, if not faster

CqULC98WcAA4iOSHolland takes bronze by a comfortable margin (photo credit David Pearce)

Two of my favourite athletes on the ITU circuit, they live and train together, watching them run side by side for the entirety of the bike leg was hypnotic, but all bets are off when an Olympic medal is on the line. Non comes from a running background, and looking at their builds build you would imagine Stanford would be the faster runner, but when it came down to the sprint Holland comfortably edged her out to take the Bronze. When it comes down to a sprint at the end of an Olympic triathlon it’s mind over matter, and perhaps Vicky just wanted it more today.

Javier Gomez was sorely missed

_90384139_javier_gomez_rio_2016_brownlee_getty2
Javier Gomez on the podium at London 2012 (photo credit Getty images)

Personally I was gutted to learn than Javier Gomez, the silver medalist from London and defending World Triathlon Series champion was ruled out of the Olympics after breaking his arm in a bike crash. While it made the gold and silver medals all but hung around the Brownie’s necks, it would likely take away the spectacle of the race, and while I wouldn’t call the race dull, it would have certainly been more exciting if he was there; and while his compatriot Mola is every bit the cyclist and runner that Gomez is, Javier has the edge in the water and would likely have come out with the front group to put Spain in contention for the medals.

Schoeman is a champion in waiting

14064277_498999000290145_8646960268208523905_nHenri Schoeman gets a taste for success (photo credit Kate Roberts)

The biggest surprise of the races for me was Henri Schoeman’s storming performance to take bronze, having never graced the podium of a WTS race before, he came off the bike in a strong position and simply outran everyone but the brothers from Yorkshire at the tender age of 24, race wins, and maybe even world titles seem inevitable.

Nicola Spirig still has it

2016-08-20T154253Z_01_INK131_RTRIDSP_3_OLYMPICS-RIO-TRIATHLON-W
Spirig sits on Gwen’s heels coming through transition for the 3rd time (photo Agrees Latif/ reuters)

If Gwen comes off of the bike with the lead group, she wins. This has been the rule ever since 2012, and while I have nothing but overwhelming respect for her as an athlete and a person, it doesn’t make for especially exciting racing. Gwen has even been known to run down people who had a minute over her coming off the bike, her domination is inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, her long legs striding across the tarmac, looking almost effortless. However today for the first time in recent memory, she looked to be in trouble as Nicola Spirig, rarely seen on the ITU circuit since she won Olympic gold in 2012, immediately latched onto Gwen’s heels and hold on for the majority of the race. We’re not suggesting that Nicola is past it or in bad form, but as we have seen so little of her in short course, draft legal racing it was a pleasant surprise to see her vying for the gold medal alongside Jorgensen, who was visibly shaken to be coming into the last lap with another athlete on her heels. While it is likely to be Nicola’s last Olympics, I think we would all love to see more of her on the world circuit.

Bike for show, run for dough

msj_3715_resize__mediumThe Russians take it up on the bike but were unable to convert into a meaningful result (photo International Triathlon Union)

A popular phrase among those who are on or follow the pro circuit, a strong swim is imperative to put yourself in contention, a strong bike will woo people with your splits and put you in a strong position, but if you want to take home a big paycheque, you need to be able to back it up with a strong run. In the women’s race Caroline Routier lead out the swim but was lapped out on the bike. On the bike Spirig sat on the front and dragged the entire field along for 80% of the race, not really achieving anything as she wasn’t putting a concentrated effort into creating a gap, and there wasn’t an imminent threat from the chase group. Nicola Spirig has been racing triathlon for longer than I’ve known what a triathlon is so I’m not going to tell her how to race, but you can’t help but wonder if she’d tucked into the bike pack and had fresher legs, could she have forced Gwen into a sprint?

The most inspiring performance was by an athlete who failed to finish

web-une-fabienne-st-louis-egypteSt Louis on her way to taking 3rd at the African championship (photo credit unknown)

Fabienne St Louis was diagnosed with cancer in December, and has been receiving treatment since April, but still lined up on the start at Copacabana Beach on Saturday for the elite women’s race. Unfortunately she was unable to finish, although this is currently unclear whether this was related to her condition. At Phazon triathlon we would like to extend our best wishes to Fabienne for a speedy recovery, you can learn more about her story here :http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-37131993

In conclusion it looks like we can expect more Brownlee/Jorgensen domination for the next couple of years, but their rivals are getting ever closer, as they up their game to respond to the blistering pace of the favourites. A lot can happen in four years, so our medalists won’t be resting on their laurels.

CqUnIMsXYAATj-GPhoto Credit David Pearce

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