It came first, and was very much unlike the men’s electric, exciting, adrenaline-rich Olympic four-man duel that would take place a day later.
Emma Snowsill’s dominant victory in the women’s triathlon elicited something more akin to the respectful awe granted to a natural phenomenon like a total eclipse of the sun.
In her first 200 strides down Beijing’s royal blue front straightaway carpet, triathlon’s dynamite mighty mite choreographed her own coronation. She had run from fifth to first and was leaving all the pretenders in her wake like tugboats trailing a Miami Vice style Cigarette speedboat. And so in the minds of her rivals and on the pages of the sport’s history, she had made a quantum leap.
In those first quarter mile, Snowsill also eclipsed any hope of a battle for the victory wreath, even from her vaunted Portuguese rival.
Since Fernandes ran away from Snowsill at 2005 season ending World Cup in New Plymouth, to the Portuguese phenom’s 2007 head-to-head dominance at Life Time Fitness, the Hamburg ITU World Championship, and Fernandes’ third straight Beijing World Cup title, many thought that Snowsill’s reign over the Olympic distance might be at an end. Perhaps, the thinking went, the torch had already passed to the five years younger Fernandes. After all, a record 20 World Cup wins at age 22 and five European championships indicated a consistent dominance.
At the very least, Fernandes’ rise indicated the two best Olympic distance women triathletes on the planet would engage in some Battle of the Titans at the Shinsanling Reservoir.
If both were healthy.
An important caveat, since Snowsill had suffered through a physically troubled, soul-searching 2007. In June, knifelike back pains forced a rare and dispiriting DNF at the inaugural $700,000 Hy-Vee World Cup. About the same time, in her first few weeks training in Boulder, Colorado, she suffered from altitude sickness and a mononucleosis-style immune problem that had flattened fiancé and coach Craig Walton for 18 months. To top it all off came good and bad news. The bad was that she discovered she had a severe form of exercise induced asthma. The good news was that with diagnosis, she started treatment and was quickly on her way back to normal.
While Fernandes was on a roll, Snowsill still emerged from her sickbed to take second places in all the remaining majors of 2007 – a tribute to the Aussie’s toughness and capabilities. Still, the most Snowsill’s fans could reasonably hope for in 2008 was a duel for Olympic gold. When Snowsill whipped Fernandes at the season opening World Cup in Mooloolaba, experts knew that Snowsill had a home court advantage and Fernandes was far from her planned peak at Beijing. And in June, Fernandes’ cold water debacle (10th) at the World Championships in Vancouver could also be discounted.
But at the finish line in Beijing, 20-time World Cup winner and 2007 ITU World Champion Vanessa Fernandes grasped the silver, but was just another victim, 67 seconds behind Snowsill’s flying feet.
Including a relaxed, flag-waving, high-fiving, zig-zagging saunter down the finish line chute basking in the cheers and love from 10,000 spectators, Snowsill blazed the 10 kilometer run in 33:16. That was 40-seconds faster than Kate Allen’s legendary, come-from 2-minutes 30-seconds-behind dash for Athens gold.
To put Snowsill’s dominance in perspective, Allen, the 38-year-old defending Olympic champion, had Beijing’s third fastest run in 34:32, topped only by Snowsill and Fernandes’ 34:21.
But this year there would be no miracle redux on Chinese tarmac. Allen lost a minute on the swim and another minute on the bike. Despite her excellent run, a brave finish after multiple broken bones, facial stitches, lost training and difficult recovery after her face plant in a late spring bike crash, Allen surrendered another 76 seconds in the run. She was relegated to an honorable but anonymous 14th and the honor of being the fastest finisher from the chase pack.
Given that the Ming Tombs Reservoir course’s greatest obstacle was a gentle 150-foot hill, potential bike revolutionaries like Sarah Haskins and Helen Tucker could not break free of the 20-woman front pack and take a long-shot chance of upsetting Snowsill’s progress.
Still, Snowsill ran Beijing as she does all her other races – not with arrogance, but with a humble insecurity. “On the third lap, I definitely thought of (what happened to) Loretta (Harrop, who led the whole way at the Athens Olympic triathlon only to be passed by Kate Allen with 150 yards to go.) It’s a hot day and you definitely feel your energy dwindling. I didn’t want to be seeing things, to be hoping that no one was coming up on me. You don’t always want it to come down to a run race. But today it did. And there’s nothing like running scared from the rest of the field.”
Still, Snowsill was cool under fire. When she was misdirected to the wrong side of a concrete barrier with a kilometer to go on the run, she neatly hopped back on course with form that could only make ill-fated Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones jealous.
All that remained was a reach for superlatives.
America’s Laura Bennett finished fourth. A half-time neighbor of Snowsill when both are training in Boulder Colorado, she said of Snowsill’s Beijing dominance: “That was clear today. Very clear. Emma is definitely the mark that we will all be chasing the next four years.”
Fellow Australian Emma Moffat, who finished with bronze, had admiration mixed with inspiration and warmth for the 5-foot 3-inch, 105-pound native of Australia’s Gold Coast. “I couldn’t hold my excitement for her,” admitted Moffat. “I know how hard she has worked, so I was ecstatic for her. She really stuck it to us. And seeing her out there, you never wanted to give up. You never stop hoping or trying. But she is one of the best triathletes out there, so I wasn't gong to hold my breath.”
“I call her the Queen,” said Triathlon Australia’s high performance chief Bill Davoren of Snowsill. “The Olympics is the hardest one to win. It’s one day in 1300 and there's no do-overs. She is simply the greatest (Olympic distance) women’s triathlete of all time.”
For her part, Snowsill remains modest and patriotic and spoke of her win more like a soldier who picked up the bullet-ridden flag after close Olympic losses by fellow Aussies Michellie Jones in 2000 and Loretta Harrop in 2004.
She told the BBC: “I feel very proud and honored to be an Australian with a gold medal around my neck at the Olympic Games. I believe we came so close at Sydney and Athens that this makes up for those very close defeats.”
Amidst all the extravagant praise coming from a proud Aussie nation, including posts on the Attractive Athletes blog which said her good looks plus Olympic gold should reap a fortune, Snowsill had a thoughtful response. “I think that’s funny,” she said. “It just doesn’t sound like it could be true. The people I think of as the greatest are people like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong. I don’t put myself in the same category. It sounds very foreign to me, like it’s my l ittle shadow and I am still just Emma.”
Perhaps another measure of Snowsill’s seemingly inevitable victory were the struggles of very excellent triathletes in her wake.
Vanquished Vanessa remained the no-excuses, soul of sportsmanship. “This medal is silver, but to me it’s gold.” Perhaps forgetting prior Olympic golds by Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon and Austria’s Kate Allen, Fernandes took some solace from her result. “I think it’s good for Portugal and good for Europe to put some girl in the top three.
Laura Bennett also put a positive spin on a tough day. “I knew the run was going to be fast and would take some deep digging to keep up with the girls,” she said. “I started cramping on the third lap and lost touch with third and fourth place. Then on the final lap I started top feel better and pulled back into fourth place.” Did she fall into the old winner-take-all trap, that fourth place was the first loser? “No, I don’t take it like that,” she said. “This is a world class field and I’ve done everything I can do to be here. I’m happy with the road I took to get here and this was the best I could do on the day.”
Others had a far rougher go.
Samantha Warriner of New Zealand, coming off a promising bronze medal at the World Championship, collided with a Japanese competitor in T2 and finished 16th. “I had a great swim, felt alright on the bike, and then I tripped in transition and I think I cut my foot. But no excuses. I didn’t perform on the day. Very disappointed. Sorry to New Zealand, sorry to my sponsors in Whangerei and Auckland.”
Under 23 World Champion and 18-year old rookie World Cup sensation Hollie Avil of Great Britain had an even rougher Olympic debut. “I always told myself I would never not finish a race and it’s hard to describe how I feel having to pull out. I was sick on the bike and every time I took on fluids, I was sick again. It’s not great when you’re sick down your arms and legs and. It's the worst thing when everyone is cheering you on and you can’t keep going. I ruined my new white shoes and when I finished the third lap I pulled over.”
Newly crowned world champion Helen Tucker of Great Britain started well but things went downhill. “I didn’t feel awesome, but I stayed in good tactical position on the swim and the bike ride, so of there were any breaks I’d be in good position. But I didn’t have any legs when it came to the run.”
By the time she’d finished a 37:39 run, she’d finished 21st. “I’ve had an awesome year, so I really can’t complain,” she said.
Tucker took her woes much like Snowsill took her missing the 2004 Olympics due to a stress fracture in her femur – just months after Snowsill’s sensational 2003 World Championship victory.
“The experience here in Beijing really makes me want to succeed at the London Olympics in 2012,” said Tucker.
“Missing Athens was a great motivation for coming to Beijing,” said Snowsill, whose wisdom at age 27 is hard earned. “But at the same time, it has never been a sore spot with me. You can’t change the past. You can’t control it. The main thing is now, and the foreseeable future. And what you can do about it.”
1. Emma Snowsill (AUS) 1:58:27 (GOLD)
2. Vanessa Fernandes (POR) 1:59:33 (SILVER)
3. Emma Moffatt (AUS) 1:59:55 (BRONZE)
4. Laura Bennett (USA) 2:00:20
5. Juri Ide (JAP) 2:00:23
6. Nicola Spirig (SUI) 2:00:29
7. Daniela Ryf (SWI) 2:00:39
8. Andrea Hewitt (NZL) 2:00:45
9. Kiyomi Niwata (JAP) 2:00:51
10. Debbie Tanner (NZL) 2:01:06
11. Sarah Haskins (USA) 2:01:22
14. Kate Allen (AUT) 2:02:00
15. Ricarda Lisk (GER) 2:02:07
16. Sam Warriner (NZL) 2:02:13
18. Lisa Norden (SWE) 2:02:27
19. Julie Swail Ertel (USA) 2:02:39
21. Helen Tucker (GBR) 2:02:55
22. Erin Densham (AUS) 2:03:08