In the an electrifying race to the line, Nicola Spirig of Switzerland edged Lisa Norden of Sweden by what seemed like an eyelash to take the gold at the Olympic women’s triathlon in London this morning.
Spirig and Norden finished in identical 1:59:48 times for gold and silver in the closest Olympic triathlon finish ever, while Australia’s Erin Densham took the bronze, just two seconds later.
Both Spirig and Norden were not sure who won right after the race. “I had a feeling I won but I didn’t really know until an official told me,” Spirig told ITU Media after the race. “Right after I crossed the line, I wasn't sure if I had won. Race officials took several minutes to decide and those minutes were really hard.”
Norden was equally unsure. "I thought, ‘Oh bugger!' I had a photo [finish] two years ago at Madrid with Andrea Hewitt and I lost by 0.02 seconds," she told ITU media. "I always seem to be on the wrong side of those finishes.’”
With a lap to go on the run, the race was down to a group of five led by Densham and followed in order by Spirig, Sarah Groff, Norden, and Helen Jenkins. Halfway through the final 2.5 kilometer run lap, Jenkins was the first to fall back. A few hundred meters from the end, Groff slipped back a notch and the race was left to Densham, Norden and Spirig to divide the medals.
“I knew the girls were running strong and I knew two of them had a big sprint,” said Densham. “I don’t have a big sprint so I did try to break them early on. My plan was to break as many of them as early as I could. But when I looked around halfway through the last lap, I saw there were still four of us and I went ‘Ohhhh. There are only three medals!’”
With about 200 meters to go, Densham drifted back slightly while Spirig made a bold surge to a 5 meter lead. In the final frantic 50 meters, Norden made a brilliant, brave move to close inexorably on the Swiss leader as they approached the tape. In the final meters, Norden shoved her chest into the line and to the naked eye it seemed as if the two reached the tape simultaneously.
But upon a video review, Norden seemed to lean to catch Spirig while Spirig’s torso in fact hit the tape first.
Ultimately, Norden was smiling warmly: “But Hey! I got a silver medal and I am pretty psyched about it!”
Sarah Groff of the U.S. took 4th, with home country favorite Helen Jenkins of Great Britain 5th and Andrea Hewitt of New Zealand 6th.
Groff's 4th place was done in particularly gutsy fashion as the 30-year-old American was in the lead pack of runners starting the final lap of the run, fell 20 meters back, then regrouped and charged back to the lead pack before fading out of the medals approaching the blue carpet in the finishing chute.
Groff posted the day's 5th-fastest run split at 33:52 -- just 11 seconds off Spirig's winning run --
but did not have a final sprint to power her to the medals.
"If you don't have a kick, you don't have a kick," she told USA Triathlon media after the race. "I didn't have it. There's nothing you can do at that point. I guess you hope that somebody blows up or falls or something, but at the end of the day I did what I could. I put it all out there."
Groff was philosophical about her 4th place finish -- which was the fourth straight finish of 4th or better by the U.S. women in the Olympic triathlon [Joanna Zeiger was 4th in 2000, Susan Williams 3rd in 2004, Laura Bennett 4th in 2008], an accomplishment matched only by the Australian women.
"My goal going into this race was just to be there with 1,000 meters to go," Groff told USA Triathlon media. "I was. You know, I've got to be proud of that. Fourth is the 'worst' position to be in but, at the end of the day, I'm an Olympian. I'm really proud to be on this team. Obviously it would have been better to come home with a medal, but I'm proud of the process and proud of our team."
Spirig proved that her recent return to form, including wins at the most recent ITU World Triathlon Series events in Madrid and Kitzbuhel, was an accurate measure of her chances at a London Olympic medal. And so, too, Lisa Nordens’s recent 2nd-place finish at Kitzbuhel was a solid indication that she was back on her game after a year spent rehabbing from injury.
Early in the race, wet roads left over from an overnight rain led to several crashes on the bike, most notably one of which forced 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Emma Moffatt of Australia to withdraw.
Gwen Jorgensen of the United States, who was one of the pre race favorites thanks to her 2nd place finish at the London World Triathlon Series event on the Olympic course last year, suffered mechanical troubles on the bike and fell more than 5 minutes back and out of contention for a medal at T2 - too far back for her excellent run to make a difference.
"I had a flat, so I had to stop and change it," Jorgensen told USA Triathlon media. "I wasn't in the front pack, anyway and I got a little flustered. It never happened to me before."
Bennett, who came to the race as a 4th place finisher in 2008, on a strong streak after a 3rd place finish at the San Diego round of the World Triathlon Series back in May, and the oldest competitor at age 37, started the day in the front pack of the swim and working hard on the first small front pack of the bike in an attempt to break away. But she and the early bike leaders surrendered those plans when the first chase pack swarmed the group of seven and made it a more static group of 22 riders.
While Bennett took off with the top runners leaving T2, the effort on the bike seemed to take away her usual snap in the legs and she fell back to 17th at the finish.
"I didn't feel fantastic all day," Bennett told USA Triathlon media. "You try and keep in touch with it all and figure out what you have, and that was all I had today."
Canadian star Paula Findlay raced creditably through the swim and bike but was slowed considerably by pain on the run and finished 52nd -- a clear sign that she had not fully recovered from her longstanding hip injury.
2012 Olympic Women’s Triathlon
August 4, 2012
S 1.5 k / B 40 k / R 10k
1. Nicola Spirig (SUI) 1:59:48
2. Lisa Norden (SWE) 1:59:48
3. Erin Densham (AUS) 1:59:50
4. Sarah Groff (USA) 2:00:00
5. Helen Jenkins (GBR) 2:00:19
6. Andrea Hewitt (NZL) 2:00:36
7. Ainhoa Murua (ESP) 2:00:56
8. Emma Jackson (AUS) 2:01:`16
9. Jessica Harrison (FRA) 2:01:22
10. Kate McIlroy (NZL) 2:01:28
17. Laura Bennett (USA) 2:02:17
38. Gwen Jorgensen (USA) 2:06:34
52. Paula Findlay (CAN) 2:12:09