A Look Back at the 2021 Tri Season

In 2021, Norwegians ruled the men: Kristian Blummenfelt took Olympic gold, his fellow countryman Gustav Iden ruled Ironman 70.3, and Blummenfelt broke Jan Frodeno’s recent Ironman record signaling an all-distances domination not seen since Mark Allen. For the women, Flora Duffy of Bermuda duplicated Blummenfelt’s Olympic and World Triathlon World Championship domination – and also added a 6th XTERRA off road World Title. Joining Blummenfelt and Duffy in the mix at major races were a youthquake of talent including 23--year-olds Alex Yee and Taylor Knibb, busy upsetting the applecart of still excellent but no longer dominant figures like Vincent Luis, Mario Mola, the Brownlee and Katie Zaferes.

Woman of the Year - Flora Duffy

After a typhoon delayed the Olympic women’s start, Duffy led a small group out of T1 that stuck together through a crash-heavy bike, where many women DNF’d. From there, she put together a race-best 33:00 run to win by over a minute. It marked Bermuda’s first Olympic gold medal, and made it the smallest country to win a gold at the Summer Olympics. After a number of injuries and setbacks for Duffy in the months leading up to the Olympics, the win was especially sweet.

After the Olympics, Duffy clinched her third World Triathlon Olympic distance World Championship series gold with a third place at the Edmonton Grand Final. Duffy joined Emma Snowsill (2003, 2005, 2006) as the only female three-time Olympic distance World Champions. Duffy also became the first triathlete to win the Olympic triathlon and the World Championship in the same year. And, adding to her 2016 and 2017 ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships, her 2021 XTERRA Off-Road World Championship and 5 previous XTERRA crowns, Duffy has a women’s record total of 11 World Titles in triathlon.

Tapering off her 2021 season, Duffy won the Super League Triathlon finale at Malibu race in September and a 6th XTERRA World Championship on a rainy, muddy October day in Maui. All in all, one of the greatest Olympic-distance seasons in ITU history.

The Runners-Up

Georgia Taylor-Brown

Leading up to her superb 2021 season, Taylor-Brown survived injuries and a freakish disqualification for an overexuberant finish line celebration.

At the 2019 Olympic Qualifier in Tokyo, Taylor-Brown and British teammate Jessica Learmonth were disqualified for holding hands to celebrate their first-across-the-line finish. They were kicked off the top of the podium due to the International Triathlon Union rule that states athletes must not "finish in a contrived tie situation where no effort to separate the finish times has been made."

Having won bronze in the 2018 and 2019 World Triathlon Series, Taylor Brown won the one-off sprint triathlon race in Hamburg that constituted the 2020 World Triathlon Championship, becoming the fifth British woman to become world champion. But her following road to Tokyo gold was not smooth.

Just 12 weeks prior to the Olympics, a leg injury left Taylor-Brown on crutches and she was forced to withdraw from the final World Triathlon Series race in Leeds. Despite not racing for months, Taylor-Brown qualified to take her place on the start line for the Individual event.

Taylor-Brown’s hopes of a medal seemed to have slipped away midway through the Olympic individual race, as a puncture late in the bike leg saw her drop back from the frontrunners. She started the run with a 22-second deficit to the leaders. Taylor-Brown fought back to the top contenders with a stirring performance to pick off Learmonth and Laura Lindemann, then hunt down Katie Zaferes. She overhauled the American before beginning her final lap of the course at Tokyo Bay, and came home just over a minute behind winner Flora Duffy to claim the silver medal.

In the Mixed Relay event Taylor-Brown joined Learmonth, Jonny Brownlee and Alex Yee to clinch gold for Great Britain.

To top off the season, Taylor Brown won the Super League Triathlon series title with her podium finish at Malibu.

Lucy Charles-Barclay
Charles-Barclay started her fabulous year in March with a second place at the Super League Triathlon Arena Games in London. On June 6, she debuted in the World Triathlon short course with a 5th place at Leeds. On August 1, she placed second in the 1500-meter swim in the British Olympic Swimming Trials with a 16:46:26 clocking. On August 28, Charles-Barclay finished second in her heat and posted the second-fastest women’s time overall at the prestigious Collins Cup. On September 18, the three-time Kona runner-up finally took home her first world title - a wire-to-wire win in 4:00:20 at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship at St. George where she posted the fastest split of the day in every single leg. “It means absolutely everything to come here and win this,” she said.

Man of the Year: Kristian Blummenfelt

In 2021, Kristian Blummenfelt made history by becoming the first male triathlete to win the Olympic and World titles in the same year.

Early In his career, Kristian Blummenfelt finished 13th in the 2016 Rio Olympics. From 2017 to 2019 he won three gold medals in the Ironman 70.3 Middle East Championship. In 2019 Blummenfelt set a 70.3 record with a 3:25:21 at the Ironman 70.3 Middle Distance Championship in Bahrain. In August of 2019 Blummenfelt won his first World Triathlon Series event at the Grand Final in Lausanne. With all his success Blummenfelt had come close to a world title many times – but up to 2021 no cigar. After a 2020 season with no races due to the Covid outbreak, Blummenfelt set out his own bid for Olympic gold with a victory at the 2021 edition of WTCS Yokohama.

But it was his Olympic gold medal in Japan that marked his ascent to triathlon’s uppermost tier. In Tokyo he bided his time in big packs on the swim and the bike, then joined a three-man battle on a hot and humid run. On his way to a race-best 29:34 10k, he charged past speedy runners Alex Yee and Hayden Wilde. As he crossed the line with an 11 seconds margin of victory, Blummenfelt erupted with a huge scream, then vomited on the blue carpet before he was helped to medical.

A month after the Olympics, Blummenfelt won the World Triathlon series Championship and the Grand Final in August. On 21 November, Blummenfelt topped Jan Frodeno’s recently recorded World Best time with a 7:21:11 at the Ironman distance race at Cozumel.

Runner's Up

Gustav Iden
Gustav Iden was Kristian Blummenfelt’s top lieutenant of the Norwegian invasion of the top tier of international triathlon.

Iden, now 25, captured the world’s attention with a third place at the 2018 ITU World Triathlon in Bermuda and a fourth-place finish at the 2019 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Lausanne. But the first really big moment of his career came at the 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Nice where he beat Alistair Brownlee to become the youngest ever Ironman 70.3 World Champion. Gustav followed this victory by winning the 2020 PTO Championship in Daytona, then won 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

Branching out to the longest distance, Iden won 2021 IRONMAN Florida in 7:48:05 at Panama City Beach. Iden then won the 2021 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship. The triathlon world will be anxiously anticipating a Blummenfelt-Iden clash at the Ironman Would Championship at Kona scheduled for October 2022,

Alex Yee

Yee notified triathlon world he was coming from track and field with a lot of firepower - a 13:26 5k and 27:51 in the 10,000 meters. In Triathlon, Yee suffered broken ribs, a broken vertebrae and a collapsed lung in a crash at the 2017 Cagliari World Cup. Fully recovered in 2019, he won gold at the 2019 Cape Town World Cup, and took second at the WTS Abu Dhabi. With the Olympics on the line, Yee figured to be in the mix. where he won gold at 2021 World Triathlon Championship Series in Leeds where he ran 29:46. He ran 29:44 and took silver at the Olympic Individual race, then anchored the Great Britain team to a gold in the Mixed Relay. Alex went on to finish 2021 third overall in the World Triathlon Championship Series.

Jan Frodeno
The July 18 mano-a-mano Zwift Ironman Distance Battle Royale in Allgau, Germany pitted Jan Frodeno against Lionel Sanders. It was held on a rainy slippery day in which Frodeno crashed, fell to the ground, then recovered quickly. The 2008 Olympic champion and three-time Ironman World Champion set a new fastest Ironman time. At the finish, Frodeno beat the 7:35:39 mark he set at Challenge Roth in 2016. Frodeno finished in a new record time of 7:27:53.

Frodeno’s new record didn’t last long as Kristian Blummenfelt smashed it in his very first Ironman. On November 21 in Cozumel, Mexico, Blummenfelt set a new fastest time for the Ironman distance – 7:21:12.

USA’s New Shining Stars

Taylor Knibb
When she graduated from Cornell in Spring of 2020, Knibb started back to triathlon training. “Unfortunately, I tore a tendon in my ankle in late June of 2020 and had to spend the next eight weeks in a boot with absolutely no running or biking.” At that time, it was unclear whether fall races would occur. “Since I was only getting out of the boot and back to training on September, my coach at the time [Neal Henderson] and I made the decision to be conservative with recovery.”

The 23-year-old’s magical year began in May 2021 with a surprise victory at the Olympic qualification event in Yokohama. Knibb thus earned a spot as the youngest female triathlete in U.S. Olympic history. She then came home from Tokyo with a silver medal in the mixed relay and a respectable 16th-place finish in the individual race. A week later, she jumped into her first 70.3 and rode away from the field at 70.3 Boulder — on a road bike with clip-on aerobars. She followed weeks later with a win at the World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton where Taylor Knibb made the biggest splash of the day as she broke away to an astounding 2:44 lead after the 40-kilometer bike leg, then cruised to a 56-seconds margin of victory at the Grand Final. At the inaugural long-course Collins Cup, Knibb beat four-time Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf in a head-to-head match-up in their heat and clocked the fastest women’s time of the day. She capped it all off with a third-place finish at the 70.3 World Championship in her second-ever 70.3.

Morgan Pearson
Pearson burst onto the top tier of triathlon in 2021 with back-to-back World Triathlon Series medals in Yokohama and Leeds, earning a place on the U.S. Olympic Triathlon team.

With race cancellations during the 2020 Covid Pandemic, Pearson focused on bike and swim training and improved greatly. He hit the jackpot in 2021 against prime fields with a 3rd at WTS Yokohama (third best 29:30 run) and 2nd at WTS Leeds (2nd best 30:04 run). In a notable streak leading up to the Olympics, Pearson showed he was more than a match for triathlon’s greatest runners such as Mario Mola, Vincent Luis, and Jonny Brownlee. In races this spring, only Alex Yee of Great Britain and Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway posted equal runs.

After he incurred a penalty and finished a disappointing 42nd in the men's Olympic individual race, Pearson found redemption with a silver medal in the Olympic Mixed Relay, where Pearson's 20:21 final leg was second-best to two-time World Champion Vincent Luis's (20:18) and faster that Yee's 20:28 mark.

Comeback of the Year: Katie Zaferes

After her gradual rise from 5th, to 4th, to 3rd, to 2nd to World Triathlon Series Champion in 2019, Katie Zaferes was a favorite to take a medal at the 2021 Olympics. But her path was anything but smooth.

At the August 14, 2019 Olympic test event in Tokyo, on a straight section Zaferes turned to yell something to cyclists in her group when her wheel veered into a course barrier. She needed 23 stitches to reconnect her lower row of teeth to her gums where they separated. And she broke her nose flying over the concrete barrier.

“It’s a little fuzzy now,” she said of the crash. “But I just remember standing by the barrier trying to decide, ‘OK, can I keep going?’ And then I realised, blood was dripping out of me.” The crash kept her from any quick selection to the U.S. Olympic Triathlon team.

With one women’s slot left, the choice had come down to 2019 world champion Katie Zaferes or Taylor Spivey. In early 2021 Spivey was third in the world rankings while Zaferes looked less dominant in recent races since the death of her father early in 2021. Zaferes took 22nd at the WTCS race in Yokohama in May and then 18th at the WTCS race in Leeds. Spivey took 4th and 6th at those respective races.
Spivey’s 4th place at Yokohama was just one position away from an automatic selection and Leeds was an apparent last chance for 2019 ITU World Champion Zaferes to regain her pre-pandemic form and earn Olympic consideration. However, all bets would seem to rest on Spivey. But the selectors decided that with time to heal, Zaferes was the stronger pick.

Cut to the Olympic final and, as Zaferes recalled, in a mid-race duel at Tokyo she saw a rainbow on the course and sensed her father was watching over her. At Lap 3 of the run, Duffy was long gone, relentlessly pushing to increase her lead on her way to a race-best 33:00 split. Meanwhile, Zaferes was fighting to hold off Georgia Taylor-Brown. A few meters into the fourth and final lap, Taylor-Brown blazed past Zaferes on her way to second place overall. Zaferes hung on to the bronze medal, 13 seconds behind Taylor-Brown.

Zaferes won silver as part of the U.S. team in the Olympic Mixed Relay. To top off the year, Zaferes finished 4th in the World Triathlon Championship final in Edmonton.

Other Major Stories of 2021

Tim O'Donnell Survives Heart Attack

The 2019 Ironman World Championship runner-up Tim O’Donnell revealed that while racing Challenge Miami in March, 2021, he had suffered a form of heart attack infamously known as “The Widowmaker.” Though pain in the arm and jaw set in during the race, O’Donnell chalked it up to the pain of racing and continued on. But after the race, when symptoms escalated to nausea and vomiting, he went to the emergency room and learned his left anterior descending artery (LAD) was 80% blocked. Though he has recovered and will return to racing, O’Donnell’s story was a reminder to all triathletes that physical fitness and health are not always one and the same.

The Reinstatement
Magnus Ditlev crossed the finish line first at Challenge Montenegro, and for approximately 45 minutes, was considered the victor. However, referees soon determined that he had cut short the first loop of the run and disqualified the Dane, giving the victory to Patrick Lange.

Challenge officials reexamined the matter and 48 hours later announced that the race organisation played a part in “misdirecting” Ditlev and reinstated him as the race winner.

While the Ditlev’s reinstatement got the most ink, he proved he had arrived as a player on the pro scene with a stellar 2021 season which included: 2nd at Clash Daytona, 1st at Portugal 70.3, 3rd at Challenge Mallorca, 1st at Challenge Budva, 2nd at Challenge Samorin and 3rd at St. George 70.3

Going Really, REALLY Long
On May 8, Adrian Bennett of Great Britain completed a 7,519 kilometer [4.672 miles] Triathlon in Singapore. Bennett attempted this record to raise awareness for his family's charity, Practical Action.

60 Ironmans in 60 days
Rait Ratasepp, a European endurance athlete, recently completed 60 Ironman-distance triathlons in 60 days using traditional long-course triathlon rules. His average finishing time was 10:57:40, including an average of a 3:15 marathon per day.

The attempt was not without incident. On Day 14, Ratasepp had a crash involving a car that totaled his Scott Plasma. Ratasepp rode the next few days on borrowed equipment until his bike was replaced. Day 14 was one of only two days where Ratasepp exceeded 12 hours on his attempt, finishing in just over 14 hours that day.

Some Close Ones

At the PTWC Paralympic race, leader Australian Lauren Parker found herself being chased down in the final laps of the run. While American Kendall Gretsch already a cross-country and biathlon Paralympic medalist—was making up time each lap, but she seemed too far back to get there by the line. But as they hit the blue carpet, Gretsch dug deep and the rivals sprinted for a photo finish. The gutsy effort culminated in one of the closest wins in triathlon history.

Alex Yee edged Marten Van Riel by 0.2 seconds to win in a photo finish at the Malibu Super League final race in Malibu. In another white-knuckle finish, Yee topped Jonny Brownlee, 31 by one second to win Super League Triathlon Jersey.

Freak Storm Cancels Ironman California

A fast-moving severe weather front known as a ‘bomb cyclone’ arrived at Sacramento just an hour before the scheduled start of Ironman California on a Sunday morning, forcing Ironman race officials to cancel the highly anticipated event.

Quotes of the Year

While out swimming open water in Lake St. Clair, Matt Gervais had a run in with a Muskie, a fierce fish with sharp teeth. “It clamped on to my right hand, requiring 13 stitches,” he said. “I haven’t got much feeling in two of my fingers, and there is a lot of numbness, but the punctures themselves look like they may be good enough to swim. I see this as a one in a million kind of thing, but I will definitely wait for clear calm water before I get back out in that lake. - Matt Gervais

How did Chad McRae get hooked on triathlon? “My grandmother got me started in the endurance sports. She said something along the lines of, “If you can’t fight… you better run.” - Chad McRae

“I have had a lot of SNAFUs before races in my life. At St. George 70.3 in 2015 when I was doing my warmup jog in the near dark, I tripped over a metal chain blocking the path and did a front flip straight onto my head. Ouch!” – Sam Long

“Three weeks after Daytona. I had calf problems leading up to the race and instead of taking it easy I wanted to push further. If you have one chance you either go all in, or you play it safe. A wise man once said: “There is a thin line between fit and fucked.”
-- Sebastian Kienle

In Memoriam

Mike Greer, 82

Greer founded the Buffalo Springs Lake Triathlon in 1990 with 91 participants, then built it to an event that attracted top professionals who viewed the West Texas course and summer climate as ideal preparation for the annual Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. Along the way, he served as president of USA Triathlon and later interim CEO.

Greer died at age 82 from complications in recovery from a motorcycle wreck which he suffered June 27, on the way to the start of IRONMAN 70.3 Lubbock.

"He was such a force of nature, such a lovely force of nature," said Marti Greer, Mike Greer's wife and liaison between the City of Lubbock and IRONMAN. "He inspired so many people with what he would say: 'I'm not a triathlete. I'm a person who does triathlon.' He was never fast or gifted (in triathlon); he was just tenacious. He just loved the sport and loved the people in the sport.”

Greer completed seven IRONMAN events including two at the World Championships and more than 400 triathlons of various lengths. "You aren’t in race promotion for the money," he said in a newspaper article. "It’s psychic income. I know I can’t make a deposit at the bank with it. But I have people say, 'This race has changed my life. That right there keeps me going. That is cool."

In addition to his wife, Greer is survived by three daughters, a son, 15 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Jan Caille, 77

Here are excerpts from a reminiscence by Dan Empfield:

“Jan died on October 1, 2021 of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 77. He is survived by his wife Karen, son Jeremy, sister Kate Frank, granddaughter Adelaide Del Angel, and nieces, Anara Frank and Milo Michels.

“This man gave us the first fantastic, outlandish, stupendous triathlon. The Chicago Triathlon – variously sponsored by the Chicago Sun Times, Ms. T’s Pierogies, Accenture. It was so big - maybe 9,000, or 12,000? It took an hour or more to get all the waves of swimmers into the water. Running from one end of the transition area to the other took several minutes. The expo transactions at that race, as measured in dollars, may have been the biggest of any endurance race. This was all the work of Jan Caille.

“He was, by profession, an architect and artist before turning to event production and marketing. Jan sold his events business in 2010 to LifeTime Fitness, and turned his attention to creating a wildlife refuge on an 80-acre farm in McCleary, Washington. Up to the time of his death Jan had been working with the US Department of Agriculture, and Washington Fish & Wildlife, to restore Wildcat Creek back to its original route. Shortly before his death Jan was able to see the stream restoration and the creation of spawning pools within the stream for the salmon runs.”

Dick Hoyt, 80

Dick Hoyt, who inspired thousands of runners, fathers and disabled athletes by pushing his son, Rick, in a wheelchair in dozens of Boston Marathons and hundreds of other races, died earlier this year at the age of 80.

“He had an ongoing heart condition that he had been struggling with for years and it just got the better of him,” Russ Hoyt said.

Dick Hoyt first pushed his son, who is quadriplegic and has cerebral palsy, in the Boston Marathon in 1980. Dick and Rick, in a specialized wheelchair, completed 32 Boston Marathons together, until Dick, citing health issues, retired in 2014. He had planned on retiring after the 2013 race, but the father and son never finished because of that year’s finish line bombing, so they came back one more time.

The story began when Rick was born. At birth the umbilical cord suffocated him for a few minutes, leaving him paralyzed and unable to talk. In 1977, Rick asked his dad to push him through a running race. Within a few years they had completed their first marathon. Then came triathlon events. Then came the Ironman.

“Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not disabled,” Rick told his father after that first race, according to the website of Team Hoyt, the charity the family established to help disabled athletes.

They participated in more than 1,000 races, including duathlons and triathlons and in 1992 completed a run and bike across the U.S., covering 3,735 miles (6,010 kilometers) in 45 days, according to the website.

In 2013, a statue of father and son was erected in front of a school in Hopkinton, near the Boston Marathon’s starting line.