Justin Lippert was not a consensus pick to score the USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals overall double in the Olympic and Sprint distances. In fact, he was a long shot. His recent results included a 19th overall at the 2017 Collegiate Nationals, a 29th overall at the 2018 Ironman 70.3 Texas, a 6th overall at the swim-canceled 2018 USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals Olympic distance, and 8th at the USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals Draft-Legal Sprint.
The 22-year-old had attended Clemson University and quit their NCAA cross country and track programs before his sophomore year because, as he says, “I had a conflict with the coach. It just didn’t work” But he didn’t abandon sport. “I did my first triathlon two years ago going into my sophomore year,” he explained. “When I went back to school, the first month they changed the program and I had to get out of there. It was not for me.” Whereupon he joined the Clemson Triathlon Club.
A recent grad, he was bridging his time after commencement and before enrolling in a graduate program in business at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina doing some training with some new friends in Massachusetts.
And, as he describes his nomadic existence, he had no address. “Now I’m living out of my car for a few weeks,” said the young man who grew up in Middletown, New Jersey.
If there was any explanation for his spectacular athletic breakthrough in Cleveland this weekend, it might have been his new training buddies and Massachusetts air. “After graduation I went to Massachusetts with a couple guys in Ipswich,” he said. “Guys were from a tri club. It was a good environment. Then I went straight from there to Cleveland.”
Lippert’s first moments at Olympic distance Nationals gave him no reason for optimism. He was 2:21 behind 20-24 swim leader Nick Noone of Boulder, Colorado, the 2017 USA Triathlon Collegiate Olympic distance Men’s National Champion, and three other men in his wave. In terms of the eventual overall rivals, Lippert was also a minute or so behind Neal Ross (30-34), Michael Phinney (35-39), Jordan Bailey (30-34) and Vant Lammers (30-34).
If ever there was a turning point in this race, it was the bike leg. And Justin Lippert had the words for it. “My plan on the bike was to keep making mental notes to keep on full throttle. Full send. Full send. At the end, I asked ‘Was I going full send?’ And the answer was yes. So I cut through almost everybody in my age group on the bike. I came off the bike in second place in my wave. About 1:20 behind Noone.”
Lippert’s ride was 56:27 – second best on the day behind 30-34 leader Jordan Bailey, but 53 seconds faster than Noone, 1:30 better than 20-24 rival Matthew Murray and 2:34 better than 20-24 competitor Louis Levine.
Lippert, sporting a classic no-singlet kit that might have a cooling effect, took a while to get up to speed. “I felt a bit hot starting the run,” he said. “It was a tough course with one decently long hill, right out of transition and you had to do it one more time.”
Lippert cut Noone’s lead to 50 seconds after the first 5k, then turned on the throttle. “I cut that down to 24 seconds on the second time over the hill. Then I caught him in the next mile and ran as fast as I can.”
After a 33:33 10 kilometer run split, Lippert finished in 1:59:29 – 42 seconds in front of 20-24 rival and overall runner-up Matthew Murray of Pearland, Texas, who ran 33:40 to nudge past Nick Noone, who took 3rd overall and 3rd in 20-24 after fading in the heat with a 35:48 run.
No longer a dark horse, Lippert benefited from the cancellation of the swim due to unsafe currents on Sunday’s Sprint Distance National Championship. On the 2.72 km run-20 km bike-2.72 km run format, there was no reason to hold back. Lippert went ‘full send’ the whole way. With the usual USA Triathlon Nationals rolling start waves, 16-year-old Drew Shellenberger of Indianapolis, Indiana crossed the line first in 46:54. But when Lippert arrived, he completed the overall double by a 4 seconds margin of victory on 46:50 elapsed time.
By then, Lippert’s exuberance trumped false modesty. “It feels great,” he said. “That’s what I came here for. I didn’t come here for one (win), I came here for two. It feels good to come out here and do what I know I’m capable of.”