While Taylor Knibb had some excellent performances in her first four years in triathlon, the long pandemic hiatus left her out of the spotlight and off the list of pre-race favorites at WTS Yokohama. As the youngest U.S. contender for the second Olympic slot, Knibb‘s chances were seen behind 2019 WTS World Champion Katie Zaferes, highly ranked contender Taylor Spivey, and Summer Rappaport, who previously earned the first U.S. Olympic slot at the Tokyo Qualifying event in 2019.
Still, Knibb’s young career record has many high spots: wins at the 2016 and 2017 Junior Women World Championships; a breakthrough 2nd Elite Woman at WTS Edmonton in July 2017; and gold at the September 2018 Under 23 World Championship. In 2019, she was 4th elite woman at WTS Abu Dhabi; 5th at WTS Montreal, a disappointing 16th at the Tokyo Olympic Qualification event and 2nd at the Santo Domingo World Cup.
But there was a year and a half before she was back in action for her appointment with destiny at WTS Yokohama.
Slowtwitch: How did you cope with the pandemic hiatus? You had no results in 2020.
Taylor Knibb: For the first few weeks, I was finishing up my undergraduate studies at Cornell. I spent most of March and April finishing up my thesis, which I successfully defended on May 8th (2020). And then I completed my last exam on May 17. In retrospect, I probably put a bit too much on my plate last spring and I do not know if or how I would have been ready for 2020 WTS Yokohama, had it happened. But I was honest with myself and recognized that fact— and made sure not to make that same mistake this past winter and spring.
ST: When did you start serious training?
Taylor: Once I graduated, I started getting back into triathlon training. Unfortunately, though, I tore a tendon in my ankle in late June/early July and had to spend the next eight weeks in a boot with absolutely no running or biking. At that time, it was still unclear whether fall races would occur. But since I was only getting out of the boot and back to training on September 1st, the coach I was working with at the time [Neal Henderson] and I made decision in early July to be smart, careful, and conservative with recovery and that I should not race a triathlon in 2020, even if any races ended up happening.
ST: Was that a hard decision on you?
Taylor: The decision was definitely hard, disappointing, and not so fun in the moment. But I knew it was the right decision and took full advantage of the opportunity. I actually took a full six weeks off of all training within that time, and then was able to get back to training and start to build back up in fall.
ST: How much did you benefit by increased rest?
Taylor: I felt like I was training well, but race readiness and fitness can sometimes be different, so I wasn’t certain. After easing back into training last September and October, I was able to start training fully again in November and then I was able to put together a good and consistent six months of training. It was not perfect, but it was probably, as a whole, the best six-month chunk of training I’ve ever had. I’m not sure I can quantify exactly how much I benefitted from the increased rest, but I’m grateful for it, taking full advantage of it, and certain it has had a net positive impact!
ST: Did you set any PBs in training?
Taylor: I do not think I set any PBs in training. Prior to departing for Yokohama on May 10th, I had been at altitude in Boulder, Colorado since January 18th, so setting PBs in training would have been a bit more challenging than at sea level and it was not the aim. I have to admit that it was the consistency I had in training and the ability to hit the targets of session after session more than any standalone session that gave me confidence.
ST: What made you and Maya Kingma likely to make such an outstanding breakaway?
Editorial Note: Kingma showed some promising signs of bike strength, but not dominance. Late in 2020, Kingma posted the second-best bike split, 3 seconds behind winner Georgia Taylor Brown at the Karlovy Vary World Cup. At the 2019 Hamburg Sprint Kingma had the 4th best bike split while taking 6th overall. At 2019 at WTS Yokohama, Kingma scored 5th best bike split and 7th overall.
In her history, Knibb was more promising. At the 2017 WTS Edmonton, Knibb and Flora Duffy broke away on the bike. Knibb finished 2nd overall to Duffy and Knibb’s bike split was just 10 seconds behind Duffy’s race-best effort. At the August 2018 Lausanne World Cup Knibb set fastest bike and finished 2nd overall to Nicola Spirig. At the September 2018 Gold Coast Grand Final, Knibb won the U23 overall gold and her bike split was 2:25 better than her nearest rival. In March 2019 at WTS Abu Dhabi, Knibb set fastest bike and finished 4th overall. At the 2019 Santo Domingo World Cup, Knibb had the third best bike split and finished second overall.
Taylor: To be perfectly honest, we just were able to get away and committed to putting in the work. Sometimes having a smaller group can be more efficient because there’s no looking around to see who is going to do the work — you just do it, no questions asked. I definitely slowed us down on the technical sections — and I’m sorry to Maya for that. But I tried to do as much work as I could. I pushed hard on the straights and really tried to capitalize on areas where a group may not be as efficient, especially if they’re not organized or working well together.
ST: Ever make such a significant bike breakaway?
Taylor: I had done it before - I was fortunate enough to breakaway with Flora Duffy in the 2016 Montreal World Cup and at 2017 WTS Edmonton. I was also able to breakaway on my own at Junior Worlds in 2016 and 2017 as well as U23 Worlds in 2018.
ST: You and Maya led by 2 minutes at T2. Were you aware of or paying any attention to anyone chasing you? Anyone worry you in the back of your mind?
Taylor: I was definitely aware of everyone chasing and I was worried about everyone! I had no idea how I’d run off of that bike. I just focused on executing the best run I could—and I’m grateful it worked out!
ST: From your Yokohama results, you had incredibly balanced splits. Were you surprised or did you expect a 3rd-best 19:35 swim? Race-best 58:21 bike split even with Maya Kingma’s 58:28 and well ahead of Lotte Miller’s 59:53 Katie Zaferes’ 1:00:22 Summer Rappaport’s 1:00:41 and Taylor Spivey’s 1:00:30?
Taylor: I was really excited and grateful to execute a good swim, bike, and run on the day. But I was especially happy with my swim. I’ve really struggled to execute a good swim at the WTCS level and it’s definitely been a focus.
ST: What led you to become a first pack swimmer?
Taylor: I wasn’t certain — you can’t ever be until you do it — but there were a number of factors. Last year, I was fortunate enough to train and compete with the Cornell swim team and go lifetime bests in the 500-yard free and 1000-yard free. Recently, I have been fortunate enough to train with some excellent swimmers in triathlon including, but not limited to Vittoria Lopes, Kirsten Kasper, and Edda Hannesdottir. Additionally, it may have been a few years, but I had done it before: I was third out of the water in WTS Edmonton in 2017. But, again, I wasn’t certain. I was just focused on executing the best swim I could on the day given the conditions—and I was pleasantly surprised.
ST: Did you ever try to break away from Kingma?
Taylor: No - I did not break away from Maya on the bike. We entered T2 together.
ST: Did your USA Triathlon coach Ian O’Brian let you know what your gap was at T2? And what your lead was on Lap 3 of the run?
Taylor: As I was approaching T2, my USA Triathlon coach was kind enough to inform us that Maya and I had about two minutes. That’s funny you ask—he actually gave me run lap splits after the first and second laps, but didn’t give me a split as I was finishing the third lap and heading into the fourth lap. He just said, “Good job, keep going.” That freaked me out a bit. My initial reaction was that it could not be a good sign and that the chasers must be right behind me.
ST: On the last lap of the run, did you ever look back?
Taylor: I tried not to look back, but I’m not sure if I was successful. I was able to gauge the gap coming around the final turnaround though.
ST: Any point on the last lap did you feel nervous, weakening at all? Any twitches in your legs?
Taylor: The last lap was definitely challenging and I just focused on getting to the finish line. [At the finish Knibb held a 30 seconds lead on Summer Rappaport and 38 seconds on Kingma.]
ST: Your run split was 35:09 - 15th best. Summer Rappaport had the best split – 33:24. Taylor Spivey was 4th best with 33:56. Katie Zaferes ran 35:28 and Kjngma’s 35:49. Looks like your strategy to break away on the bike and hang on for the run paid off big time.
Taylor: I definitely think my run split suffered a bit from the effort on the bike. But I think it was the better option to sitting in. It’s hard to plan something like that, but I was definitely open to either taking advantage of or trying to create the opportunity on the bike from the start.
ST: Were you shocked at your big win?
Taylor: I’m definitely a bit shocked! I was just so grateful for the opportunity to race again and to be healthy and excited to be there.
ST: What were your feelings crossing the line? Later on, do you have some empathy for your teammates who fell short?
Taylor: Crossing the finish line, I was just relieved and shocked to make it there. I definitely feel bad in some ways. All of the Americans who were in Yokohama are such incredible athletes and great overall people.
ST: Did you dream of making the Olympics when you were a little kid?
Taylor: I don’t think I even thought it was a possibility as a little kid. But I’d begun to think more about it in the past few years.
ST: Where do you think you rank against all the top women now?
Taylor: I have no idea! And it all depends on the specific day, course, and race. But there were a number of top women not in Yokohama [all three Great Britain Olympians, Flora Duffy, Nicola Spirig] who would have definitely had an impact on the race.
ST: You are very close with your mom. What did you say to one another after the race?
Taylor: When I finally got back to the hotel, I phoned my mom and we talked for quite a while. I cannot remember exactly what she said, but both of my parents are incredibly happy for me — and I’m incredibly grateful for their unwavering support.