Taylor Knibb, young rising U.S. star

Ready or not, 19-year-old Taylor Knibb was thrust into the triathlon spotlight at the WTS sprint event at Edmonton. After a second-place 9:20 swim, Knibb joined defending WTS World Champion Flora Duffy in a bike breakaway that yielded a minute and a half lead over the chasers at T2. While Duffy ran away to a 1-minute margin of victory, Knibb held off 2016 Olympian and fellow U.S. competitor Katie Zaferes by 29 seconds to take the silver – becoming the youngest woman to make the podium in the World Triathlon Series.

While a large contingent of U.S. women including Gwen Jorgensen, Sarah True, Katie Zaferes, Summer Cook, Kirsten Kasper, Taylor Spivey and Renee Tomlin have been making an impact on international podiums, Knibb is the youngest to join their ranks. While her performance at Edmonton was a bit of a shock, Knibb has been coming on hard in the junior ranks.

In 2015, Knibb won the U.S. Junior Nationals and placed 2nd in at the ITU Junior Women World Championship. In 2016 she repeated at the U.S. Junior Nationals, placed 3rd at the Montreal World Cup and won the ITU Junior Worlds in Cozumel.

One week after Edmonton, Knibb followed her breakthrough at Edmonton with a 7th place at WTS Montreal. This month she will be racing her third Junior Worlds .in Rotterdam. Knibb gives credit for her bike talent to high intensity rides with her mother Leslie, a 2014 ITU age group World Champion in the 50-54 division. After Rotterdam, Knibb will return for her sophomore year at Cornell where she will be compete for the cross country and track teams. Taylor is a third generation family member to attend Cornell, following her mother, maternal grandparents and several uncles.

Knibb recently signed on to work with coach Neal Henderson, who works with World Champion Flora Duffy and other top cyclists and triathletes. While Knibb showed first rate cycling prowess at Edmonton, Henderson sees his new charge as “a balanced triathlete.” While she is young and has plenty of room to develop, says Henderson, Knibb “is a triathlete like Flora is a triathlete. She has no singular weakness and does not rely on one strength.”

Slowtwitch: Tell us a bit about your family.

Taylor Knibb: My parents Robert and Leslie Knibb have always been very supportive of anything my brother Jack and I do. They know that I have fairly high standards for myself already, so they don’t really add any extra pressure. My mom really stresses humility. There’s always going to be someone smarter, faster, prettier, etc. than you, and anything in life can change dramatically in an instant.

ST: What influence did your mother and father have on your love of sport?

Taylor:My parents have always been fairly active. My dad would bring my brother and I to cheer on my mom in races, so I was exposed to running and triathlons from an early age. I wanted to be like my mom in every way I could, so I eventually wanted to do races, too.

ST: Which sports did you love most when you were very young?

Taylor: When I was very young, my favorite sport was the one that gave me the best new outfit. I started swimming because I wanted my summer pool swim team’s team suit, which you could only get by being on the swim team. I was a very average athlete in all of the sports I did. I continued with many of the sports because I enjoyed spending time with my friends. I wasn’t very competitive. I started viewing myself as more of an athlete over the course of middle school. I still dabbled in a lot of different sports, which helped me find what I really enjoyed.

ST: What is it like training with your mother?

Taylor: We ride together whenever it works for both of our schedules/training plans. I love training with my mom. She always makes the sessions more enjoyable. She’s not afraid to remind me of the little things - to like relax my elbows and shoulders on the bike. In the moment, it’s not always what I want to hear. But big picture, it’s what I want to hear.

ST: How much help has she been?

Taylor: Heading out for a ride with her is especially fun when we’re exploring a new place or don’t have a structured workout. I still remember playing a cat-and-mouse game on our bikes a few summers ago. She’d give me a bit of a head start, and I had to hold her off as long as possible. Maybe I could hold her off a bit longer now, but I’m never sure with her. She’s a very fierce competitor!

ST: What sports did you play at the Sidwell Friends School in the Washington D.C.?

Taylor: In middle school, I played field hockey in the fall, swam in the winter, and then did lacrosse in the spring one year and track another year. In high school, I swam every winter, did cross-country my last three years, and ran a few track races my junior and senior springs.

ST: What were your best performances?

Taylor: Swimming is very competitive in the D.C. area, so my performances were never very impressive. My best was finishing third at Metros (Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Championships) in the 200 free my senior year. (Since D.C. is not a state, we don’t have a state championship meet. Metros is the championship meet for the DC-Metro private and public schools). I won all three of our end-of-season cross country championship meets my senior year. I was named DC Gatorade Player of the Year both my junior and senior years, but I never performed very well at any post-season races.

ST: What are your interests outside of sports? Any heroes?

Taylor: I really enjoy reading, spending time with my family and friends, spending time outside, and cooking/eating. I have a lot of heroes in different realms of my life, but my mom’s my biggest.

ST: What led you to triathlon in the first place?

Taylor: My mom raced a fair amount when I was younger, and my dad would always take us to cheer her on. Once I began to understand what I was watching, I wanted to join in. So, my mom found a kids race for my brother and me to do, and I just kept wanting to do more from there.

ST: Many strong U.S. triathletes came to elite triathlon from top NCAA single sports like swimming and running. From your results, I think you have always been a better triathlete than standalone runner. Is that true?

Taylor: Probably. I feel like I’m experiencing it the opposite way from many of the other U.S. triathletes: Triathlon led me to college running, while college running led them to triathlon. As a standalone runner, I am very inexperienced. I’m still learning the differences between cross-country and track racing tactics. But I’m really enjoying getting to train with an amazing team and race pure runners!

ST: From your performance at Edmonton and your other best races, your cycling strength stands out. How did you get that way?

Taylor: My dad credits my ice hockey, but my mom links it to the fact that my swim program really focuses on developing your kick. I’m not entirely sure. I love working hard on the bike—but I love working hard swimming and running, too. Working with power has really helped. My coach, Jennifer Hutchison, worked with me a lot on handling and tactics, but our focus really had to be my run, so I still have a lot more to learn.

ST: Your new coach [since June] Neal Henderson noted that you were already at a first pack level in World Cup and WTS swimming. How have USA Triathlon coaches helped you develop your swimming?

Taylor: I started off with a small club team in the DC area before moving to Nation’s Capital Swim Club at the beginning of high school. I worked with Tim Kelly and Ian Rowe, who I will never be able to thank enough for their support of me doing triathlon in addition to the swimming. They even incorporated some open water swim work into some of the practices, as Ian has a fair amount of experience with open water swimming. I still have a lot more to learn to become a consistent front pack swimmer. This past year at college is the first year that my training hasn’t revolved around my swim schedule for the past eight years or so.

ST: With your second place finish at Edmonton, you became the youngest woman to make the podium at WTS races. What did this mean to you?

Taylor: It was definitely a surprise! After freshman year with so many changes, I wasn’t sure how my triathlon season would go. The goal was just to continue to gain experience and keep my toes in the sport. I’m very grateful to have been presented with the opportunity to race at that level. This performance makes me thankful for all of the incredible people in my life who made it possible—from my parents, to my teammates and friends, to my coaches and teachers. Most notably, it makes me incredibly grateful for the opportunity I have running at Cornell under Artie Smith. I couldn’t ask for a better or more supportive team or coach. Not many NCAA Division I run coaches or teams would allow me to continue to race through college and also truly help prepare me to race the triathlon season.

ST: How important was the difficult hill on the Edmonton bike course to your breakaway with Flora Duffy?

Taylor: The difficult hill on the Edmonton bike course was the location of the breakaway, so it definitely helped.

ST: Your 9:20 swim at Edmonton was second best among eventual top 20 performers and two seconds better than Duffy. Your T1 split was 4 seconds slower than Duffy and you two broke away almost immediately. Did the memory of riding with Flora in a breakaway at Montreal last year play a part?

Taylor: There were two riders in between Flora and me when she made the break, so there wasn’t much time to think—definitely not enough to process something like that. It was a reaction more than anything, which is just part of draft-legal racing.

ST: Seems that you were comfortable riding with Flora through the first 5 of 6 laps on the bike. Did Flora just find another gear? Or did you hold back in order to save energy to stave off the hot runners behind you?

Taylor: Flora broke away from me very quickly and I didn’t react fast enough. Once the gap had formed, I focused on saving energy to stave off the incredibly fast runners behind me.

ST: Did you have any doubts or difficulties on the run?

Taylor: My run is always a question mark, and anything can happen in a race, so I definitely had many thoughts on the run.

ST: Right now, your run times at 2016 Montreal (18:00) and 2017 Edmonton a year later (18:09) gave away a minute to race-best runners Katie Zaferes (17:14 at Edmonton) and Ashleigh Gentle (16:53 at Montreal). Your collegiate bests - 16:54 outdoors for the 5k and 35:52 for the 10k – show you have more potential in a triathlon 5k. At 19, how much room to improve do you have?

Taylor: I hope that I can continue to improve, stay healthy, and enjoy the sport.

ST: Neal Henderson says you are one of the few real triathletes – someone who has trained for and races a well-balanced race rather than going all out on one or two disciplines and hangs on for dear life for the rest. Is that how you see it?

Taylor: My run was a major limiter my first few years as a junior, so that’s always ingrained in my mind. There are so many things I still need to improve on in each discipline though, so I’ve never thought of it that way.

ST: You have a lot on your plate to balance your NCAA sports, triathlon and your academics? What subjects do you like – and what might be your concentration?

Taylor: We don’t have to declare a major until the end of sophomore year at Cornell, so I’m still not entirely sure. I took a lot of different classes last year, but especially enjoyed the psychology courses. I’m fascinated with how people—and more specifically, I—think.

ST: Your second place finish at Edmonton pays $12,000. As I understand it, NCAA rules stipulate that you may compete as a professional as long as it is in an event in which you compete in college. So did you get to cash the check?

Taylor: As an NCAA and Ivy League athlete, there are a lot of stipulations on what I can accept. I'm allowed to accept prize money in 2017 up to my "actual and necessary expenses" for 2017. Between travel and equipment costs this year (for example, I got a new bike), my costs for triathlon have exceeded the prize money I've earned, so I was able to accept it. Beyond that, I do not have any sponsors - besides my parents!

ST: Why did you sign on with Neal Henderson as your coach? Was it about a month ago?

Taylor: There were many factors that influenced the decision, but I’m just grateful that he would take me on.

ST: Neal tells me you have not trained with Flora Duffy yet, but you did have a week in Boulder and trained with the likes of other top cyclists such as Alicia Kaye. What was that like?

Taylor:It was incredible to train with other top cyclists—and all around fantastic triathletes. I learned a lot from observation, but they were also really nice if I asked questions.

ST: What might Neal Henderson teach you about bike handling and tactics?

Taylor: I feel like he’s already taught me a lot in the short time I’ve been working with him, but I still feel like I have a long way to go. I’m not sure what I don’t know yet, but I think the big part of bike handling and tactics that I’ve been lacking is constant practice. I’ve spent a lot of my time on my bike inside on the trainer, which is great for many things, just not handling.

ST: Neal says you are very detail oriented, ambitious – and really have fun while working hard. How do you see it?

Taylor: I’m so grateful to have found something that I love for so many reasons. As cliché as it may sound, I just really enjoy the process. I love challenging and surprising myself.