Team USA Olympic Spots on the Line at Yokohama

The first World Triathlon Championship Series (WTCS) race of the season is set for Saturday morning in Yokohama, Japan. WTCS Abu Dhabi was supposed to be the first race of the season but was canceled in March. That cancellation had consequences for athletes hoping to impress their federations. There is added pressure on athletes who have yet to secure their Olympic qualification this weekend. The United States Olympic team will be comprised of two men and three women. Morgan Pearson and Taylor Knibb already qualified at the 2023 Paris test event, last August. That leaves two spots available for the women and one for the men. One spot will be given to both the women and the men for the first athlete who finishes in the top-3 who is not already qualified. USA Triathlon will make discretionary selections to fill the spots that are not accounted for after May 27th. Let’s take a look at who will be vying for those Olympic spots and who else is on the start line.

The big story at WTCS Yokohama will be the battle between the American women. Five American women are on the start list, including Taylor Knibb. Knibb qualified for the Olympics by being the first American inside of the top-8 (she finished 5th) at the Paris Test Event. That race came in between a busy August racing season, where Knibb won the PTO US Open and the 70.3 World Championships. Knibb began her 2024 season with a dominant win at 70.3 Oceanside in April. With her Olympic qualification secure, that leaves four American women vying for a top-3 placing.

Taylor Spivey is the highest ranked (4th) American in the world. Spivey’s 2023 started off strong. She finished 3rd, 4th, and 3rd at the first three WTCS races of the year. She cooled off a bit towards the end of the year but still finished a respectable 10th (2nd American) at the Paris Test Event and then 16th at the World Triathlon Championship Finals in Pontevedra. Spivey was at the front of the race at the Paris Test Event up until the run. She battled injuries through much of the year but was still able to maintain her top-5 world ranking. If she does not finish in the top-3, it will be difficult for USAT to ignore what she has done over the last several seasons.

Summer Rappaport was a Division 1 swimmer and runner at Villanova. She is now trying to make her 2nd Olympic team, after finishing 14th at Tokyo in 2021. Rappaport earned five top-10 finishes to begin her 2023 season, before finishing 16th at the Paris Test Event. Her season ended with a number of injuries, including a broken jaw, a broken elbow, and a sacral stress reaction. She finished 31st at the Hong Kong World Triathlon Cup in March. It is good to see her back racing and her fitness should be in a better place heading into this race.

Kirsten Kasper is ranked 19th in the world and her best WTCS result last year was 8th. She kicked off her year with a bronze at the Hong Kong World Triathlon Cup. She is viewed as more of a long shot compared to the other American women.

This just leaves 2016 Olympic Champion Gwen Jorgensen to discuss. Jorgensen left triathlon after the 2016 Olympics to pursue a running career. She spent a number of years with the Bowerman Track Club but ultimately could not achieve the same success she had found in triathlon. She won 4 World Triathlon Cups towards the end of last season to help elevate her to 24th in the world. She did, however, have disappointing results at her WTCS race starts last season. She was lapped out in Cagliari, 30th in Hamburg, 24th in Sunderland, and 43rd in Pontevedra. If she can hang on the swim and bike, she is still a world class runner. Jorgensen won an Americas Cup in Cuba in February and then finished 3rd at the Leiven Indoor Cup. Laura Lindemann and Georgia Taylor-Brown were the only women to beat her in that race. It looks like her fellow Americans should be worried about her form heading into this race.

Knibb, Rappaport, Kasper, and Spivey all have the ability to swim in or near the front pack. Expect them to push the pace with athletes like Vittoria Lopes, Bianca Seregni, Kate Waugh, and Emma Lombardi. The Americans who make the front pack will look to push the bike to make sure that they have a gap on Gwen Jorgensen heading into T2. If Jorgensen is within striking distance then the Team USA spot could very well be hers. With 4 of the top-11 ranked women in the world, including World #1 Beth Potter and World #2 Cassandra Beaugrand, missing from this race, there is a good chance an American woman can finish in the top-3. Lombardi and Waugh are podium threats, as are the trio of Germans Lisa Tertsch, Nina Eim, and Laura Lindemann. Luxembourg’s Jeanne Lehair should also factor into this race. Reigning Olympic Champion, Flora Duffy, is also on this start list, after battling injuries for the better part of the last two years. It will be interesting to see what kind of form she is in.

Men’s Race:
It would come as a surprise if an American man finishes in the top-3 in this race. Morgan Pearson finished 6th at the Paris Test Event to punch his ticket for the Games. He ran a 29:18 10k in that race. Matt McElroy, Seth Rider, Darr Smith, and Kevin McDowell are all aiming for that final Olympic spot. McDowell represented the US in Tokyo and finished in 6th place on the world’s biggest stage. After a pair of top-10 results at WTCS races in 2022, McDowell’s 2023 was injury plagued. He only started 2 races and was a DNF at both of them. He started his 2024 season with a 16th place at the Hong Kong World Triathlon Cup. It will be difficult for McDowell to replicate his 2021 success and finish in the top-3 on Saturday.

McElroy was a collegiate runner at Northern Arizona, where he ran 28:36 for 10k. He’s currently ranked 37th in the world and probably has the best shot at finishing close to the podium. He finished 9th at the Hong Kong World Triathlon Cup, ahead of McDowell and Rider but two spots behind Smith. In 2023, McElroy was 8th at WTCS Abu Dhabi, 14th at the Paris Test Event, and 16th at the Pontevedra World Triathlon Championships Final. Rider has done well in Americas and World Cup races but has not found similar success at WTCS races. Smith was only 45th at the Paris Test Event but his Hong Kong result is encouraging.

Why the US Men won’t podium:
While the men’s race is missing 4 of the top-11 athletes in the world, there is still plenty of firepower on this start list. The men’s race features 6 of the 9 top finishers at the Paris Test Event and that does not even include Australia’s Matthew Hauser. Dorian Coninx, Leo Bergere, Vasco Vilaca, and Kristian Blummenfelt are all lining up. To make the podium at this race you need a lot of off days for the top entrants. Coninx was 3rd at the Paris Test Events and 1st at the Pontevedra Final last year. Bergere just dominated 70.3 Valencia. Vilaca was 2nd at the Paris Test Event. Blummenfelt had good but not great results per his own standards last season. He tried to balance short course and long course racing but is now dialed in on the Olympics. You can expect your podium to come from the athletes mentioned here.

Quick Take #1: USAT gave Gwen Jorgensen’s earned WTCS Cagliari (May 25th) start to Tokyo Olympian Katie Zaferes. Zaferes is only ranked one spot behind Jorgensen in the world rankings list so USAT probably sees it as a decision to allow both women to go for an Olympic spot. I would not imagine that Gwen’s camp views it in the same way. Both women constructed their own racing schedules last year and Gwen put herself into the top-5 for American women. I would not rely on USAT for a discretionary slot after this race. Yokohama is most likely her one shot to make a return to the Olympics. The good news? Jorgensen has 4 career wins in Yokohama.

Quick Take #2: Will Kristian Blummenfelt get back to his 2021 gold medal form? His best WTCS finish last year was 5th place. He will be pushed in this race by a quality field up front. We know that he can bike. What we need to see is his ability to swim closer to the front pack.

Quick Take #3: How does Taylor Knibb play things? Does she just go out and try to place as high as she can? How will that affect the other Americans in this race? Rappaport, Spivey, and Kasper will want to push both the swim and the bike. Knibb is a potential ally for them. You could have four Americans pushing the pace at the front of this race.

Quick Take #4: Welcome back Flora Duffy. The Bermudan gold medalist has a chance to show some fitness and remind people how good she was in 2021.

Quick Take #5: Hayden Wilde is not racing in Yokohama but he just ran a 13:23 5k on the track in Spain on April 30th. For reference, Alex Yee’s 5000m PB is 13:29.