After last weekend’s final events that counted for the Olympic Qualification points, United States selectors named Katie Zaferes and Kevin McDowell to the final two slots for the Tokyo Olympics commencing in six weeks.
With Summer Rappaport earning the first U.S. women’s automatic Olympic slot with a 5th place finish at the 2019 Tokyo test event and Taylor Knibb earning the second automatic slot this spring with a win at the WTS Yokohama, the third and final slot was up to the USA Triathlon selectors.
When the tension-filled spring races began after a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, history indicated that long time U.S. ace Katie Zaferes was the favorite due to her 2019 WTS World Championship and several years of a second, third, and fourth place Worlds finishes. On top of that, she held the top ranking on the ITU Olympic Qualification points chase. Just behind Zaferes was fellow U.S. competitor Taylor Spivey, who was number 2 on the final Olympic qualification rankings. While the USA Triathlon selectors’ pick could include recent results, the board could also include many factors with the aim of a best chance of Olympic medals.
Unexpectedly, Zaferes was off her top form in 2021 races while Spivey was better. At the 2021 Yokohama WTS event, Zaferes placed 22nd, Spivey took 4th. At WTS Leeds, Zaferes placed 18th while Spivey took 6th. Was Zaferes simply off form due to a temporary illness or injury? And can Zaferes recover form in the final 6 weeks before Tokyo? And, if the selectors voting was close, did Spivey’s 6th place at Leeds count against her? Spivey noted on Facebook that she was competing with menstrual cramps.
In the U.S. men’s selection process, Morgan Pearson earned an automatic slot with a 3rd place finish at WTS Yokohama and proved he was no flash in the pan with a second place at WTS Leeds. Up until the results from Yokohama, Leeds and last weekend’s World Cups in Huatulco Mexico and the Oceania Championships in Port Douglas, Australia, the United States and Australia were the only nations who had a chance of qualifying three men for the Olympic Triathlon. In the Olympic selection process, a nation that wished to qualify three men had to have all three in the top 30 of the Olympic Qualification standings. Unfortunately, there U.S. hopes for three men were dashed when Eli Hemming was injured just before the final weekend and he dropped to 31st in the Olympic Qualification rankings. The Australians made the cut for three slots as Jacob Birtwhistle ranked 5th, Luke Wilian won in Port Douglas and ranked 28th and Aaron Royle rankled 30th.
The final U.S. slot came down to points duel between Matt McElroy, who ranked 18th in Olympic Qualification points, and Kevin McDowell, who ranked 29th. While other factors may have played a big part in the decision, recent results tipped toward McDowell. At Yokohama McDowell placed 11th while McElroy took 24th. At Leeds, McElroy placed 30th.
The five members of the Tokyo-bound team have a combined 32 World Triathlon Championship Series medals, 30 World Triathlon Cup medals and 12 World Triathlon Mixed Relay Series medals between them.
“Our athletes, like Olympic hopefuls across the world, had to put their dreams on hold when COVID-19 caused the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021, said Rocky Harris, USA Triathlon CEO. “The perseverance they have shown during a time of so much uncertainty and change has been amazing to witness. We have multiple athletes capable of podium performances in the individual events in Tokyo. We will also see the Triathlon Mixed Relay — an action-packed race that brings a team atmosphere to what is typically an individual sport — make its long-awaited Olympic debut.”
Summer Rappaport (29),competed in NCAA Division I swimming and cross-country at Villanova University. As a collegiate swimmer, Rappaport placed in the top eight of the Big East Championship in each of her four years. Throughout her cross-country career, she earned 2011-12 Academic honors, 2012 All-Mid-Atlantic Region, 2012 All-Big East, and placed fourth at the 2013 Big East Championships in the 5,000. After college, she was recruited to triathlon through the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program and began competing as an elite in March 2014. She is a five-time World Triathlon Championship Series medalist and 13-time World Triathlon Cup medalist. Rappaport trains with The Triathlon Squad, an elite international training group coached by Paulo Sousa.
Taylor Knibb, 23, is the youngest woman ever to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team. She has been the U.S. National Team’s youngest member since she first made the team in 2017. A triathlete since childhood, she grew up competing in USA Triathlon’s youth and junior elite circuit while running for her school’s cross-country and track teams (Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.) and swimming with Nation’s Capital Swim Club. She went on to win the 2016 and 2017 Junior World Championships and the 2018 Under-23 World Championships — one of just three women ever to capture world titles at both the Junior and U23 levels. Knibb’s Elite breakthrough was a silver medal at the 2017 WTS Edmonton behind Flora Duffy. a Knibb is a 2020 graduate of Cornell, where she ran NCAA track and cross-country for four years while balancing her elite triathlon career. She also joined the Cornell swim team her senior year. Today, Knibb trains in Boulder, Colorado, with Origin Performance Squad, an elite international training group coached by Ian O’Brien.
Katie Zaferes, 32, a 2016 U.S. Olympian, competed in track & field and cross-country for Syracuse University, specializing in the steeplechase and breaking multiple school records. She was later identified by USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program founder Barb Lindquist, who recognized her steeplechase background as a strong foundation for success in triathlon. Zaferes began competing at the elite level in 2013 and made her Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games, where she finished 18th. Zaferes has risen steadily through the international rankings throughout her career, placing fifth overall in the World Triathlon Championship Series in 2015, fourth in 2016, third in 2017, and second in 2018, before capturing her first career World Triathlon Championship title in 2019. She is the No. 1-ranked athlete in the World Triathlon Olympic Qualification Rankings heading into Tokyo. Zaferes lives in Cary, North Carolina, and is coached by Joel Filliol.
Morgan Pearson, 27, of Boulder, Colorado grew up in Spring Lake, New Jersey as a competitive swimmer, ocean lifeguard and promising high school runner. He went on to run cross-country and track & field at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was a seven-time All-American. He got his start in elite triathlon through USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program, which identifies top NCAA swimmers and runners who have the potential to excel as triathletes. After winning the overall title at the USA Triathlon Age Group Sprint National Championships in 2017, he debuted as an elite triathlete in 2018. He is experiencing a breakout 2021 season, winning bronze in Yokohama on May 15 and silver in Leeds, England, on June 6, to become the first U.S. male ever to earn multiple World Triathlon Championship Series medals. Pearson trains in Boulder and is coached by Dean Golich.
Kevin McDowell, 28, of Geneva, Illinois, grew up participating in USA Triathlon’s youth and junior elite triathlon circuit as part of the Chicago-based Multisport Madness Triathlon Team. He was USA Triathlon’s Junior Athlete of the Year in 2009 and 2010 and represented Team USA at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, where he earned silver in the individual event and bronze in the Mixed Relay. He went on to win a bronze medal at the 2011 Junior World Championships. Later that year, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and took six months off to complete chemotherapy. A year later, he returned to elite competition, making his senior-level World Cup debut. He would go on to win gold at the 2014 FISU World University Triathlon Championships, and silver at the Pan American Games Toronto 2015. McDowell is now a seven-time World Triathlon Cup medalist and recently celebrated 10 years cancer-free. He currently lives and trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is coached by Nate Wilson.