U.S. Takes Silver In Triathlon Mixed Relay Debut
by Lisa Costantini
Morgan Pearson, Katie Zaferes, Taylor Knibb and Kevin McDowell pose with their silver medals following the mixed relay triathlon at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — Triathlon mixed relay made its debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and started and ended with a bang.
Four members of Team USA Triathlon were selected to race in the new discipline, which closed out the triathlon competition in Tokyo. The silver medal finish capped a week that saw 2016 Olympian Katie Zaferes winning bronze in the individual event — the third ever medal for the U.S. women in triathlon — and Kevin McDowell’s sixth-place finish bested the U.S.’s highest ever finish for a man since Hunter Kemper crossed the line seventh in Beijing.
Hours before the athletes toed the line in Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo Bay, USA Triathlon announced the names of the four triathletes who would make up the mixed relay team. The new event is comprised of two men and two women — a decision made by the IOC to address gender balance — that joins two other new mixed gender events: 4x400m relay in track and field and mixed medley relay in swimming. Each member of the team needed to complete two laps around Tokyo Bay (totaling a 1.5km swim), eight laps around the city (a 40km bike ride) and finishing on foot for a final four laps (10km run).
While the discipline was only announced as an Olympic event in 2017, the U.S. has been racking up medals in the event long before that. Starting in 2013, Team USA has made the podium at five world triathlon mixed relay championships. And all four of the athletes who debuted in the Olympic event on “Super Saturday” ¬— the weekend that falls in the middle of the Games and features a large number of medal events — have medaled in the discipline at least once, going as far back as the 2010 Youth Olympic Games.
Diving off the pontoon first on another hot and humid day in Tokyo was Zaferes, who only days earlier started her individual event in the pouring rain due to the tropical storm that had blown across Japan.
The 2020 ITU triathlon mixed relay world championships silver medalist came out of the water in third place and kept to the back of the lead group until the foot race when she pushed to the front alongside Great Britain. After the end of the first lap, the 32-year-old was in first place — only four days after winning bronze in the individual Triathlon.
McDowell was tagged in second. A year after winning bronze in the mixed relay at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (and silver in the individual), McDowell was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and celebrated 10 years cancer free this year.
After a short jog to the water, he was quickly taken over by Germany once they were in the bay. Despite exiting the water in second, he made his way back up front, heading the lead group, which consisted of Great Britain, Germany and The Netherlands.
Katie Zaferes, Kevin McDowell, Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson celebrate on the podium following the mixed relay triathlon at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo.
After hitting the mat and transitioning to the run, Great Britain took off with McDowell unable to catch him — tapping out second.
Next up was another first-time Olympian — and the youngest female USA triathlete ever to qualify for the Games — Taylor Knibb. The 23-year-old had a hard task of catching Great Britain’s Georgia Taylor-Brown, who took silver in the individual on Tuesday.
Going in and out of the water she trailed behind. But after transitioning to the bike, she was able to make up some time, narrowing the gap to 11 seconds.
With the lead group a set of six, the one to watch was Team France who was coming up behind in fifth and a medal favorite, winning the world titles in 2018-2020.
Knibb finished in second where she started and tagged in the last to go, Morgan Pearson. The 27-year-old first-time Olympian, who had finished in 42nd place in the individual event, was now going up the silver medalist from that same race, Great Britain’s Alex Yee.
Despite Yee and Great Britain sitting at the top of the world rankings in 2021, Pearson was able to shorten Yee’s gap going into the bike from 21 seconds to 17. With France’s Luis Vincent hot on his wheels, the three of them made up the lead group. But not long into the bike, France made a move and took the second place spot.
With one lap to go, Great Britain continued to widen the gap from France and the U.S. was still a ways ahead of the chase group. Great Britain and France battled it out for first as they wiggled around the course, France trying without success to draft behind in the slipstream.
And just like all good races, it came down to a battle on foot. With one lap to go, Pearson made a run for second and crossed the line 14 seconds behind the gold medal time of 1:23:41. Rounding out the top three was France with a time of 1:24:04.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.
Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2011.