The Key to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Triathlon Success At The Tokyo Games

by Peggy Shinn

Katie Zaferes, Kevin McDowell, Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson pose with their medals on the podium during the medal ceremony following the Mixed Relay Triathlon at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo. 


That was USA Triathlon’s medal haul at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo. It was the best Olympic and Paralympic Games ever for American triathletes, with the U.S. leading all countries in triathlon medals.
Kevin McDowell kicked off the string of successes by finishing sixth in the men’s triathlon — the best ever for a U.S. man in Olympic competition. 
In the women’s race, two-time Olympian Katie Zaferes won a bronze medal.
Four days later, McDowell and Zaferes teamed with first-time Olympians Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson and won a silver medal in the Olympic debut of the mixed relay.
Then came the 2020 Paralympic Games. Allysa Seely and Hailey Danz repeated their gold-silver finishes, respectively, from the 2016 Rio Games in the PTS2 paratriathlon category. Grace Norman won a silver medal in the PTS5 category to go with her gold from the Rio Games. Kendall Gretsch became the first Paralympic gold medalist in the wheelchair class. And Brad Snyder was the Paralympic champion in the PTVI category.
Recently, seven of these medal-winning triathletes joined a Zoom call to celebrate this success. They talked about the letters that USA Triathlon asked the Olympians’ and Paralympians’ friends and family to send to the athletes to read while they were in Tokyo. And they listed their favorite foods from dining hall in the Olympic and Paralympic Village (squid balls!).
But mostly, they reminisced about the great team atmosphere in Tokyo among both the Olympians and Paralympians — and with each other between the Games.
It’s this sense of team that was one of the keys to their success in Tokyo.
The Paralympians credited the support they have received from USA Triathlon, notably the paratriathlon resident program which started in April 2018. The athletes moved to Colorado Springs and train together at the Olympic Training Center. Prior to this program, most of the paratriathletes trained on their own. 
“I think it was a really successful program,” said Danz. “And I don’t know if our medal haul would have been possible without it.”
Before the 2020 season, McDowell moved to Colorado Springs for a coaching change. As a side benefit, he often trained with the Paralympians.
“They kind of took me in as part of their team,” he said.
This change was pivotal. He admired how the paratriathletes trained hard but also had fun, often laughing through workouts, then they hung out as friends during their down time.
“Seeing how lively there were as a group was very inspiring,” McDowell said. “You could see the energy growing as the Games got closer. It was pretty exciting because I felt like I was part of it.”
In turn, McDowell “brought a lot of joy to the group,” said Danz.
“It’s so important to be able to find joy in the process,” she added. “The days that I knew he was going to be at the pool, it made me just a little bit more excited to go swim.”

Allysa Seely and Hailey Danz celebrate after the Women's Triathlon PTS2 category during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 28, 2021 in Tokyo. 


Danz remembers the day McDowell was named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team. 
“Kevin’s name was on there, and man, that was probably one of the happiest moments of the entire quad for me,” she said. “We had developed that friendship and that bond just from being in the trenches together day after day.”
McDowell was equally excited for the paratriathletes when they were named to the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team.
Once in Tokyo, McDowell found a similar team atmosphere with fellow U.S. triathletes. The group ate meals together, trained together, and hung out together.
“We chose to be together and hang out, and I feel like that vibe really carried us through the entire Games,” he said.
“We really fed off of each other in a really positive way,” said Zaferes, who added that USA Triathlon’s support gave the whole team confidence.
Although the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have been difficult, the fact that friends and family could not travel to Tokyo might actually have benefited the team. Rather than relying on their friends and family for support in the leadup to their competitions, the triathletes and paratriathletes looked to each other. 
Unlike in Rio, Zaferes wanted to soak in the whole Olympic experience and enjoy the atmosphere. She shared an apartment with Knibb and Summer Rappaport (rather than a hotel room with husband Tommy like she had done in Rio) and really “took in” being with her teammates, feeding off their vibe.
By the time Zaferes, Knibb, McDowell, and Pearson competed in the mixed relay, which debuted at the Tokyo Games, they were a cohesive unit.
Back home, the paratriathletes fed off their U.S. teammates’ Olympic successes. And McDowell shared tips after he returned home — like bring an extra pillow for the cardboard beds (a tip Seely wishes she had taken more seriously!).
“Excellence breeds excellence,” said Seely. “Seeing our teammates compete at such a high level with Kevin becoming the top finishing male for the U.S., and seeing Katie finish with a medal, and seeing the mixed team on the podium, I wanted to go into the Games and continue that story.”
Competing in Tokyo, Gretsch remembers hearing her teammates and USA Triathlon staff cheering along the course.
“That was so motivating for me and brought me so much joy during the race, hearing my teammates going absolutely crazy every single time going through transition,” she said, noting that she came through the transition eight times. 
Now, as the next quad begins before the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games, the athletes hope to continue fostering the team atmosphere with a more combined program.
“Just having Kevin be part of the group has been really awesome, and I’m hoping that that can continue, and hopefully we bring even more into the fold,” said Danz. “I love the inclusion. It’s awesome to have both together.”

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to since its inception in 2008.