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This American triathlete went from unexpected Olympian to nearly toppling a sport legend

Ben Kanute pumps up the crowd during the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tenn., on his way to a runner-up finish. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

American Olympic triathlete Ben Kanute was never the star in his sport. Even in junior competition, the talented and ambitious Kanute was in the shadows of teammates in his own country.

So when Kanute finished as the surprise runner-up in last week’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tenn., the 24-year-old Illinois native took a step in shedding his perpetual underdog label and signaled to competitors that he’s arrived as a contender on the world stage.

“It’s probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest accomplishment I’ve had,” Kanute said in a recent phone interview. “How I raced, who I raced: this ended up being one of the best results in my career.”

Few people expected Kanute to reach the podium, let alone finish in a time of 3:51:06 as the only American in the top 10. The field was stacked with Olympians from around the world, including 2012 Olympic silver medalist Javier Gomez Noya of Spain, the eventual champion whom Kanute calls “a legend of the sport.”

But for Kanute’s coach, Jim Vance, a text from Kanute over the summer was all he needed to know that his pupil had a serious chance to win.

“Am I surprised? No, not at all,” said Vance, who started working with Kanute last November. “He sent me a text mid-July and said, ‘Man, I can win this race.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you can.’ ”

Kanute was drawn to triathlons from an early age. By the time he was 9, he was racing in a triathlon for kids hosted in the suburbs of Chicago in his hometown of Geneva, Ill.

He was hooked and luckily for Kanute, he wasn’t the only one in the area with a strong interest in triathlons. Kanute found a home with the Multisport Madness Triathlon Club, an elite youth program, and traveled the world for competitions.

“For whatever reason that was a hot spot of triathletes,” said Kanute, who would go on to compete for the club triathlon team at the University of Arizona. “It was essentially a travel team for triathlons.”

But even as an accomplished junior triathlete with national titles to his name, Kanute flew under the radar because of his high-profile American teammates, Lukas Vzerbicas, a sub-four-minute miler in high school, and Kevin McDowell, a Youth Olympic Games silver medalist.

“He’s always been an underdog because his teammates have always been better,” Vance said. “Nobody really took him seriously. He was motivated to work his [butt] off, sometimes to his detriment. He sometimes showed up flat at races.”

At the pro level, Kanute’s strength in swimming and cycling puts him in races, but his running isn’t as strong as other triathletes. It was because of this weakness that Kanute surprised even himself when he qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he finished 29th overall.

“I don’t think anyone would’ve expected me to run on to the team,” Kanute said. “Qualifying for me was the most satisfying and hardest part. I kind of had no pressure going into the Games in relation to other people.”

Since then, Kanute has won the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in June, solidifying his credentials as a short course athlete and was a member of the silver-medal-winning U.S. team at the Hamburg ITU World Triathlon Mixed Relay World Championships in July.

Vance credits the success to a more aggressive approach to races. At the IronMan 70.3 World Championships, Kanute stormed out in front and held onto the lead throughout the 1.2-mile swimming and 56-mile cycling portions of the race and only faded around the 5K mark of the 13.1 running leg.

“Usually he blew up,” Vance said, “but now he doesn’t do that. He’s so strong, that’s why he’s happy to be aggressive and assertive. … It’s always been known he’s an aggressive guy, but now maybe competitors know he’s tough to bring back.”

Kanute’s next big race will be later this week at the Super League Triathlon in Jersey, United Kingdom — a unique short course triathlon that Kanute calls a “throw back to the early days of the sport.”

Vance adds that Kanute could be one of the triathletes that will be in contention for a mixed relay medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I want to keep doing this sport as long as I can,” Kanute said. “I’m avoiding real life a little bit by doing this. … Second place in World Championships is great. Winning here and there is great. I want to keep improving and eventually stand on that top step.”

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