As her Cornell classmates head back to campus for the start of a new semester, Washington native Taylor Knibb will be sweating under a blanket of heat and humidity in Tokyo, squeezing in her final triathlon of the summer, with a spot in the 2020 Olympics on the line.
This week’s International Triathlon Union event is being held on the man-made island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, on the course that will be used in the upcoming Summer Games. The competition is doubling as an Olympic test event — a trial run for would-be Olympians, the venue and the host nation.
The fact that American women could lock up two of the three spots on the U.S. Olympic team based on their result is something Knibb tried to push from her mind as she trained over the summer in Boulder, Colo. Instead, she has focused on the process.
“I’m definitely aware of the possibility, but I’m not fixating on it,” Knibb said in a telephone interview. “There are so many strong American women.”
As much as any single physical strength (and it takes many to excel in triathlon, including speed, strength and endurance), it’s Knibb’s mental approach and embrace of juggling multiple challenges that are at the heart of her success, at 21, in a sport dominated by more seasoned competitors.
World-class triathletes typically transition to the sport after focusing solely on one of its disciplines: swimming, biking or running. In this regard, Knibb is a bit of an outlier in plunging into triathlons as a youngster; she was inspired by her mother, who competed regionally.
She entered a 30-minute kids’ triathlon at age 10 and recalls being amazed by how hard — and how fun — it was.
“I also made a ton of mistakes,” Knibb recalled. “It’s very hard to have the perfect race because there are so many things that can go wrong. It’s about mitigating all that. And I’m always hungry to improve.”
At the end of her freshman year at Sidwell Friends in Northwest Washington, she had to choose between hockey and swimming.
“It took me a week to go through that decision,” said Knibb, who also earned high school honors in cross-country and was a National Merit Scholar. “I was all-in for ice hockey. Then, at swim practice, I didn’t want to give swimming up.”
Outside school, she climbed triathlon’s junior ranks, winning USA Triathlon’s national junior championship in 2015 and 2016 as well as a silver medal at the 2015 junior world championships. That stoked her fire to improve.
Now, ranked 19th in the world, she is still grappling with the emotions of lining up alongside women who were her idols. But again, it’s the process she focuses on.
Aware of her interest in attending Cornell, the university’s cross-country and track coach, Artie Smith, spoke with her about joining the team — no small commitment for an athlete determined to continue her triathlon training and excel in the classroom.
“I thought it would be really cool to see how a world-class triathlete might adapt in a college setting,” Smith explained. “It also was an opportunity for us. However it was going to play out, clearly she was the kind of person I wanted to have around: an Olympic hopeful who has achieved at the highest level. I thought it would be great for all the women on our team to be around someone so successful.”
Knibb thrived in the team environment and was ultimately elected captain. She also earned academic honors for a 4.0 GPA and teamed with graduate students last year in running experiments in a research lab.
“She’s such a high-functioning person in our extroverted world, yet she is remarkably at peace for her age at being solitary,” Smith said. “She’s a natural leader but can go off on her own to train for hours at a time and be totally fine.”
Smith is one of two coaches who work with Knibb. He supervises her NCAA track/cross-country career; Boulder-based Neal Henderson supervises her elite triathlon training. And the two have worked out a system, Smith said, in which they coordinate and complement rather than compete for Knibb’s attention.
Knibb is coming off a busy six months. She opened the ITU World Triathlon Series in March in Abu Dhabi with a fourth-place finish, narrowly missing joining gold medalist Katie Zaferes, a native of Hampstead, Md., and silver medalist Taylor Spivey for what would have been a U.S. podium sweep.
The Americans boast a deep field of world-class female triathletes who hope to replicate the success of Gwen Jorgensen, who won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now 33, Jorgensen has retired from the sport and is focusing on distance running, creating an opening for Zaferes, 30, ranked No. 1 in the world; Spivey, 28, ranked No. 4; Summer Rappaport, 28, ranked No. 6; and Knibb, 21, ranked 19th.
The Tokyo course is generally flat, which won’t play to Knibb’s strength on the bike. She often separates herself on hilly courses. But the classic heat and mugginess of Tokyo in August ought to make her feel at home, having grown up in the Washington area.
In light of Tokyo’s often blistering summer heat, Olympic organizers announced they will move up the start time of the triathlon to 8 a.m. from the traditional 10 a.m. In addition to the men’s and women events, Tokyo 2020 will debut the sport of mixed relay triathlon, and Knibb got a taste of that at an ITU event in Edmonton on July 21, when she teamed with Rappaport, Seth Rider and Morgan Pearson for a bronze medal.
This week’s race in Tokyo won’t be the only opportunity to clinch a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic triathlon team.
As many as two athletes who finish on the podium in either the men’s or women’s races at the Tokyo test event will quality for the team. If only one American athlete earns a podium finish, the next athlete finishing among the top eight overall will also clinch a spot on the Olympic team.
The next opportunity won’t come until May in Yokohama, Japan. If no one qualifies there based on performance, the third spot will be determined subjectively by the sport’s federation.
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