Grit is an incredible gift. Sometimes, when faced with adversity, we produce our very best.
That's exactly what American triathlete Morgan Pearson demonstrated Saturday, coming from behind in a gutsy run phase to take bronze in 1:43:12 at the 2021 World Triathlon Championship Series in Yokohama, Japan, and qualify for his first Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo.
Entering Saturday's race the Spring Lake, New Jersey, native was No. 17 on the latest ITU World Ranking list. To auto-qualify for the Games the 27-year-old needed a top-eight finish which, on paper, initially seemed unlikely; and mid-race, a poor bike performance further cast doubt – he was the 14th-slowest rider among the field's remaining 51 competitors.
But the former five-time All-American track and field runner at Colorado got to work after dismounting and proceeded to absolutely tear up the the 10-kilometer run portion in 29:30, the second-fastest time behind only race winner Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway (29:26), who clocked an overall 1:42:55.
Belgian Jelle Geens, who had a phenomenal, field-best bike (53:21), rounded out the podium with silver in 1:43:05.
Pearson's bronze is the best American finish for an elite male triathlete at a World Triathlon Championship Series event since Matthew McElroy's silver at WTCS Leeds in June 2019. It is also Pearson's highest result at a WTCS event, topping his 11th in Lausanne in August 2019, and any major race since a bronze at the Santo Domingo World Cup in November 2019, where the U.S. swept the podium.
At WTCS Yokohama in 2019, he was the top American in 15th place.
Fellow American Kevin McDowell also had a solid race Saturday, finishing 11th. McElroy was 24th.
Full results here.
What made Pearson's bronze medal and qualification truly remarkable was what solemnly preceded it.
Ten weeks ago, Pearson's older brother passed away.
"Last Monday, March 1, my older brother Andrew passed away peacefully in his sleep," Pearson wrote in a March 9 Instagram post. "Andrew had a bigger than life personality and impacted so many lives in a beautiful and positive way."
Upon returning to Colorado to resume training, Pearson reflected on Andrew's influence on his triathlon career.
"I couldn’t stop thinking of all the ways that my older brother influenced where and who I am today," he said. "Andrew was the reason I stuck with swimming for so many years, and the reason I started running cross country at Delbarton. Some of my favorite memories are of us racing together and I’ve probably never had more fun than goofing off at junior guards with him.
"Andrew - You were always one of the best guys on the cross country team, swim team, or lifeguards squad yet you always were having the most fun. I always looked up to that. From the outside most people probably think I’m super serious but if they know me well they’ve seen that goofy side and that’s the always been you shinning through. Love you man, and miss you so much already."
After punching his ticket to Tokyo on Saturday, he called the race the biggest performance of his life and said Andrew was with him for it all.
"This is highest level of draft legal triathlon and was the biggest performance of my life. What made the day even more special was thinking about my family in USA watching me race and qualify for the team," Pearson said. "In the last lap of the run I was just thinking about the sliver of happiness I could hopefully bring to my family by qualifying. It has been hard on all of us.
"I’ve been thinking about Andrew a ton this past week in Japan. It’s actually been one of the hardest weeks for me emotionally for some reason. But I know that Andrew was out there with me today - I felt him."
For some time now Pearson has been using the hashtags #findaway and #whateverittakes in most of his social media posts. He found a way Saturday, doing whatever it took to climb back and finish strong. And he's now set to become an Olympian this summer in Tokyo.
"[Andrew] gave me the boost I needed today, and I was just thinking about him," Pearson told Team USA after the race. "Hopefully when I’m at the Olympics, he’ll be there with me."
Pearson is the first man to lock up a Team USA triathlon spot for the Tokyo Games.
The U.S. can send up to three men to Tokyo provided the three are in the top-30 of the individual Olympic qualification rankings by the end of the triathlon Olympic qualification window on June 14.
Yokohama was the final chance to auto-qualify. The remaining two men's spots will be named via discretion by USA Triathlon’s selection committee.