All she had to do was reach the podium as the first American, a sky-high challenge in and of itself for a 23-year-old on a stacked U.S. team. But Taylor Knibb instead just won the race.
The Washington, D.C., native stunningly captured gold Saturday in Yokohama, Japan, at the season opener of the 2021 World Triathlon Championship Series.
Knibb, the youngest member of USA Triathlon's national team, had an incredible race with the fourth-fastest swim (19:35), top bike (58:21) and 15th-fastest run (35:09), finishing in 1:54:27. That's the third-best winning time at WTCS Yokohama since its opening in 2009, behind only 2019 winner and teammate Katie Zaferes (1:52:12) and 2018 winner Flora Duffy of Bermuda (1:53:26).
American Summer Rappaport was second (1:54:57) and Dutchwoman Maya Kingma was third (1:55:05). Rappaport had the top run (33:24), while Kingma stuck with Knibb until about halfway through the run.
Prior to Saturday's race, Rappaport was the lone American, woman or man, to have punched their ticket to Tokyo. She qualified 20 months ago at the 2019 Tokyo ITU World Triathlon Olympic Qualification Event, crossing the line in seventh but officially taking fifth after two disqualifications. This allowed only one U.S. woman the possibility of qualifying Saturday; they had to be top-three and the first non-Rappaport American.
Taylor Spivey was fourth behind Kingma, giving the U.S. three of the top four racers. Kirsten Kasper was 14th.
As for the world's No. 1-ranked triathlete and 2019 world champion, it just wasn't her day. Katie Zaferes fell back early in the swim and never recovered, ultimately finishing 22nd. It's only been about a month since her father passed away suddenly. With that in mind, being present alone showed remarkable strength. Upon returning to training a couple weeks later, Zaferes wrote on Instagram, "Now he’s with me in a different way and we’re going be to be doing this together … Because as my dad reminded me before every race all I needed to do was 'race hard, but most of all have fun.' So that is what I’m going to do."
Zaferes will presumably receive the USA Triathlon selection committee's final discretionary selection pick, but nothing is guaranteed. Because neither were a podium-finisher and top American in Yokohama, one of the world's best triathletes – Zaferes or Spivey – will not be going to Tokyo. A tall task for the selection committee, but it's a result and indication of how good the women's team has really become.
Full results here.
Weather didn't appear to be a factor. The temperature was 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit with moderate humidity and a breeze.
The U.S. women swept the podium at the last edition of WTCS Yokohama in 2019; Zaferes won gold, Rappaport took silver, just as she did this year, and Spivey earned bronze.
She was the ITU under-23 world champion in 2018 and the ITU junior world champion in 2016 and 2017.
In an interview in March, Knibb told Team USA her focus was long-term. “My biggest goal would be LA 2028," she said.
Even if her goal hasn't changed, she'll now be at least a one-time Olympian before 2028 arrives.