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London Time: U.S. Triathletes Set Sights on Olympic Podium

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If you want to gain an understanding of what the Olympic Games mean to the Americans who are heading to London to compete in triathlon, watch a clip of the men’s finish of the ITU World Triathlon Series race in San Diego, which served as USA Triathlon’s second of two Olympic qualifiers in May.

In it, you’ll see veteran triathlete Hunter Kemper, who was bedridden only weeks before the event with a staph infection, cross the line as the first American and to the chants of “USA! USA!”

Moments later, Manuel Huerta crosses the line as the second American and ninth overall — the position required to automatically qualify.

Unsure about what his overall place is, he begins counting the competitors in front of him. When he realizes he’s in ninth, he covers his face with his hands in disbelief and bursts into tears.

In celebration, Kemper and Huerta grab American flags and storm the finish straightaway, jumping up and down and waving their emblems wildly in the air while the crowd continues to chant “USA! USA!”

“I knew that today — it was special,” said a sobbing and shaking Huerta after the race. “I would race in my new country, and I wanted to make my dream come true.”

A year earlier, in anticipation of USA Triathlon’s first Olympic qualifier in London, Huerta said that he had been dreaming of qualifying for the Olympics since he was a child in Cuba, a country he and his family fled as political refugees when he was 13.

Kemper’s and Huerta’s performances put them on the team along with Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah Groff, who qualified by finishing second and seventh, respectively, at the 2011 ITU World Triathlon Series in London, and Laura Bennett, who secured her spot by finishing third in San Diego, a day before the men’s race.

But now that the Olympic triathlon team is finally decided, what are the U.S.’s chances of securing its first medal since Susan Williams won bronze in 2004 in Athens?

In terms of depth, the American women comprise the strongest team in U.S. history, as all three athletes are bona fide medal threats.

They each have been on the podium at World Triathlon Series events during the two-year Olympic qualification period, meaning they’ve matched up against the best triathletes in the world during the most competitive time of the four-year Olympic cycle.

“There are only a limited number of women in the world who can attest to having done that,” said Andy Schmitz, the high performance general manager for USA Triathlon.

And all three have shown consistency over the past two years and that they can race well under pressure.

“The girls’ team is stacked,” Kemper said. “I think that’ll be the talk [in London] — the American women.”

What’s special about the women’s team is that no matter how the race plays out in London — whether it becomes a runner’s race with a big group of cyclists heading into T2 or the swim-bikers take over and create a big break — the U.S. has athletes who can shine in either scenario.

“The three of us have different strengths and hopefully the race will unfold in a way that at least one of us can end up with a medal,” said Groff, who, along with Bennett, is among the best swimmers on the circuit and can ride with the strongest cyclists, meaning that if there’s a break out of the water both women are likely to be in it.

And with Great Britain’s best hope for gold in the women’s race, Helen Jenkins, being a strong swim-biker, a breakaway is possible — even likely — in London, especially since she will have a domestique working for her.

“There is definitely a chance that there will be a group off the front on the bike. A one-lap swim course makes it harder to break up the field, but a smaller field than normal makes our chances a bit better,” said Groff of London’s course and its field of 55 athletes as opposed to the usual 65 or more.

Fortunately for Groff and Bennett, both athletes have proven they are capable of running their way on to a podium if all breakaway attempts in London are unsuccessful. Case in point: Groff outran Beijing bronze medalist and two-time world champion Emma Moffatt of Australia when she became the first American woman to ever get on the podium at a World Triathlon Series event by winning bronze in Kitzbühel, Austria, last year. And Bennett has a knack for earning medals at big races — she’s won one silver and three bronzes at world championships in her career.

But if the Olympics come down to the run, the American athlete who really benefits is Jorgensen.

Jorgensen, who only became an elite in 2010, has proven herself one of the premier runners in the sport in her short yet already wildly successful career.

When she ran her way to silver at the World Triathlon Series in London last year, she turned in the fastest run split of the day, 33:43, against what was arguably the most competitive field of women ever assembled.

If Jorgensen can improve her biking skills before London so that she can ensure a good transition, that immediately puts her with the leaders on the run (her lack of race experience often has her playing catch-up out of T2) she is entirely capable of winning gold.

While neither Huerta nor Kemper is considered a major medal threat in London, given the unpredictability of the Games, and especially Olympic triathlon, it’s still possible that one of the men could surprise.

“Anything can happen in sport,” said Schmitz. “Whether that’s an injury, a crash, an illness or just not being there on the day.”

Part of what makes triathlon so unpredictable compared to sports such as swimming and running is that the athletes participate on a dynamic playing field where one athlete’s performance can directly affect another’s, Schmitz said. The crash or tire puncture of a faceless Olympian can unexpectedly take out a favorite, whereas in track and swimming, athletes are left relatively alone in their individual lanes. That triathletes compete in three sports as opposed to one and have to make it through two transitions adds other variables.

This is where the experience of Kemper, who qualified for his fourth Olympics in San Diego, comes into play.
Indeed, Kemper learned the hard way what the Olympics can do to an athlete’s mental state of mind.
In 2004 he was favored to win a medal but came away empty handed, largely because he took the process too seriously and didn’t allow himself to enjoy the Games, he said. This caused him to get overwhelmed by expectations.

“In Athens I was real serious, and it didn’t work out so well,” said Kemper, who finished ninth there. “I wasn’t really happy with that result.”

When he qualified for Beijing in 2008, Kemper decided to soak up everything the Olympics had to offer, and this resulted in the best finish of his career, seventh, despite suffering from a sports hernia going into the race.

He plans on taking a similar approach to London and hopes that this will help him pop off an effort that could potentially surprise his competitors.

“It doesn’t always turn out like it should on paper,” Kemper said. “That’s why they have these races.”

While Huerta has been more inconsistent than Kemper during his career, he has proven that he can race well when it really matters.

Besides pulling off the best race of his life to get on the Olympic team by beating athletes who were heavily favored over him, Huerta won silver at the Pan American Games last year despite learning he was supposed to race only days before the event.

“The men are considered underdogs, but I almost like that position,” Schmitz said. “We don’t have any pressure.”

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