Taylor Knibb is USA Triathlon’s Youngest Olympic Qualifier
by Caryn Maconi
Taylor Knibb has been the USA Triathlon National Team’s youngest member for five years running — but she may be its oldest soul.
“Have you seen my Instagram? I don’t post at all,” Knibb said in a recent interview. “I was told I was a 40-year-old as a kindergartener. I don’t even have Snapchat.”
When asked about her astounding success in the sport — a Junior World Champion, Under-23 World Champion and bona fide Olympic hopeful at age 23 — she is quick to credit her mom who inspired her but didn’t push too hard, the role models who showed her what was possible, and the coaches who believed in her and continue to bring out her best.
Knibb is a student of the sport. She is modest and polite — but on the race course, she exudes confidence. A lifelong swimmer and one of the sport’s strongest cyclists, she looks for opportunities to push the pace with Olympic medalists and world champions.
In fact, that’s how she earned her first career World Triathlon Series podium in July 2017 in Edmonton, Canada. A star at the junior and U23 levels, Knibb had only raced twice before in WTS events, the sport’s highest tier. Bermuda’s Flora Duffy — the defending world champion at the time — went for a breakaway on the bike. In a split-second decision, Knibb took a chance and went with her, the only athlete to do so. The two worked together, steadily building a gap on the rest of the field. Knibb held onto second place through the 10k run, took home silver and established herself as a force to be reckoned with against the world’s best.
The Wristband that Started it All
Knibb grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, watching her mom, Leslie, compete in triathlons as an accomplished age-group athlete. But spending her weekends as a spectator wasn’t enough for the budding young athlete — she wanted in on the action. So, when her mom signed her up for a kids’ triathlon in Columbia, Maryland, an 11-year-old Knibb was ecstatic.
“They made the kids’ race very much like the adults’, where the day before you had to go to packet pickup and you got a wristband,” Knibb said. “I don’t even know what the wristband got me, but my mom got one at every race, so I thought, ‘This is cool!’ And that was probably the most important part of the race for me. The wristband, not the race itself.”
Her mom taught her to stay humble, appreciate the privilege of playing sports, and never take athletics too seriously.
“I was almost too competitive for my own good. My mom never pushed me. If anything, I had to fight for every single little race I wanted to do and give all the reasons why,” Knibb said. “My punishment if I misbehaved was that I was not allowed to go to swim practice. So, I guess my parents kept me in the sport by making me want it.”
Becoming a Phenom
More races and more wristbands followed. By 15, she was competing in USA Triathlon’s youth and junior elite circuit, winning national titles and earning the chance to represent the U.S. in international events. The accolades continued: 2015 Junior World Championships silver medalist. 2016 Junior World Champion. 2017 Junior World Champion. 2018 U23 World Champion. Meanwhile, she balanced triathlon with NCAA Division I track and cross-country at Cornell University. She also joined the Cornell swim team her senior year.
She looked up to role models like 2016 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen, who sent her a pair of sunglasses after her first Junior Worlds victory, and Tamara Gorman, 2013 Junior World Champion and 2017 U23 World Champion, who raised the bar for U.S. junior elite women on the international stage.
At the 2019 World Triathlon Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland, — Knibb’s first senior-level World Championship — she finished as the third American in 14th place. She closed 2019 with a World Cup silver medal in the Dominican Republic, her last race before COVID-19 upended the global sports landscape.
The pandemic forced the one-year postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, now set to take place this summer from July 24-Aug. 9. It also cut short her senior track season at Cornell. For Knibb, the delay could have only helped her chances of securing a spot on the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team.
“Last year, I think I coped with the pressure in an unhealthy way and just threw myself into everything,” Knibb said. “I probably had one of my most demanding semesters academically. I was swimming a lot, I was running with Cornell, I was doing so, so much. And then I realized I probably wouldn’t have been ready. By admitting that, I know what I want to do differently this year, and I think I’ve set myself up to give myself the best chance.”
She’ll get that chance May 15 at the World Triathlon Championship Series race in Yokohama, Japan, which serves as the final auto-selection event for the U.S. Olympic Team. Since Summer Rappaport claimed her spot on the team at the first auto-qualifier in Tokyo in 2019, only one U.S. woman can punch her ticket to the Olympics with a strong performance in Yokohama. After that race, USA Triathlon’s Games Selection Committee will fill any remaining spots via discretion, ultimately sending three women to Tokyo.
The Value of a Coach
After graduating from Cornell last spring, Knibb moved to Boulder, Colorado, to train full-time with Origin Performance — an international elite squad coached by Ian O’Brien that also includes U.S. Men’s National Team members Eli Hemming and Matt McElroy.
It’s rare for a triathlete to start the sport so young, continue competing at a high level while balancing NCAA single sports, and successfully progress to the sport’s most elite ranks. Knibb insists the coaches she has had throughout her life are key to that consistency.
“I reached out to a lot of college running coaches, and many did not respond,” Knibb said of her search to find an NCAA running program that would also accommodate her triathlon goals. “It wasn’t necessarily an easy process, but the Cornell coach actually responded to me, and he said, ‘I’m willing to try this.’ A lot of things fell into place. That coach took a chance on me — and a huge chance on me at that.”
Knibb has a long list of coaches whom she credits for her personal and athletic growth, from high school to the elite triathlon ranks: Tim Kelly (high school swimming, Nation’s Capital Swim Club), Gaby Grebski (high school cross-country) and Jennifer Hutchison (high school/junior elite triathlon); Cornell track and cross-country coaches Artie Smith (freshman through junior year), Sophia Ziemian (junior and senior year), Mike Henderson (senior year) and Megan Knoblock (senior year); Cornell swim coach Pat Gallagher; elite triathlon coach Neal Henderson; and now, current coaches Ian O’Brien (triathlon) and Erin Carson (strength).
“It’s amazing to write it out and realize just how many coaches I’ve been able to work with and learn from,” Knibb said. “Each coach has also been so supportive of my goals, regardless of the arena.”
The Long View — LA 2028
Right now, Knibb’s focus lies in giving herself the best possible opportunity to be at the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer. But at 22, she has time and potential on her side. She may be the only current U.S. National Team athlete who dreams of representing Team USA at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 2028 — the first Games to be held on U.S. soil in 32 years.
“My biggest goal would be LA 2028,” Knibb said. “I’ll be 30, and I feel like that’s when women tend to hit their prime. And that’s a home Olympics, so that would be pretty special. I want to keep my options open. I’m not planning to leave the sport anytime soon.”
By that time, she’ll have up-and-coming youngsters on her heels. She won’t be the emerging star anymore — instead, it will be her turn to inspire the next generation.
“I’ve been the youngest for so long, I think it’ll be more disconcerting when I’m not the youngest anymore,” Knibb said. “If I’m ever the oldest on the National Team, that will be the wakeup call.”