Road to Paris 2024: A deep dive on US Olympic triathlon picks – Jorgensen a missed opportunity and Rider over McElroy

Triathlon great Mark Allen speaks to top coach Ian O'Brien as they unpack how the US made their Olympic Games triathlon picks for Paris 2024.

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In the aftermath of that much-hyped US Olympic triathlon team announcement, I spoke to highly-respected pro coach Ian O’Brien about the choices the selectors made, and how they likely came to their decisions. So much to unpack…

As with many countries, the US Olympic Triathlon Team is comprised of some athletes who made automatic qualification standards and some who will be competing at Paris 2024 after gaining a spot on their team via a selection process.

Every country makes up their own rules on what that procedure is. For the United States, there is a committee of eight people who have to come to a unanimous vote on their choices.

Three spots were open: two women and one man. In the Olympic Qualification Rankings, the lucky trio ended up being Taylor Spivey (4th), Kirsten Kasper (15th) and Seth Rider (44th). Because of the necessity for a unanimous vote, it might be assumed that the choices were pretty clear. But as with any selection by vote, the decisions can be far from clear-cut.

I brought long-time coach of many Olympic distance athletes Ian O’Brien in to get his deep dive take on what may have been behind the decisions on who was selected, and why others who seemed to be in great position to make the team might have been left off.


Why Rider, and not McElroy?

I asked Ian to first give his thoughts on why Seth Rider (again 44th on the Olympic rankings) was the choice for the men and why the omission of Matt McElroy (18th).

“It’s all about trying to achieve the very best outcome. Period. The two top guys after Morgan (who automatically qualified in Paris last summer) were Matt McElroy and Seth Rider.

“If you look at just the numbers over time, Matt gets the spot hands down. Seth is faster by a bit in the water, but Matt consistently runs faster by a much larger margin.

“This is where it gets a little bit tricky. Because neither has a great chance to medal in the individual event, the decision comes down to which athlete could best increase the USA’s chance of a medal in the Mixed Relay. And by that standard, the relays those two were on together, on paper Seth had better races.

“But digging deeper, the differences were not representative of what really took place. Matt had wetsuit issues in one race and a penalty on the run in another that skewed the numbers based on spits in Seth’s favour.  I mean, good for Seth, he executed well and didn’t have any of that. And again, they’re looking for Olympic medal potential in the relay. So, if Seth’s got the better splits, Seth gets selected and rightly so. I think that’s what’s happened.”

At the final race of the Olympic cycle in Cagliari, Rider was in the lead pack on the bike along with Morgan Pearson. Matt was not. In the final results, Matt finished 17th and Seth 20th a scant 17 seconds back from McElroy but with a run split that was more than 2 minutes slower. I proposed that maybe Seth was selected for the individual event and not for the Mixed Relay – after all he has ability to be in the lead pack on the bike and could help Morgan, who has a real shot at an individual medal.  

“It’s one of those things that USA Triathlon is careful about because it’s not in the selection criteria. They may be thinking it, but they’re not going to say it. They have no control over what Seth’s tactical decision in the individual race. That comes down to him.

“Morgan is a phenomenal athlete and provides us probably the only chance to medal for the men. And Seth would probably help him if asked. He may even offer. We’ll see.”

Matthew McElroy WTCS Cagliari US Olympic Games Triathlon Picks Paris 2024
Matt McElroy missed out on a US spot for the Paris 2024 Olympics (Photo – Tommy Zaferes, World Triathlon).

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Spivey absolutely deserved her spot

Looking at the women who were selected, I’m sure Taylor Spivey was an easy one to get the unanimous vote for.

“Taylor Spivey has been close to a podium finish so many times. She’s consistently in the top five. She is definitely medal capable if the right conditions happen. And Taylor is an amazing runner as well. She poses a real threat. Absolutely deserved it.

“Looking at their other selection, it was great news for Kirsten Kasper. What she did in Yokohama was the key to her being selected. That race was the final one where the US athletes could earn an automatic qualifying slot.

“The pressure in that race, on that one day, was immense. Being able to manage that kind of pressure is huge window into whether or not an athlete will be able to replicate a huge performance in Paris.

“On the day, under very high pressure, under a microscope, Kirsten came up with a top-level race. Spivey finished 4th and Kirsten came in 5th with a very solid all-around performance.”


Gwen Jorgensen ‘a missed opportunity’

Interestingly at that race another woman who many were hoping would be on the team was competing – namely 2016 Olympic champion Gwen Jorgensen.

Entering the quest to qualify, she had Olympic gold pedigree. But her comeback may have fallen just a few races short of her making the team. She was an emotional favourite for sure. But favouritism isn’t a criteria for Olympic selection. Ian gave me his thoughts on how that may have turned out differently.

“I believe Gwen is a missed opportunity. And the reason why I say this is she’s done a great job of working so hard to get back into the game.

“For me personally, I would be like, Gwen, this is the deal. You just need a little bit more on the bike and in the water. So just go work with Bob Bauman for a month to get that bit extra for the swim. Go work with Christian Vanderbilt to up your cycling.

“And if she did that, in the Mixed Relay she’d be able to use her weapon of weapons, which is the run. You combine that with the rest of the people on the team, Taylor, Seth and Morgan, and you have a real shot at a medal.”

The Taylor Knibb blueprint for gold

The US has a very good chance of bringing home medals in the individual events. The biggest name on the street with that chance is one Taylor Knibb, who also qualified for the individual time trial in cycling as well as triathlon.

The entire women’s field knows she can ride of course, and I asked Ian what it would take for her to use that potent weapon to counter the likes of Beth Potter and Cassandra Beaugrand on the run?

“I think this is going to be interesting in terms of how that’s going to play out with what she should do. She’s got to do something different! The last three years, her run has gotten so much better. Her swim has improved to get her straight to the front.

“But tactics wise, it all begins with the swim. She needs to select the right spot on the pontoon. Do you want to swim by yourself? Do you want to swim with strong people? She may decide to swim with a particular person because they’re usually strong, but that person may not be on the day. Keying off of one person is taking a risk.

“Which brings in the next element that is so key in the Seine. There’s a current, but it’s not the same speed from shore to shore. In the first part that is downstream if you are in the middle, it’s going to be a lot quicker than downstream on the edge.

“When you’re coming back, you want to be on the edge because the flow rate is a lot slower than it is in the middle. You want to put yourself in a position where the current is beneficial to you in both directions.

“And in my opinion, that’s far more important than who you swim next to. If they make the wrong decisions about the current, you may stay with them but are going to use a lot more energy to complete the swim and will pay the price for that later in the race.

Taylor Knibb secures a second place finish at WTCS Yokohama
Taylor Knibb will be real contender for Olympic glory at Paris 2024 [Photo Credit – Tommy Zaferes].

“With Taylor, once she comes out of the water with what hopefully will be a good position, I think she should break away as early as possible on the bike. She’s improved her run immensely. But she’ll still want some time on the top runners.

“And the reason isn’t purely physical. When she goes ahead, people psychologically often go to the mindset that they’re racing for second. It gets in their head with thoughts like ‘okay, we’re not going to catch Taylor, she’s gone’.

“If she can pull away, she could go her own power through the turns. She can accelerate out of corners as fast she wants to accelerate. She can give her level on the flats like she’s doing a time trial.”

Jumping over to the men’s race, I pointed out that Pearson was actually pulling away from the men’s field – including Alex Yee – in the early stages of the run at the Paris Test Event until some structural issues forced him to dial his pace back a bit. Ian told me about his chances to medal.

“I’m really excited for Morgan. He puts 100% of himself into every everything he does. It’s very similar to Taylor in that way. And yes, his run is a weapon.

“Morgan had some troubles in Paris last summer in the Test Event, but he seems to have gotten that sorted out. He topped the podium in Yokohama with a 10k run split of 29:11. That puts him in the same league as a Yee or a Wilde who ran 29:12 and 29:13 respectively in Cagliari.”

World Triathlon Cup Karlovy Vary 2023 Morgan Pearson
Morgan Pearson has the run to contend for medals in France (Photo Credit: Ben Lumley / World Triathlon).

Paris 2024 keys – assessing the variables

With the team selected, everything now comes down to one day. Ian helped me understand the variables which are still within the athletes’ control, and how to use those to come up with winning performances.

“Different people thrive in different environments and those people who don’t become affected by their environment generally become more successful.

“What I mean by that is, for some people, for example, going into the Olympic Village before the Games is horrendous because they’re living in a smaller place with people they don’t normally share rooms with. Other people thrive on it. I can tell you that some members of Team USA absolutely love it and it’s elevated them. They fed off that energy and it’s a phenomenal place for them to be. But for some it was game over.”

It depends on the individual and what they need. That’s what’s important to pay attention to and then try and meet them as best as possible.

“If that means they stay in a hotel instead of the Village, then that’s where they go, and then they can go to the Village afterwards once the races are done. Keep things routine as possible. Like in training, it’s just dialled back but it remains familiar.”

Mark Allen
Written by
Mark Allen
Mark Allen has to be in any conversation about the greatest triathlete of all time. A six-time IRONMAN World Champion, he won every other title that mattered in the sport and dominated like few others
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