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WTCS Cagliari a golden vision as triathlon’s medal superstars plot route to more Olympic Games glory

WTCS Cagliari will see 12 Olympic medal winners racing, but what will their key goals be in Sardinia? It's no one-size-fits-all answer...

Chief Correspondent
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This Saturday, May 25, sees the culmination of the points chase for athletes and federations seeking qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games triathlon. 12 Olympic medal winners will be racing, but is their end game in Italy?

WTCS Cagliari in Sardinia is the venue and the start lists – both male and female – are the strongest we will see in draft-legal racing until the Games themselves. It’s definitely not one to miss, and you can get all the details on timings etc in our pre-race preview.

Those start lists include all of the individual medal winners from Tokyo 2020, plenty more from the Mixed Team Relay podium as well as one medallist from Rio 2016. While previous success can be an indicator, the old adage from the world of financial small print that “past performance is no guarantee of future results”, should never be forgotten either.

And it is with that background, that those athletes will be racing on Saturday with very different objectives, pressures and goals.

Here’s my take on their routes to WTCS Cagliari 2024.

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Flying High – Taylor Knibb

If there’s one Olympic medallist who can go into this weekend pressure-free, then surely it is Taylor Knibb? Already qualified for Paris from her fifth place at the Test Event last August, the two-time IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion started 2024 off by destroying the field at IRONMAN 70.3 Oceanside by almost 11 minutes. She sits – by the narrowest of margins – ranked #2 in the PTO’s World Rankings.

Any suggestions that her longer-distance racing exploits are hindering her Olympic ambitions seem to hold little water, following her second place at the opening WTCS race in Yokohama two weeks ago. We can be critical however, as her transitions definitely need some work (!)… but that should be a relatively simple fix before the big dance in France.

Winning the USA Cycling TT Champs just days later and securing Olympic qualification in a second sport adds even more weight to her wide-ranging sporting abilities. She can race freely in Cagliari, with the event another step in her calculated schedule heading into the Olympic Games.

Taylor Knibb secures a second place finish at WTCS Yokohama
American triathlon superstar Taylor Knibb [Photo Credit – Tommy Zaferes]
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Morgan Pearson is number one

Knibb’s compatriot and fellow Mixed Team Relay silver medal winner from Tokyo, Morgan Pearson, should also have a smile on his face leading up to Saturday afternoon. With Olympic qualification also done and dusted last year, he started 2024 in the best possible style by collecting his first ever WTCS victory in Yokohama two weeks ago. It’s been a long time between drinks for the U.S. men in that regard, since Jarrod Shoemaker won in Hamburg way back in 2009. It also means he gets bib #1 this weekend and first choice of starting position on Poetto Beach.

His focus, something evident in his composed and mature post-race interview, is the opportunity to test himself against some different athletes – two in particular – who will likely provide a stern challenge to his impressive run speed.

“It’s a nice way to start the season, of course we all know who’s missing from this race” was that quote… and of course no surprises for guessing that it was two more Olympic medallist he was referring to.

Morgan Pearson takes the win at WTCS Yokohama.
[Photo Credit – Tommy Zaferes]
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Repeat or Revenge: Will it be Yee vs. Wilde again?

Following silver and bronze respectively in Tokyo, the competition between Alex Yee and Hayden Wilde has become one of the highlights of the sport over the past three years. That rivalry was showcased at this very race last year with a battle on the run which was one of the best and surely fastest that we’ve ever seen in the sport.

Heading into 2024, Wilde is running faster than ever, as reflected by a 5000m track personal best of 13:23.91 at the end of April. A late puncture ended a first opportunity this season to see them go head-to-head in France recently, but the take home message from Fréjus was pretty clear… expect both to arrive in fine form.

Yee also won the this race in 2022, so has clearly put behind him what was a VERY different experience here in 2017.

Hayden Wilde / Alex Yee WTCS Cagliari 2023 run
[Photo Credit – World Triathlon]

While Great Britain, the USA and New Zealand have qualification battles going on elsewhere, there are four athletes then who seemingly have fitness, form and freedom on their side not to be concerned by those matters.

The next set of athletes, realistically, have little to no concern in terms of Paris selection… but certainly have a few more specific questions to address on their personal roads to Paris.

Champions return

In a more typical year, seventh place two weeks ago at WTCS Yokohama for Flora Duffy might have been considered a (relative) disaster. After all, Flora has only finished lower than that once in major international World Triathlon racing since the Rio 2016 Olympics (10th at Hamburg in 2018). However, context is everything.

After more than 500 days out of racing action with serious injury, that performance is certainly closer to remarkable than being a concern. Not surprisingly, it was quite an emotional experience.

Yokohama will surely have provided confidence, while Cagliari will offer another opportunity to further shed any metaphorical ring rust and sharpen her race form. Duffy, for the majority at least, won’t be the favourite for victory this weekend – but if she takes another step forward, her prospects for Paris will continue to look even brighter.

With Beth Potter, Cassandre Beaugrand, Georgia Taylor-Brown and Sophie Coldwell among those starting who were absent in Yokohama, the challenge is likely to be a stronger one too. The incentive to step up again is there.

I’m reminded of Leeds 2021. Finishing fourth there – which was also after returning to racing from injury – was a result which left me convinced she would win in Tokyo. No predictions on Paris yet here… but if she makes even a small step forward relative to Yokohama, Flora Duffy will absolutely be in the discussions for gold later in the year.

You can be sure her competition will be the last to write her off.

WTCS Yokohama 2024 women bike image Flora Duffy
Flora Duffy in the lead group at WTCS Yokohama 2024

For Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, his Olympic gold medal success was the culmination of 10 years of planning – but it also represented the start of perhaps the greatest 18 months of racing in the history of the sport. Olympic Champion, World Triathlon Champion, IRONMAN World Champion, IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion, an IRONMAN world best time plus that Sub7 Project sprinkled in for some bonus stardust, proved that the Norwegian Hype Train was anything but hype.

He’s been having fun these last two years, mostly over the middle and long distances and was the PTO World Ranked #1 at the end of both 2022 and 2023 in the process. All roads lead to Paris now for though Blummenfelt, his coach Olav Alexander Bu and the team behind him. He’s proven he can go from draft-legal short course to long-distance king… but can he return and reclaim that crown?

Despite producing “numbers I’ve never seen before” in training, per coach Bu, a season-opening 10th place in Yokohama left him expecting more, and with typical honesty, admitting that had that late crash not happened which impacted several of his rivals late in the race, he’d likely have been even further back than the 41 seconds to race winner, Morgan Pearson.

Kristian is not a man to sit around disappointed for too long and will be looking for better this week – and better will surely be needed too, with the return of Yee and Wilde. That duo destroyed the field on the run in an epic race last year. In the process, they ran the sort of times that Blummenfelt himself believes will be needed for gold in Paris this year.

Whatever the result, leaving Cagliari with the belief that he can reach that high bar in Paris will be a key takeaway for Big Blu.

Kristian Blummenfelt wins Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Photo Credit: Wagner Araujo / World Triathlon

Can Beaugrand go the distance?

Second to Beth Potter at the Paris Test Event and silver medallist overall in the World Triathlon Series last year, Cassandre Beaugrand will spearhead a strong French squad in Paris, one which will have realistic medal goals in both individual and relay disciplines.

Cassandre is a proven winner, dominating last year in Sunderland and Hamburg, but… I still think there are a few questions to answer. Can they be addressed on Saturday?

“When she’s on and in the right headspace, she’s hands down the best female triathlete on the planet,” was the view last year of Chris McCormack when talking to us, but I’m not quite on that same hype train. At least, not yet.

In the context of the Olympic Games specifically, both in Paris and Pontevedra last year, Cassandre’s run performances were impacted by cramps that she spoke about post-race. And looking at her Olympic distance history, she’s yet to win a race at WTCS or World Cup level over the distance.

Now, such stats didn’t stop Simon Whitfield (2000), Kate Allen (2004) or Jan Frodeno (2008) from securing Olympic titles having never previously topped a World Cup podium, but were the French speedster able to take victory in Italy this weekend, it could provide the biggest possible confidence boost that she does indeed have all bases covered.

Cassandre Beaugrand WTCS Grand Finals Pontevedra 2023
Cassandre Beaugrand in action during the WTCS Grand Finals 2023 in Pontevedra (Photo – Wagner Araujo, World Triathlon).

Periault Power

While it seemed likely beforehand anyway, the dominant victory of Leonie Periault in Yokohama two weeks ago has surely all but guaranteed her Paris start alongside Beaugrand and Emma Lombardi.

A bronze medallist in the Mixed Team Relay in Tokyo, she produced an exceptional run performance to win in Japan. The challenge for Periault will be backing that up with another strong, confidence-building result.

More specifically – and something that could be exposed by those returning athletes making their WTCS season debuts – is ensuring that she is close enough to the swim leaders at T1 to get into any breakaway lead packs and then utilise that run form. She has missed that break before (Paris Test Event, Pontevedra Championship Finals, Tokyo Olympics as examples), but also has a C.V. full of top tier results showing that she’s far from weak in the water either.

Small margins – but those matter in elite sport.

Leonie Periault (FRA) took a maiden WTCS victory in Yokohama.
[Photo Credit – Tommy Zaferes]

Can Schoeman catch a break?

South Africa’s Henri Schoeman secured his Olympic Games history with a bronze medal on the shores of Copacabana Beach in Rio eight years ago. Commonwealth Games gold followed in 2018, but shortly after that, some of the “most difficult years of my life” followed, as sickness, injury, motivation and depression left him questioning his love for the sport.

Returning to win the Esports World Championship last year was a significant bright spot, while sixth at WTCS Sunderland showed he could still mix it with the best.

It’s still been a struggle however of late, and a hard crash on the bike in Yokohama and the road rash that goes with it didn’t help. Team South Africa had prioritised Mixed Team Relay qualification in their selection process leading to a trip to Mexico last weekend, but when Jamie Riddle crashed out on leg one, he didn’t get to race. 17th followed in the individual World Cup event there two days later.

As the top-ranked South African in the current Olympic Qualification Rankings and with two slots available, his Paris start is looking secure to me. I think Schoeman will just have fingers crossed for an incident-free, confidence builder with no dramas and a real gauge on what he needs to do between now and July 30.

Henri Schoeman
South African star Henri Schoeman in action (Photo Credit – World Triathlon)

And that leaves us with a trio of legends for whom the stakes are potentially very high.

Once, twice… three times a Cagliari Champion for GTB?

I’ve written extensively in recent weeks around some of the selection dilemmas and decisions that will be facing the British Triathlon selection panel in the coming weeks.

For Georgia Taylor-Brown, surely returning to a race that you have won in some style for the past two seasons is about as good as it could get, given the stakes involved? ‘Horses for courses’ is strong on this one.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Two spots remain alongside World Champion Beth Potter in Paris, and while we are now well into ‘discretionary’ pick territory, if there’s a strong result from the first British finisher in Italy, then as the priority race, that will likely be enough.

The pressure is on then, with Kate Waugh and Sophie Coldwell seemingly the other prime contenders in a ‘three into two’ battle. How all of those athletes deal with having one eye on the race, one eye on selection consideration, will be a fascinating sub-plot here.

Georgia Taylor-Brown wins WTCS Cagliari 2023
Georgia Taylor-Brown wins WTCS Cagliari 2023

Over to you, Katie

Similar to the Brits, the U.S. women are in an embarrassment of riches position selection wise. Again, two places remain available with Taylor Knibb already booked. Yokohama represented their final automatic qualification opportunity, where Taylor Spivey (fourth) just missed the podium that would have seen her secure a place that she was so disappointed to miss out on three years ago.

Katie Zaferes wasn’t on that start list for Yokohama and could have missed out this weekend too, but USAT have elected to substitute Gwen Jorgensen out of the Cagliari race and effectively offer a final opportunity for Zaferes to display her credentials in Sardinia. She ultimately repaid their faith in her at Tokyo 2020 with two Olympic medals, but the pressure is on once again if a third Olympic Games is to be part of the Zaferes triathlon journey.

As well as Spivey’s fourth place, Kirsten Kasper was also fifth in Japan which certainly added to her case too. Whatever happens on Saturday, that U.S. selection meeting discussion will surely be a very long one – with relay potential to add into the mix too.

Kevin McDowell, Taylor Knibb, Morgan Pearson, Katie Zaferes / Mixed Team Relay
Zaferes added Mixed Team Relay silver to individual bronze in Tokyo

Tough selection for Les Bleus

And finally… double World Champion and Mixed Team Relay bronze medallist from Tokyo, Vincent Luis, is also right up against it to secure a fourth Olympic start at what would be a home Games.

The French men’s team are perhaps the strongest in the sport with Luis (2019, 2020), Léo Bergère (2022) and Dorian Coninx (2023) all winning the World Triathlon Championship title in recent years. Coninx, along with WTCS Sunderland winner Pierre Le Corre, already have provisional selection for the French team, which would leave Bergère and Luis as the prime contenders for that final spot.

Injuries during 2023 haven’t helped Vincent’s case, but ninth in Yokohama (Bergère was 14 seconds ahead in fourth), shows that he’s in the mix. As with the Brits, we are into discretionary selection territory now. There’s also the potential added complication of the injury to Dorian Coninx – will he be able to recover from a broken wrist and elbow?

And to potentially complicate things even more (!), per the French selection policy at least, athletes meeting automatic criteria in 2023 needed to validate that by a top-six finish at an Olympic distance WTCS event in 2024 (Yokohama or Cagliari), or a podium at a Sprint race (and Abu Dhabi was cancelled…).

Lots of ‘what ifs’ then, which ironically might make things pretty simple. ‘Forget the details, race as well as possible and leave it in the hands of the selectors’ might just be the only way to navigate this particular puzzle. Both Luis and Bergère have the experience to do just that.

It’s just another story to follow in what should really be a terrific day of racing.

Vincent Luis - WTCS Bermuda 2022
[Photo credit: World Triathlon]
John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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