Aussies breakthrough world championship gold in triathlon’s Olympic teams relay
Triathlon’s “Tassie tiger” Jake Birtwhistle has produced the run of his life to lead Australia to its first ever gold medal in the ITU Triathlon Teams Relay World Championship in Hamburg over night.
Fresh from his individual silver medal in yesterday’s World Triathlon Series round, the 22-year-old from Launceston came from fifth place and 36 seconds down to anchor Australia to its first world champion teams gold ahead of defending champions the USA with the Netherlands third.
The Mixed Teams Relay is already on the Commonwealth Games program for the Gold Coast 2018 next year and is the latest addition to the triathlon schedule for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Each of the 20 teams in Hamburg had combinations of two women and two men with each completing a 300m swim; seven kilometre bike and 1.6km run and today’s race was the first since the IOC announcement last month.
Australia started with latest Commonwealth Games nomination 26-year-old Charlotte McShane from Bairnsdale in Victoria who put Australia into fifth.
McShane was followed by 19-year-old Hervey Bay rookie Matthew Hauser then Gold Coast’s 26-year-old Rio Olympian Ashleigh Gentle, who also turned yesterday’s silver into gold, also handing over to Birtwhistle in fifth place – and striking distance.
Birtwhistle kept his cool, making up 10 seconds on the 300m swim before working with the riders from the Netherlands and Great Britain on the bike as they chased down the USA and Canada.
As the five teams entered the transition area after the seven kilometre bike it was Birtwhistle who jumped off his bike first and was third out on to the run.
But it wasn’t long before the former track and field star and 2015 Under 23 world triathlon champion stamped his authority on the race.
Noted former US collegiate runner Matthew McElroy took over the lead briefly for the USA before Birtwhistle again asserted his dominance and confidence to charge ahead and with 200 metres to run sprinted away to claim Australia’s first ever gold in the event.
The Aussies have been the perennial bridesmaids in this Teams Relay – finishing with the silver in 2009, 2015 and 2016 and bronze in the 2014 Commonwealth Games debut.
Birtwhistle’s spectacular finish kick earned him silver behind Spain’s world champion Mario Mola in yesterday’s WTS race and today he was never in doubt as he looked over his shoulder and spread out his arms as he charged into the waiting arms of his team mates.
“I will give it to Hamburg, I love it here. To come out here with these guys, we were all able to put together a good race and end up as World Champions, it is pretty awesome!” said Birtwhistle of the winning Aussie team.
Hauser, who left his Hervey Bay home to join coach Dan Atkins Triathlon Australia Squad on the Gold Coast two years ago couldn’t contain his delight as he jumped for joy.
“That was just fantastic and in my first ever relay. We just wanted to stay as close as we could for Jake,” said Hauser.
Gentle, in the best form of her life after joining coach Jamie Turner and his Triathlon Australia International Training Centre in Wollongong and Vitoria was full of praise for Birtwhistle.
“Jake was just amazing; it was a great privilege to be part of this team. I have not been in too many relays but what a great feeling after some scary moments and to be able to pull together as a team,” said Gold Coaster Gentle.
McShane, who has relished the arrival of Gentle into the Turner group, said there was definitely a lot more pressure in a relay than in an individual race.
“You are racing for your whole team and it was just so much fun to come out here and win this (World Championship) together,” said McShane, who couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.
The young foursome stood proudly on the podium as Advance Australia Fair heralded in Australia’s latest world champions and in the newest Olympic event before the medallists showered themselves with Hamburg’s traditional steins of beer – soaking up a magical moment the young Aussies, will remember for a long time.
It was anyone’s title after the first leg, which saw Spain, USA, Belgium and Yuka Sato of Japan neck and neck as they tagged off to their teammates.
As the first group of men took off, it was the bike leg that ended up being the crucial part of the story as Ben Kanute (USA) and Dorian Coninx (FRA) took off together as a breakaway pair. Upon entering the run they had a healthy lead of 11 seconds that they passed on to the second group of women.
While France looked to be a top contender for a medal, a penalty inside the second transition took them out of the running.
A swift solo ride and run from Katie Zaferes put USA ahead of the bunch and looking confident going into the final tag off. However it was the competitive spirit of Joanna Brown (CAN), Rachel Klamer (NED) and Lucy Hall (GBR) that started to turn the tables.
While at first a breakaway from McElroy and Alexis Lepage (CAN) made it seem that the gold and silver were guaranteed for the two nations, Lepage suffered a slip on the bike that caused Canada to be caught by the fiery chase.
Hard pushes from the Aussies, Brits, and Dutch meant that the final transition would bring five nations together to compete for only three medals.
Mimicking the individual men’s race from the day before, Birtwhistle gunned it in the final metres to bypass the field and snag the finish line to be welcomed by his teammates as the Aussie nation collected the World Title for the very first time.
Text: Lisa Pringle | Triathlon Australia
Image: Janos Schmidt | ITU Media