Mixed team poses head scratcher for Tri NZ

A new era in triathlon - pitting women and men against each other - is giving young triathletes, like up-and-coming Kiwi Ainsley Thorpe, the chance to star. But it's not for everyone, David Leggat discovers.

The face of triathlon racing is changing. Next year’s Tokyo Olympics will feature a mixed team relay, as well as the standard individual events, and it’s the furrowing brows of the sport’s bosses.

New Zealand has a young group of triathletes competing in this weekend’s world mixed team relay (MTR) championships in Hamburg, and there’s an inescapable vibe that the sport’s international governors, along with the International Olympic Committee, see the shortening of the event as an opportunity to get more eyeballs on the sport.

Ainsley Thorpe, a 21-year-old from Auckland, is a prime example of where the International Triathlon Union – and by extension the IOC – are anticipating the sport’s next big push to come from.

Thorpe is one of a six-strong New Zealand team preparing for the MTR worlds, which are running alongside the latest round of the pinnacle World Triathlon Series.

The group also comprises Nicole van der Kaay, Sophie Corbidge, Hayden Wilde, Sam Ward and world U23 champion Tayler Reid – who won Commonwealth Games bronze in the mixed team relay with seasoned racers Andrea Hewitt and Ryan Sissons on the Gold Coast last year.

They are in the vanguard of what might be termed the new wave of New Zealand triathletes.

All are aged below 30. The youngest, at 21, Thorpe freely admits her preference for the relay discipline.

The standard triathlon distance - a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike leg and a 10km run to finish - takes years to be good at it, she says. “Most of the girls winning on the world stage are in their late 20s. They’re older and stronger,” she says.

For many athletes, they are the distances they’ve grown up and fed on all their careers. Chopping the sport back in size doesn’t necessarily hold any appeal to them.

The MTR by contrast will be a 300m swim, 8km ride and a 2km sprint finish at the 2020 Olympics. Chicken feed for the hardy veterans of the sport, but this is the point. It’s all about attracting new and younger audiences.

“It’s really cool to watch,” Thorpe says. “It’s a 20-minute race with four people, much more spectator friendly than watching an hour of people cycling round a bike course.”

Thorpe’s is not an uncommon viewpoint. Then again, there are other athletes who would rather stick with the tried and tested format, even if there’s a case for a revamp to attract more interest.

Ainsley Thorpe (right) on her first World Cup podium, in Antwerp last month, with German triathletes (from left) Laura Lindemann and Lisa Tertsch. Photo: ITU Media

Thorpe is clearly a talent on the rise.

She nabbed her first ITU World Cup medal in Antwerp last month, finishing third by edging out Frenchwoman Pauline Landron and van der Kaay, who was fifth.

“I had done a World Cup before and got 16th in Mexico,” Thorpe says. “I hadn’t expected to podium [in Antwerp] but running in I was pretty determined to get the medal and I went for it.”

At the same event, Reid won the men's elite race. 

There has been one outing at the top flight, the World Triathlon Series, in Abu Dhabi in March, where she finished 19th individually and third in the mixed team, along with Corbidge, Wilde and Ward.

“I had raced against, and beaten, some of those girls so I knew I was capable of racing at that level,” Thorpe says.

Determination is a key attribute for Thorpe. Her coaches believe she is among the hardest workers in the New Zealand squad. She admits she doesn’t hold back.

“I am a really determined trainer. You always have good and bad days but you just have to work through those bad days when you’re tired,” she says.

“I was always a dedicated trainer growing up. I was always that girl in the group who trained harder than anyone else.”

The former Howick College pupil, who’s studying for a degree in event management, found her place in the sport via running and swimming.

She swam at national level but not among the elite, and ran at junior national level but happily admits it was more for swimming fitness. There were medals at cross country and athletics for her school.

Then, one day, she spotted a newspaper article where Triathlon NZ was looking for swimmers or runners to attend a talent scouting camp. Thorpe went along with her brother Trent (now 23, and a useful triathlete himself).

“I got scouted into a junior talent programme, just based on my swimming and running. I hadn’t ridden a bike till then,” Ainsley says.

That was 2015. The attraction was simple.

“I could put my swimming and running together. I wasn’t the best swimmer so I wasn’t going to make the Olympics in swimming, and I knew that, with running, I was pretty good over long distances but I didn’t want to be just a runner.”

The cycling part took a while, and a few scrapes and bumps along the way, but a fierce resolve helps in times like this.

She’s had three stress fractures, one bad crash, an accident which broke her shoulder two weeks before her first world junior champs in 2016; then a broken leg a fortnight before the 2017 world juniors when she tripped over a gate.

“My dream has always been to go to the Olympics and this is how I want to get there, by doing triathlon,” she says.

In Tokyo, the MTR will be a four-team event, racing in a set female/male/female/male order.

Now things get tricky.

The IOC have deemed the athletes chosen for the individual events in Tokyo must also be part of the mixed relay.

So how do national organisations pick their teams – do they focus on the traditional individual events, or put the spotlight on the mixed relay?

And what happens if the two don’t mix; that is the individual distance athletes aren’t best suited to the short, hectic relay, which is contested the following day? The athletes must start in the individual event too.

So consider this: you’re a mixed relay specialist, so why would you push yourself through a standard Olympic distance triathlon 24 hours ahead of the discipline where your better chance lies of a strong performance, with all the attendant issues such as working towards funding support and greater public spotlight? Why not pick athletes to specialise in the two disciplines?

Put simply, the IOC is capping hard the total number of athletes to compete at the Olympic Games, and that’s across the board, not just a triathlon-specific dilemma.

“They [Triathlon NZ’s selectors] could go either way really, depending on what they think is the best way for us to get a medal,” Thorpe says.

Ainsley Thorpe (right) had never raced on a bike until she went to a Triathlon NZ talent scouting camp. Photo: ITU Media

The five-strong selection panel – the most high profile member being two-time Olympic medallist Bevan Docherty – will have to make that decision, but it’s still some months away.

Outstanding veteran Andrea Hewitt - 37 and eyeing a fourth successive Olympic Games - is taking time out of the world series, but is expected to be pushing hard to restate her credentials later this year. She’s voiced concerns at the direction Triathlon NZ are taking.

Right now, New Zealand are ranked fourth in the MTR standings, behind Australia, the United States and France. That offers a compelling argument for next year purely in medal terms.

“The issue we’ve got is that we have to make decisions based on medal potential,” says Tri NZ’s chairman Graham Perks. “At the end of the day, if you secure an Olympic medal that assists with your funding and how the sport develops going forward.”

If there’s no medal, all national associations then hope the performances in Tokyo will show High Performance Sport NZ that their sport is on the right pathway.

Perks says age can’t be used as a barrier to MTR selection, pointing to established older athletes around the globe who are capable relay racers.

He also pointed out there are some younger athletes “who probably haven’t got the resilience and durability to be doing the Olympic distance. Ultimately those younger athletes are going to be looking at the mixed relay”.

The bottom line for selection is a last chance event around April next year to finalise the team if they’re not already locked in by then.

Will there be tears? Quite possibly.

“There’s always someone who won’t like what you’ve done,” Perks says.

“All you can do is try your best to put infrastructure around the athletes so they have the best chance to realise their potential.”

The last word goes to Thorpe. Is she already daring to dream about Tokyo?

“I definitely think it’s in the picture, a goal I can achieve,” she says. “I just need to keep racing the way I have and keep progressing and training hard. I believe in myself every time I go to race that I can win.”

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