Rio de Janeiro—A trio of young Canadian women put their fitness to the ultimate test for the first time in an Olympic race, on a course that was flat out punishing in Rio de Janeiro, and it got the best of them.
Amelie Kretz (Blainville, Que.), Kirsten Sweetland (Victoria) and Sarah-Anne Brault (Quebec City) slogged it out over two hours through high humidity in a 1.5-kilometre swim, followed by a grueling 40-kilometre bike course capped off by a flat and fast 10-kilometre run along Copacabana beach.
In the end, with many of the top triathletes on the planet collapsing at the finish line, it was the 23-year-old Kretz finishing as the top Canuck in 34th spot with a time of 2:02:48.
“I felt really strong on the first uphill, but I made a mistake on the downhill. I was pretty nervous because I was hit by a car three weeks ago so that was on my mind during the race. I made a tactical error and it cost me the race, said Kretz, who has demonstrated tremendous promise during a breakthrough season that has included a career-best eighth place finish on the World Triathlon Series in May.
“It’s the Olympics so the girls are all working really hard. It’s hard to catch the leaders from the back. I gave everything I had but I didn’t come here for a top-35 finish.”
Kirsten Sweetland and Sarah-Anne Brault placed 41st and 42nd respectively. Sweetland posted a time of 2:04:16, while Brault stopped the clock at 2:04:28.
Kretz, along with Sweetland, took advantage of strong swims where they came out of the Atlantic Ocean in the lead group with about 35 athletes who charged onto the highly-technical bike course featuring two steep climbs, huge descents and tight corners through the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
The two Canadians tucked themselves into the lead pack for the first of eight laps. The lead pack on the bike was cut in half by the midway point as the legs of the top triathletes were destroyed by the intense hills. Sweetland dropped off the back of pack early in the second lap. With the reigning Olympic champion, Nicola Spirig of Switzerland, drilling the pace at the front of the bike along with many of the world’s best cyclists, Kretz joined Sweetland and fellow Canadian, Brault, in the chase group shortly after, which entered second transition just under three minutes behind the leaders.
Late in the ride it was clear the Olympic title was going to come down to Spirig and the number-one-ranked women’s triathlete in the world, American Gwen Jorgensen. The cat and mouse games started in the final lap of the bike and continued onto the four-lap run course when the broke the field.
A test of mental and physical fitness Jorgensen could not break Spirig until the final lap where she stormed off into the winner’s circle. Jorgensen broke the finishing tape with a time of 1:56:16. Spirig celebrated the silver medal at 1:56:56, while Great Britain’s Vicky Holland edged out her teammate Non Stanford in a sprint for the bronze medal with a time of 1:57:01.
It was a victory for Sweetland to just get to the start line in her third attempt at trying to earn a spot on Canada’s Olympic squad. After becoming just the second Canadian ever to win a medal on the World Triathlon Series, and just the third ever to medal at the Commonwealth Games, Sweetland has been on the sidelines for much of the last two years.
“I didn’t know if I was even going to make the team earlier this year. I’m obviously disappointed. I would have liked a better result, but I’m just happy I put it all out there and did my best,” said Sweetland. “Our sport is not easy. I was just praying I’d make it through the bike course today. That was the biggest hurdle for me. I did get dropped from the front pack on the first hill and then caught up. I gave everything I had to stay in contact. When I got to the run, I just became focused on finishing and I gave it everything I had to the end.”
Brault struggled to fight back into contention after a challenging swim.
“I was disappointed with my swim. My swimming hasn’t been consistent this year and today didn’t turn out to be a good day in the water for me,” said Brault. “I knew it would be hard after transition one. We caught up to Amelie’s group but it was too late. In this race, the Olympics, you needed to be in the front pack. We tried to catch up on the bike but the good riders were all at the front.”
It has been a rollercoaster quadrennial for the Canadian triathlon squad complete with medal-winning performances at major international competitions, and plagued with a string of injuries. On the upside, the future for Triathlon Canada is bright. With each of the five members in Rio having gained valuable experience in their Olympic debut, the next generation is also quickly developing in Canada – with the ultimate goal for the red and white back in the podium mix in 2020.