NANJING, China – On the eve of her 17th birthday, Stephanie Jenks couldn’t sleep. She knew this would be no ordinary birthday.
While her fellow American teammates gathered to celebrate the Opening Ceremony of the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, Jenks spent the night back in the athlete village, thinking of an Olympic dream that had yet to be realized – until now.
Jenks celebrated her birthday in medal-winning fashion, earning silver in the women’s sprint triathlon at Xuanwu Lake. The medal marked the first for Team USA at these Games and fourth straight by U.S. triathletes on the Youth Olympic stage.
“I was pretty confident I was going to podium and I’m really happy with my race,” said Jenks. “It’s a great birthday present to come home with a medal. I raced with no regrets and I couldn't have done any better."
The Aurora, Iowa, native completed the 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike and 5K run sprint-distance course in 1:00:33, crossing the finish line 37 seconds behind gold-medal winner Brittany Dutton of Australia, who clocked in at 59:56, and comfortably ahead of bronze medalist Emilie Morier of France, who finished in 1:00:55.
Jenks knew she would be facing stiff competition from some of the world’s best athletes. To help calm the jitters, she channeled her idol – U.S. Olympic triathlete Sarah Groff.
“She has such a funny personality and is really chatty before races,” said Jenks of Groff, who finished fourth at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “I’m the same way. When I’m nervous, I get chatty. It’s a great way to make friends before a race."
Sharing the pre-competition strategy was Australia’s Dutton, who joined Jenks in dancing along with the Nanjing 2014 cheerleaders before the race. But once the air horn went off, it was all business.
After a strong start, Jenks was 10th coming out of the water and found herself in the second bike pack following the first transition. On the fourth and final lap of the 20K bike course, Dutton made a split from the lead pack for a solo break. Trailing by nearly 40 seconds during the second stanza, Jenks and the chase pack used one final surge to catch the lead group heading into the final transition.
“That was the turning point,” said Jenks. “I’ve never been part of a pack that cooperated that way before. Everyone had a spark, and it was really cool. At that point, Brittany (Dutton) knew we were coming.”
Then Jenks – who is known for her speed – used her running strength to her advantage, posting the second fastest run of the day to move into a medal-winning position.
“I was asking myself, ‘How bad do you want it? How badly do you want to make the podium?’” said Jenks. “I kept working and pushing it, hoping I could get her. Going into the second lap I knew I had a podium spot and I was pretty confident I was going to end up second.”
Jenks will have a shot at redemption when she faces Dutton again at the 2014 ITU Junior World Championships, slated for Aug. 28-31 in Edmonton, Alberta.
But for now, she is looking forward to enjoying the rest of the Youth Olympic Games experience, beginning tomorrow with the men’s sprint triathlon, in which Team USA’s Seth Rider will have the chance to become the fourth American triathlete to medal at the Youth Olympics. At the inaugural Games in 2010 in Singapore, U.S. triathletes Kevin McDowell and Kelly Whitley earned silver and bronze, in the individual events, as well as bronze in the team relay.
“I’m confident Seth can keep the tradition alive and get a medal,” said Jenks of her U.S. teammate. “The U.S. continues to get stronger in triathlon and we’re really excited to be a part of that growth. I gave him a few pointers about the course and will be there tomorrow cheering him on.”
Following the men’s event, Jenks and Rider will also have the chance to represent the Americas in the mixed relay event, scheduled for Aug. 21.