CHICAGO — For triathlete Ben Kanute, it was close. Just not close enough.
For two-thirds of the elite men’s race at the 2015 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final Chicago, Kanute was in contention to earn a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team. He needed a top-eight finish, and wearing a stars-and-stripes baseball hat, he led the 10-kilometer run for the first of four laps.
But then the Spaniards hunted him down. Mario Mola won the race, with teammate Javier Gomez taking a record-breaking fifth title for the world championship series.
Kanute remained in the top 10 until about four kilometers from the finish. Then man-by-man, he fell back in the standings, ending up 20th.
“The Grand Final is the hardest race of the year,” he said. “The competition is so high. My goal was to make top 20 and that would be a good solid day. I did that. I’m happy.”
If awards were given out for most aggressive competitor, the 22-year-old Kanute would have won. He rode the nine-lap 40-kilometer bike through Chicago’s Grant Park at the front of the 30-man pack and made two breaks off the front.
An attack during the final lap gave him a 36-second lead coming into the bike-run transition. He set off on the run in front of a roaring crowd.
“It’s always fun to be at the front, so it was an extra little boost,” he said. “I just want to keep putting myself at the front of the race and giving myself that chance and hopefully each time I can hang on a little bit longer.”
A University of Arizona graduate and long-time triathlete, Kanute will return to Tucson to train this winter.
The next U.S. Olympic selection race will happen next spring — location to be determined. The U.S. men can qualify a maximum of three triathletes for Rio. And the field is wide open.
“The U.S. guys, you can’t discount any of them,” said Kanute. “Some people have had good races on some days, some people have had off days on others. I’ve had a few past rough races, and today I just so happened to have a good day, so it’s all going to probably come down to the race next year to determine who’s on the team.”
Kanute’s best World Triathlon Series race this season was a 10th place in Auckland, New Zealand, in late March. It’s the top finish for all U.S. men, with Jarrod Shoemaker close behind with one 12th place finish. Kanute was also the highest finisher in the season-long world championship standings, placing 32nd.
Pan American Games silver medalist Kevin McDowell was also in contention to meet the Olympic qualification standards in the Grand Final. The 23-year-old was in the front pack on the bike leg. But having finished fourth in the U23 world championship 56 hours earlier, he was suffering.
He ended up 32nd.
“That was the hardest thing of my life,” he said — which says something coming from a cancer survivor. McDowell was diagnosed with a form of lymphatic cancer in 2011, and this is his first full season back since undergoing chemotherapy.
The crowd yelling “McDowell” and “U-S-A” carried him through, as did the yellow Cal’s Angels bracelet that he wears on his right wrist. The organization grants wishes and provides financial assistance to kids diagnosed with cancer.
“That’s what really drove me the last lap,” he said. “There are a lot of kids hurting, and this is nothing compared to what they’re going through.”
Other U.S. men in contention to make the U.S. Olympic team had tough days as well. Sean Jefferson was 40th and Joe Maloy was 54th.
Aiming for his fifth Olympic team, Hunter Kemper had a poor swim, then had a flat tire on the bike and couldn’t finish.
Greg Billington — the top U.S. finisher in the Rio test event in August — withdrew before the race started with a foot injury.
But the award for toughest day probably goes to Shoemaker. The 33-year-old veteran is aiming for his second Olympic team (he finished 18th at the 2008 Olympic Games). But his plans reached a hurdle seven weeks ago when he crashed on his bike before the Rio qualifier and broke his collarbone. He returned to Boston and had surgery to insert a plate. Could he be ready for the Grand Final?
“It was an outside hope that he could be here,” said his coach Neal Henderson. “Basically every few days with each week, it was a clearer possibility.”
He was able to start swimming three weeks ago and made it to the starting line in Chicago. He survived the 1,500-meter swim in a rough Lake Michigan. But on the first lap of the bike leg, he flatted.
“Another U.S. race, another flat tire,” he tweeted after the race. “Well, at least I made it to the start line and swam. Not even bad luck can be this bad. Laughing it off.”
Despite the repeated setbacks, Henderson is confident about Shoemaker’s ability to qualify for Rio. Shoemaker has been working hard on improving his cycling, and he is one of the fastest runners in the elite men’s field.
As Kanute said, “You just have to come out and give it your best shot, and you never know what could happen.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.