As Matt McElroy was warming up to race Sunday, he was having trouble keeping to his normal routine.
For the first time in his career, McElroy was part of a team event, the ITU Triathlon Mixed Relay World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. Scheduled to do the anchor leg for the four-person U.S. team, McElroy couldn’t pry his eyes from the nearby course or the giant video board as he warmed up.
“I was cheering and I was warming up, and I was cheering and I was trying to get into the zone and focus on what I needed to do,” said McElroy, 25. “Normally when you’re racing for yourself, to get ready for your race, you try to block out those elements of who you’re going to race and what’s going on. … You’re in your zone. But in this case, I was cheering and getting updates.”
When McElroy finally got into the race, he did just fine. Following strong performances from Kirsten Kasper, and 2016 Olympians Ben Kanute and Katie Zaferes, McElroy crossed the finish line second to earn silver for the U.S., just behind Australia.
Each team consists of two men and two women, who alternately negotiate a short course — 300-meter swim followed by 7-kilometer bike and 1.6K run — and tag the next teammate for his or her leg. The fastest combined time wins.
For McElroy and Zaferes, it was a chance to try something new. Neither had ever taken part in the mixed relay, an event that will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020. The International Triathlon Union has held the championship event each year since 2009. This was just the third time the U.S. has medaled. The Americans took bronze in 2013 and gold in 2016, when Kasper and Kanute teamed with 2016 Olympic champion Gwen Jorgensen and Olympian Joe Maloy.
Zaferes, like McElroy, wanted to try it before the Tokyo Games to see if it suited her. Each gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“It’s fun and exciting and it feels like a little more’s on the line because you don’t want to disappoint your team or your country,” said Zaferes, 28. “It’s so fun to have the camaraderie between teammates, because sometimes — because of Olympic selection and things like that — the USA athletes are the ones you’re most competitive with, but in the relay you’re all working for the same goal.”
Kasper did the first leg and had the U.S. tied with Australia when she tagged Kanute. Kanute put his team out in front, along with France, when Zaferes’ turn came. Her strong third leg produced a lead for McElroy. He was caught on the swim — his weakest leg — by Canada’s Alexis LePage, but then fought back on the bike to catch him. The two briefly worked together in the lead, until the Canadian crashed, leaving McElroy about 6K to cycle on his own, without drafting help, while the pack behind him could gain while rotating leaders.
“By the time I got to the run, I had dead legs from cycling by myself, and these guys caught me,” said McElroy. “Their energy was saved because they efficiently rotated on the bike.”
Australia finished in 1 hour, 22 minutes and 38 seconds, four seconds ahead of the U.S. The Netherlands took bronze, five seconds back.
Zaferes said doing the relay was one of the most enjoyable events she’s ever experienced. She thinks it’s a terrific addition to the Games’ 2020 lineup, not just for the athletes, but the fans, who get to see a fast duel of teams over a short course.
“The format itself is exciting and fun,” she said.
She said she’d been “timid” to try it, but is glad she did. Getting to compete with men and women was a kick. It takes an ultimate team effort and everything to go right to get to the medal stand.
“It was nail-biting,” she said, “but it was definitely fun. He (Matt) did a great job and it was great we got to watch together (at the end), me, Kirsten and Ben, all cheering together.”
McElroy says it makes a fun change-of-pace from individual racing. He said he hadn’t felt that sense of team since he ran cross-country for Northern Arizona.
“I went in pretty blind, and then what I realized is that, the crowd and the athletes — because there was this team aspect — got way more into the race,” he said. “There was more pressure involved, more tactics involved. This type of racing was honestly better than racing for myself.
“To be excited for someone other than yourself, to see them do good and then have that impact your result … it’s really a great feeling.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.