Summer Rappaport running in the Tokyo ITU World Olympic Qualification Event on Aug. 14, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.
Summer Rappaport turned 9 years old not long before the Olympic Games opened in Sydney in 2000, and she watched that year enraptured by the U.S. swim team.
She couldn’t have known then that 20 years later she’d qualify for the Olympic Games herself, and that swimming would be a part of her sport.
On Thursday morning in Tokyo, however, the 28-year-old from Thornton, Colorado, was the top U.S. woman and finished in the top eight overall at the Tokyo ITU World Olympic Qualification Event, earning her spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team.
“I was so inspired by the dominance of the U.S. swim team (in 2000) that I wanted to start swimming,” Rappaport told TeamUSA.org from Tokyo. “It’s crazy to think that decision to start swimming almost 20 years ago led me to qualify in triathlon. I’m just thrilled and I’m so excited to come back to Tokyo next year.”
Rappaport turned out to be talented not only in swimming but also in distance running, setting her up perfectly for her future endeavors. She was an NCAA Division I swimmer and cross-country athlete at Villanova in Philadelphia, and excelled in both. She was in the top eight of the Big East Championships all four years as a swimmer, and in 2012 was named All-Mid-Atlantic Region and All-Big East in cross-country. She was fourth at the Big East Championships in the 5,000-meter in 2013, the year she graduated.
After college, she joined the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program and made her debut as an elite triathlete in March 2014.
Rappaport, who was then Summer Cook, had success on the ITU World Cup circuit as she moved through the ranks and picked up her first World Triathlon Series – the higher-level circuit – medal in 2016, winning the event in Edmonton, Alberta.
Heading into this year she knew, however, that somehow she needed to find a way to commit even more to what she was doing. Elite athletes already give up so much of their lives toward their sports, but Rappaport knew she could give more.
That meant racing, training and not much else. Her life turned more or less into one big training camp with races in between, which meant spending her first year of marriage — she wed Ian Rappaport in November 2018— in a long-distance relationship.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but fortunately I have a husband who also wants see me perform to the best of my abilities,” she said. “He’s understanding when I come home and say the crazy thing my coach wants me to do and he’s like, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’”
The work paid off this summer. Rappaport won her first WTS medal in three years in May at the stop in Yokohama, Japan, taking silver as part of a U.S. podium sweep. She followed that up with a world cup win in Huatulco, Mexico, followed by a bronze medal in Hamburg, Germany, and a silver medal in Edmonton to make it three WTS podiums in a row.
“I had to become a little unbalanced in a way,” she said. “To achieve at this level I had to go all in with the sport and I’ve been able to do that.”
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It all led up to Thursday’s Olympic test event, which Rappaport entered as the sixth-ranked woman in the world.
The conditions were hot and humid, which is typical for Tokyo in the summer, but even by those standards it was brutal. The water in Tokyo Bay was 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), which is warmer than what swimmers typically race in; then about two hours before the race, organizers announced they were shortening the run from 10 kilometers to 5 because of the heat stress indicator in order to protect the athletes’ safety.
That meant Rappaport had to stay within striking distance on the bike.
“The run is one of my strengths, so the farther back I was on the bike the less time I’d have to try to run up, so I wanted to try to keep the gap as small as possible,” she said.
Rappaport was third out of the water behind teammate Katie Zaferes, who was widely expected to finish on the podium as the top-ranked woman in the world. Three laps into the bike leg, however, Zaferes looked back, crashed into a barrier and was out of the race.
For much of the rest of the bike it looked as if Taylor Spivey would be the top finishing American. Per USA Triathlon’s Olympic selection procedures, if no American finished on the podium, the highest-finishing athlete who came in top eight would be automatically selected to the Olympic team.
Spivey took off on the run in the lead group, but Rappaport wasn’t far behind in the chase group. Even she didn’t know how close she was until she got out on the course.
“I actually thought there were more people in the front pack on the bike so my chances of qualifying were slim,” she said. “I was just trying to make the most of the race and get a better feel for the course in case I was able to qualify and come back next year. On the run I realized I had the chance to run my way up so I tried to be patient, move up and still do everything I could to keep my core temperature down as much as possible.”
Just before the finish Rappaport got her second wind, passed Spivey and finished seventh overall. That result would later be changed to fifth after Great Britain’s Jessica Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown were disqualified for crossing the finish line first while holding hands and effectively forcing a tie.
Life may now take a little while longer before it returns to “normal” for Rappaport, but with her Olympic dream coming true, that’s OK.
"I think this past year in particular, knowing kind of what I’m giving up not having a normal first year of marriage or normal relationships with my family because I’m away so much keeps me motivated,” she said. “I really want to make this worth it, see this through and find out what I’m capable of. I have a little extra fire knowing in the route to pursuing this I’ve given up some normalcy. It’s really difficult but I think it’s helped take me to the next level.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.