Matt McElroy competes at the World Triathlon Series stop on June 9, 2019 in Leeds, England.
The emotions powered up for U.S. triathlete Matt McElroy during his final push last week in Leeds, England.
He pumped his fists seconds before he crossed the finish line in the World Triathlon Series elite men’s race on June 9.
The shouting quickly turned to tears.
McElroy’s silver medal in Leeds was not only his first podium finish in a WTS race – and his first top-10 – but also the first by any American man in 10 years. Jarrod Shoemaker, a 2008 Olympian, won a gold medal in 2009 in Hamburg, Germany, when the series was still being run under its former name, the ITU World Championship Series.
“It hit me when I came across the finish line,” McElroy said of his historic finish in an email interview from Kazakhstan, where he raced a world cup on Saturday, earning bronze six days after his historic WTS achievement. “I was hugging my coach (Ian O’Brien) and the USA Triathlon staff crying. I knew this result would change my life.”
It already has.
The runner-up finish boosted McElroy to 24th place in the Olympic qualification rankings. The next highest-ranking American is Morgan Pearson in 35th place.
“My goal is to qualify for the Olympics,” McElroy said. “This will give me a lot of confidence going into the Tokyo test event (in August).”
The U.S. is aiming to qualify the maximum three women and three men for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, with two from each gender competing in the mixed relay, which makes its Olympic debut next year and will feature 20 nations. The race to fill 110 quota spots (55 men, 55 women) will go into spring 2020. The U.S. earned all six slots in 2016.
McElroy’s medal-winning performance in Leeds ramps up a men’s program that has been building for some time now. The tears of happiness last Sunday were not only for McElroy’s hard work but for the rest of a hopeful USA Triathlon squad.
“What a fantastic moment and breakthrough performance for Matt,” said John Farra, USA Triathlon high performance general manager. “It is a testament to his hard work, professionalism, willingness to do the work and to believe in and be patient with the process.
“I believe this is bigger than just one top result, and I expect we will remember this as the moment that the seal was broken for this new era of our men’s program. I am fired up for Matt, for the rest of the guys who want a piece of this momentum and for the next generation of USA Triathlon youth and juniors who will see the possibilities a bit more clearly now.”
Winning a medal was not an entirely new experience for McElroy. He won bronze medals in two world cup races last year. He also helped the U.S. to first- and second-place finishes in WTS mixed relays last year. But a hamstring injury slowed him during the offseason. He finished 20th in the season-opening WTS event in Abu Dhabi despite splitting his toe open during the bike portion. He finished fifth at a world cup race in March in Australia despite the skin opening up again.
Prior to the race in Leeds, he had met with Katie Zaferes, a 2016 U.S. Olympian who is ranked No. 1 in the world and won the first three WTS races this year, and the two talked about setting goals and writing them down before every race.
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After finishing his race in dramatic fashion, it was the voice of Zaferes that McElroy heard.
“Katie was super pumped for me,” he said. “She yelled across a crowd of people and said, ‘It’s all about the goals!’”
The race had been a tight battle. McElroy was just 20 seconds down after the swimming portion and he said he became a part of the lead pack in the bike portion. He began the run in 21st place, but only a few seconds separated those 21 men.
And that’s where this race played right into McElroy’s wheelhouse. The Huntington Beach, California, native ran track and cross-country in high school and then in college at Northern Arizona.
“I came off the bike only a couple seconds down from the leaders and immediately sprinted to the back of the front pack and took a couple deep breaths,” McElroy said. “I waited about a minute until the pace slowed and decided to take the lead. I felt good! I wanted the race to blow open on the run and create some separation.”
McElroy wound up with the second-fastest time in the run, 30 minutes, 26 seconds. The only person faster was Jacob Birtwhistle of Australia, who finished the run in 30:21 and beat out McElroy for the gold medal by just seven seconds, 1:45:12 to 1:45:19.
McElroy joined Zaferes as a silver medalist in Leeds. The celebration began immediately.
Soon, McElroy was on the move again. While several of the U.S. triathletes were remaining in England for the mixed relay in Nottingham, McElroy competed Saturday at a world cup date in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, earning a second consecutive medal.
“After drug testing, I went to MOD Pizza (a Seattle-based chain with restaurants in England) by myself and started packing for my 6 a.m. flight to Kazakhstan.”
Things were a bit different in Kazakhstan for McElroy.
He wore the No. 1 bib for the men’s race.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.