Katie Zaferes, Kevin McDowell, Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson pose with their medals on the podium during the medal ceremony following the Mixed Relay Triathlon at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo.
That was USA Triathlon’s medal haul at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo. It was the best Olympic and Paralympic Games ever for American triathletes, with the U.S. leading all countries in triathlon medals.
Kevin McDowell kicked off the string of successes by finishing sixth in the men’s triathlon — the best ever for a U.S. man in Olympic competition.
In the women’s race, two-time Olympian Katie Zaferes won a bronze medal.
Four days later, McDowell and Zaferes teamed with first-time Olympians Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson and won a silver medal in the Olympic debut of the mixed relay.
Then came the 2020 Paralympic Games. Allysa Seely and Hailey Danz repeated their gold-silver finishes, respectively, from the 2016 Rio Games in the PTS2 paratriathlon category. Grace Norman won a silver medal in the PTS5 category to go with her gold from the Rio Games. Kendall Gretsch became the first Paralympic gold medalist in the wheelchair class. And Brad Snyder was the Paralympic champion in the PTVI category.
Recently, seven of these medal-winning triathletes joined a Zoom call to celebrate this success. They talked about the letters that USA Triathlon asked the Olympians’ and Paralympians’ friends and family to send to the athletes to read while they were in Tokyo. And they listed their favorite foods from dining hall in the Olympic and Paralympic Village (squid balls!).
But mostly, they reminisced about the great team atmosphere in Tokyo among both the Olympians and Paralympians — and with each other between the Games.
It’s this sense of team that was one of the keys to their success in Tokyo.
The Paralympians credited the support they have received from USA Triathlon, notably the paratriathlon resident program which started in April 2018. The athletes moved to Colorado Springs and train together at the Olympic Training Center. Prior to this program, most of the paratriathletes trained on their own.
“I think it was a really successful program,” said Danz. “And I don’t know if our medal haul would have been possible without it.”
Before the 2020 season, McDowell moved to Colorado Springs for a coaching change. As a side benefit, he often trained with the Paralympians.
“They kind of took me in as part of their team,” he said.
This change was pivotal. He admired how the paratriathletes trained hard but also had fun, often laughing through workouts, then they hung out as friends during their down time.
“Seeing how lively there were as a group was very inspiring,” McDowell said. “You could see the energy growing as the Games got closer. It was pretty exciting because I felt like I was part of it.”
In turn, McDowell “brought a lot of joy to the group,” said Danz.
“It’s so important to be able to find joy in the process,” she added. “The days that I knew he was going to be at the pool, it made me just a little bit more excited to go swim.”