LONDON — Sarah Groff is one gutsy triathlete.
Dropped from the lead pack of runners on the second of four laps, she caught back on with one lap to go. But when the other three in the final pack surged, she had nothing left.
“I looked, I looked, and it wasn’t there,” Groff said after the race.
While Nicola Spirig of Switzerland and Lisa Norden from Sweden sprinted to a photo finish, with Australia’s Erin Densham coming in third, Groff crossed the finish line 10 seconds later.
Though she missed the medal stand, it was a good race for Groff, 30, who took up triathlon after graduating from Middlebury College in 2004. A conservation biology and studio art major at Middlebury, she graduated cum laude with highest honors in art.
She overcame an injury-filled 2010 — breaking her sacrum twice — then had a breakout year in 2011. Groff was the first American woman to finish on a World Championship Series race podium when she took third at a WCS race in Kitzbuhel, Austria in June. By September, she had wrapped up third overall in the WCS. She also finished seventh at the Olympic test event in London last August.
Coming to London, it was her teammate Gwen Jorgensen who was considered a favorite. Jorgensen, 26, finished second at the test event last year. Laura Bennett, 37, who finished fourth in the 2008 Olympic triathlon, was also considered a top contender. But she was the oldest triathlete in the field today.
The race started under cloudy, cool skies in London’s Hyde Park. After the triathletes came out of the water — the Park’s Serpentine Lake — they mounted their bikes and began seven laps on a course that passed Buckingham Palace. Recent rain made the course slick in places with several women crashing.
After a good swim, Bennett stayed near the front, driving the pack. Groff caught up to the lead pack in the first lap, then hung at the back, trying to stay clear of the carnage.
She almost didn’t make it. When one of the Polish triathletes crashed in front of Groff, the American had no choice but to ride over her.
“I had nowhere else to go!” said Groff. “Either I crash, or I ride over the girl lying right in the middle of the road right in front of me, and I thought as I was going over this poor girl, I was going to go down.”
Jorgensen was not as lucky. Shortly after she caught up to the lead pack of riders, she flatted and had to get a wheel change. The delay put her back in the third group of triathletes.
With 19 women in the lead after the cycling leg, the race, as expected, came down to the four-lap run. Bennett dropped off the lead pack of nine in the first lap, but Groff hung tough. She didn’t drop until the leaders surged in lap two. It was early in the run for such a strong surge, she thought.
“That’s where you keep a cool head and stick to your race plan,” she said.
“I knew that some would drop off [from the lead group] and if I kept going my pace, maybe some more would come back to me,” she added. “That’s exactly what happened. It’s just too bad that one more couldn’t come back.”
In fact, Groff put herself back into the mix for a medal when she caught back to the lead group with one lap to go. When medal favorite Helen Jenkins from Britain couldn’t handle the pace, it came down to four.
Coming into the finish, Groff could not respond when Spirig, Norden, and Densham started to sprint. “Oh my, I just lost a medal,” she thought.
But Groff was realistic — and somewhat philosophical — about her result.
“If you don’t have a kick, you don’t have a kick,” she said. “I didn’t have it. There’s nothing you can do at that point. If you want some schadenfreude, you hope that somebody blows up or falls or something. But at the end of the day, I did what I could. I put it all out there.”
Groff crossed the line in fourth — the second time the U.S. has finished fourth at an Olympic triathlon. Bennett finished 17th and Jorgensen 38th.
“Obviously, I came here to try to get a medal, but I didn’t,” said Groff. “Only three people get a medal. I’m going to have to wait another four years.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.