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With Drama of Olympic Qualifying Complete, All Eyes Turn Toward Beijing

July 28, 2008, 4:08 p.m. (ET)

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are just one month away and six U.S. triathletes are making their final preparations to bring home the gold.

USA Triathlon offers a glimpse back at the qualification process and a sneak peak at what to expect in Beijing on August 18 and 19. [see NBC coverage schedule]

It wasn't without drama, that's for sure. The 2008 U.S. Olympic Team selection process actually started in 2006, as athletes jockeyed for points in ITU events around the world. These precious points were the key factor in determining which athletes would even be able to partake in the three qualifying events set for late 2007 and early 2008.

Jarrod Shoemaker shocked the triathlon world by finishing as the top American at the ITU Beijing World Cup, leaving Olympians Hunter Kemper and Andy Potts, red hot Matt Reed, and another handful of athletes to battle it out for the remaining two slots. Beijing proved that the third time was the charm for Laura Bennett -- who just missed the teams in 2000 and 2004 - as she finished as the top American woman.

The 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Tuscaloosa, Ala., saw Reed and Julie Swail Ertel punch their tickets to Beijing, but new U.S. citizen Reed soon found out his spot was in jeopardy when the U.S. men slipped down the world rankings. He produced an amazing run of finishes during May and June to secure that final team slot and his own position on the team. Swail Ertel, who had a stellar 2007 with wins at USAT Elite Nationals, the Pan American Games, and the ITU Cancun World Cup, earned her second Olympic appearance, but first in triathlon. She won a silver medal in 2000 on the U.S. water polo team.

More drama unfolded in June as a flood swept through Des Moines, Iowa, threatening the ITU Hy-Vee World Cup, the last qualifying event. But the waters receded in time, and beautiful weather on race day paved the way for great races from Hunter Kemper and Sarah Haskins to round out the Olympic Team. Kemper, who had been hounded by injuries since early 2007, was clearly emotional as he crossed the line and realized he had become the first three-time U.S. Olympic triathlete. Haskins Kortuem, a school teacher just five years ago, realized a childhood dream by making her first Olympic team.

Andy Potts and Becky Lavelle were named the team replacements.

Now the attention turns to China, where this team of three U.S. women and three U.S. men will battle the world for Olympic Gold. The races are set for August 18 (women) and August 19 (men), with 55 men and 55 women set to compete on the 1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run course.

The course will feature a one lap "figure 9" shaped swim in the beautiful Ming Tombs Reservoir, a six lap bike featuring a challenging climb, long descent, and some technical turns in and out of the transition area, and a four lap out and back run that is primarily flat, but with a short sharp ramp out of and back into the transition area each lap.

The U.S. is one of just five countries to field a full team of six. Who will be the key athletes and countries to watch? As always, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Switzerland, Canada and Germany will field teams full of medal contenders. France, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Brazil, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Bermuda, Syria, Estonia, Ireland, Zimbabwe, and Chile are among the other countries with athletes on the start list.

In the women's race, the story has to begin with Vanessa Fernandes (Portugal) and Emma Snowsill (Australia), who have become the athletes to beat in international competitions over the past few years. But look for names like Bennett, Daniela Ryf (Germany), Emma Moffat (Australia), Jessica Harrison (France) and rising stars Lisa Norden (Sweden) and Helen Tucker (Great Britain) to challenge for the medals.

"We have a strong women's team for sure and they are all good swimmers and have succeeded for years by setting a fast pace from the gun," USAT Sport Performance Director Scott Schnitzspahn. "As experienced as Laura and Julie are, they are both still getting faster, especially on the run. Sarah proved that she is a force to be reckoned with by her silver medal at Worlds this year as well. There are so many talented women in the sport now, though, and this format is so unpredictable. Everyone thinks that Emma Snowsill of Australia and Vanessa Fernandes of Portugal will battle it out for Gold and Silver and everyone else will be racing for Bronze. I think there will be a surprise in the women's race and I think our girls will be part of that."

No stranger to the Olympic Games (she won water polo silver in Athens in 2000), Ertel is ready for a return trip. "I'm looking forward to the entire Olympic experience. Walking in the opening ceremonies is going to be very special for me," she said. "It's likely the last time I'll get to do it.

"It's rewarding to know I've made some sacrifices and they've paid off. My goal is to win a medal, but if I can't be on top of the podium, my goal is to make sure that an American is. We have a great team; all strong in swim, bike and run. I would love it if we could sweep and take gold, silver, and bronze."

There's no arguing Javier Gomez (Spain) is the man to beat in Beijing. The reigning World Champion has been nothing but dominant on the World Cup circuit the past three years. He will battle with the likes of 2000 gold medalist Simon Whitfield (Canada), Daniel Unger (Germany), Brad Kahlefeldt (Australia), Bevan Docherty (New Zealand), Rasmus Henning (Denmark), Frederic Belaubre (France), Ivan Rana (Spain), Tim Don (Great Britain), Filip Ospaly (Czech Republic) and a host of other athletes - including the Americans - in this well-balanced competitive field.

"For the men it will be exciting," Schnitzspahn said. "Matt is having an incredible year and is running better than ever. His aggressive racing style on the bike will be an asset at the Games where nobody sits and waits for the run. Look for him to be where the action is all day. Hunter is the wily veteran, going into his third Games, and he knows how to win. Jarrod is young in the sport, but he will have had a year to prepare and he has all the talent in the world. If he puts it all together on the day anything can happen."

Kemper is hoping the third time is the charm for him. "I'm excited to go to my third Olympic Games," said the 32-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo. resident. "It's been a tough year. I've been dealing with a bit of an injury. Things are getting better and I'm putting that pain behind me and moving forward toward Beijing. Hopefully I can bring home the gold for the USA."

The team will head to China the first week of August to participate in the Opening Ceremonies, then it's off to South Korea for a training camp to get acclimated to the heat, humidity and time zone change. "It's also a very beautiful and peaceful place where the athletes can relax and focus without all of the hype surrounding the Games," said Schnitzspahn. "All of the hard training will be done by that point, so the athletes will just be tapering down physically while mentally preparing for the event."

Schnitzspahn, who stepped into his position in 2006, has experienced first-hand all the drama surrounding the qualification process over the past two years and he is ready for the athletes to reap the benefits of the hard work that has gotten them to this point.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the athletes all perform at their best and with that, witnessing the culmination of an incredible amount of hard work from a lot of people over the last four years," he said. "The world will see three men and three women from the USA all giving their best, but behind them is an army of family and friends, coaches, sponsors, mechanics, doctors, managers, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Triathlon staff who have worked night and day to get those athletes to the starting line prepared to take on the world."

Find out more about the team.

Visit the ITU Olympics webpage.