Laura Bennett (fourth) and Mark Fretta (17th) had the top U.S. finishes, but it was young Manny Huerta who stole the show. His 20th place finish guaranteed his slot to compete at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 19.
In the women’s race, Bennett took control of the race early by successfully navigating the rip current off the beach start of the one lap swim and putting in a late surge to overtake Emma Moffat for the swim prime. The bike began with a few small groups, and the first two came together on the seven lap bike that featured a small climb each way on the out and back technical course. Mary Beth Ellis and Bennett come off the bike in the lead group. Once on the run, Emma Snowsill and Vanessa Fernandes quickly separated themselves from Bennett and U23 World Champion Lisa Norden.
After one lap Snowsill turned up the heat to the delight of the home crowd and surged away from Fernandes who has been training hard right up to this race in preparation for World Championships and the Beijing Olympics. Snowsill crossed the line first, preventing Fernandes from becoming the all time world cup win leader, by relegating her to second place. Norden showed her great form and gradually opened a gap on Bennett that would hold to the finish line for the 3rd spot on the podium.
Bennett finished a strong 4th and was happy with her finish. “I’m a lot stronger now than I was at this time last year and, for my fitness, I felt spot on,” said Bennett, who has already qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team. “I don’t have the speed now because I haven’t done that kind of work yet. I’m exactly where I want to be right now.”
Ellis backed up her swim and strong bike with a solid run to finish 25th. Julianna Batizy-Morley lost contact with the group on the long run up the soft sandy beach after the swim due to a bad ankle that is still recovering from surgery in January. After a hard bike effort in which she pulled her group of three around the course for all seven laps on the bike, she succumbed to the effort after three laps of the four lap run. Unfortunately, a virus contracted on the trip to Mooloolaba took Heidi Grimm out of the race before the starting gun even went off.
Just after the women finished, the temperature rose a few more degrees for the men’s event that featured American’s Fretta, Huerta and Dave Messenheimer. The trio would go up against the best athletes from Oceania and around the world, many of whom were competing for a spot at the Beijing Games. For the three American athletes, a top-20 finish would guarantee Olympic eligibility and a start at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
After the washing machine-like surf swim that featured a lot of physical contact, the athletes quickly formed one huge pack on the bike that included almost the entire field. A late break saw four riders enter transition with a short lead that would quickly evaporate out on the run course. The big guns quickly came to the front on the run and World No. 1, Spain’s Javier Gomez, gradually pulled away from the field with Australian Brad Kahlefeldt who hung on the fleet footed Spaniard until the last lap of the run where Gomez pulled away, making winning another world cup look easy. 2006 World Champion Tim Don pulled away from Olympic Silver Medalist Bevan Docherty with a late sprint to take 3rd. Just behind Docherty was Australian Olympian and Lifetime Fitness Series Champion Greg Bennett in 5th place, a finish that could possibly earn him a trip to Beijing with his American wife Laura Bennett, depending on the Australian Olympic Team selectors.
Meanwhile, Huerta and Fretta ran through the field on the first lap. After dismounting their bikes in the middle of the large pack, they passed numerous overzealous athletes who went out too fast and blew apart on the first main hill on the challenging run course, rising has high as 15th place by mid-way through the 10 kilometer run. As they came to the finish line, Fretta put in a sprint to capture 17th place and Huerta gave it everything he had to hold on to 20th place and claim his spot on the start line at the Trials in Tuscaloosa.
Said Huerta, “This was the hardest race I’ve ever done. I knew I needed a top 20 so I kept fighting to the end.”
Upon finishing, Huerta thought he had finished 21st, then broke into tears of joy when Sport Performance Director Scott Schnitzspahn told him that he had instead finished 20th. Messenheimer suffered cramping on the run and finished 57th.
“I am really proud of how the team raced today in Mooloolaba,” said Schnitzspahn after the races. “Mary Beth, Manny and Mark solidified their Olympic eligibility and Laura showed her preparations for Beijing are right on track. Julie and Dave put up tough fights.”
Next up for the American team will be the New Plymouth World Cup in New Zealand on April 6th.