This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
One lap to go in the race of his life and Matt McElroy thought to himself: “What happens if I podium?”
This was new territory for McElroy, the 27-year-old California native who grew up surfing and lifeguarding and joining local group rides in Huntington Beach. Four years ago, he was a runner at Northern Arizona University contemplating his post-collegiate career as a professional triathlete. He’d watch web broadcasts of ITU World Triathlon Series races, wondering if he’d ever be able to swim fast enough to hang with the world’s best.
But here he was on June 9 in Leeds, England, the fourth stop of the 2019 ITU World Triathlon Series, running alongside WTS stalwarts Javier Gomez Noya and Henri Schoeman thanks to a fantastic swim that put him with the lead group.
The field was dubbed the “Magnificent Seven,” featuring Spain’s Gomez Noya (five-time world champion) and Mario Mola (three-time world champion); Great Britain’s Alistair and Jonny Brownlee (four Olympic medals between the two); Series leader Vincent Luis of France and South Africa’s Schoeman and Richard Murray. McElroy — and race winner Jake Birtwhistle of Australia — beat all of them.
Known for his kick in college, McElroy outsprinted Gomez Noya to capture the silver medal, the first medal by a U.S. man in a WTS race since 2009.
“The first of many,” USA Triathlon High Performance General Manager John Farra told McElroy after the race.
What happens if I podium?
The world is now paying attention to the U.S. men. That’s what happens.
Overshadowed the past decade by a deep and dominant U.S. women’s team, the U.S. men have played catch-up with the rest of the world on the WTS and Olympic stages. McElroy’s breakthrough performance tells the world: we belong here. The podium finish also raises the bar for McElroy’s U.S. teammates.
“To say I was the first American — but 20th in the race — well, that doesn’t mean anything. You want to be on that podium,” said American Kevin McDowell. “I think we need to shift that focus. We need to race the world, not just race each other.”
McElroy. McDowell. Eli Hemming. Tony Smoragiewicz. Morgan Pearson. Ben Kanute.
Each of these men have shown success on the WTS and World Cup circuit after taking different paths to professional triathlon, and each has a chance to prove he belongs on the U.S. team for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The U.S. hopes to fill all six available places (three men and three women) for Tokyo, and America can secure those places based on either their athletes’ Individual Olympic Qualification Ranking or Relay Olympic Qualification Ranking.
“We’re all obsessed with the Olympics,” said McElroy from his home in Boulder, Colorado, where he trains with Hemming and coach Ian O’Brien. “We’re all obsessed with being the best versions of ourselves.”
This obsession for Tokyo manifests itself in intense training sessions where McElroy and Hemming, 24, push each other in the pool and on the track. It’s a healthy competition, O’Brien says, and the personalities balance each other out.
The intense McElroy helps the more laid-back Hemming dial in his focus, while Hemming’s ability to switch off that competitive fire and have fun can have a calming influence on McElroy.
“We definitely have a good chemistry together and try to make it fun even when we’re competing against each other,” said Hemming, who teamed up with McElroy, Katie Zaferes and Kirsten Kasper to win the ITU Mixed Relay World Series event in Nottingham last year, perhaps offering a glimpse at a possible team to compete in Tokyo 2020, which will mark the Olympic debut of the mixed relay event.
The high-paced, spectator-friendly event offers America a great chance at winning multiple medals in triathlon as top-ranked Zaferes and her compatriots will vie for medals in the women’s race.
“I think everyone sees the value in the relay and knows we have a legit shot at a medal in Tokyo,” McElroy said.
The comeback kid
For McDowell, his journey to a potential Olympic berth has been fraught with hardship.
He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma shortly after his first professional race in 2011. The cancer and subsequent treatment sapped McDowell of his strength and fitness, sidelining him from training during stints of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Though he’s been cancer-free for more than five years, the past three seasons have been filled with highs and lows and a rash of injuries. Rest, a revised training plan and visits with a sport psychologist have helped McDowell return to form — including a top-five finish at the Madrid World Cup in May.
“It’s been a rocky few years. That passion I always had was starting to fade,” McDowell, 27, said. “I found that spark again. I wasn’t racing scared. Watching Morgan, Tony, Eli, Matt … they’re all ripping it up right now. It’s motivating. I’ve raced with them before and I can do it again.”
The ‘team dad’
Project Podium, an elite development squad based at Arizona State University, represents the future of elite men’s triathlon in the U.S. Led by coach Parker Spencer, the USA Triathlon program offers athletes the opportunity to continue developing in triathlon, rather than competing in NCAA track or swimming — the route taken by Hemming, Pearson, McElroy and Smoragiewicz, who was an All-American runner at the University of Michigan following a promising junior elite triathlon career.
The 25-year-old Smoragiewicz joined the group in December, looking for a change in direction. Known as the “team dad” of the squad, Smoragiewicz has provided steady leadership and experience to a team comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores who are eyeing 2024 and 2028 Olympic teams. Smoragiewicz’s “a-ha, I belong here moment” came this February in Cape Town where he earned his first World Cup medal, a silver.
“Tony is absolutely in the mix,” Spencer said. “He’s extremely driven and competitive, and the great thing is, we have all these guys competing. It’s a healthy competition, there isn’t any animosity and they’re all pushing each other, making each other better.”
Stephen Meyers is Content Manager at USA Triathlon. Email him at Stephen.Meyers@usatriathlon.org.