TOKYO — Making her long-awaited Paralympic triathlon debut, Kendall Gretsch (Downers Grove, Ill.) won the women’s PTWC gold medal in riveting fashion at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sunday morning.
Gretsch was in second place for most of the race, but a furious finish in the final straightaway allowed her to reach 2019 world champion Lauren Parker of Australia in the final meters and secure the gold medal by one second.
“I knew it was going to be such a close race the entire time,” Gretsch said. “That type of finish is something I’ve been training for with my coach and my entire team this entire past year. It’s kind of special that it ended that way because that’s what we worked for, and it was just incredible.”
The 29-year-old American won in 1 hour, 6 minutes and 25 seconds, with Parker finishing in 1:06:26. Spain’s Eva Maria Moral Pedrero took the bronze in 1:14:59.
Gretsch made history not only by winning the first women’s triathlon wheelchair race contested in Paralympic history, but also in adding a summer-sport gold medal to the two she claimed at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
She has now won all three first Paralympic races of her career: the 6-kilometer sitting biathlon on March 10, 2018 — which was the first medal for an American woman in biathlon in an Olympic or Paralympic race, the 12-kilometer sitting cross-country on March 11, 2018, and now the PTWC on Aug. 29, 2021.
Gretsch, who was born with spina bifida, is only the fifth American to win gold medals at both the summer and winter editions of the Paralympic Games, and first to do so in her sports. Jim Martinson and David Kiley were the first when they won alpine skiing races in 1992; Martinson had won track and field races in 1980 and 1984, while Kiley was victorious in track and field in 1976, plus wheelchair basketball in both 1976 and 1988. Alana Nichols was the first U.S. woman to reach this milestone, winning in wheelchair basketball in 2008 and alpine skiing in 2010, with Allison Jones doing so in alpine skiing in 2006 and cycling in 2010.
A Washington University graduate, Gretsch took up paratriathlon during her sophomore year. By her senior year in 2014, she was racing at the elite level and won her first of three consecutive PT1 world titles that year. She went undefeated in elite competition from June 2014-July 2018, and is now a member of the Toyota U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
She took up Nordic skiing in 2015 after learning her paratriathlon category would not be included in the sport’s debut in Rio. She made the U.S. team by the 2016-17 season, went on to win two gold medals in South Korea and placed no lower than eighth in her seven Paralympic races. In 2019, she medaled in all six of her races at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships.
Continuing to excel at both sports, she also claimed silver in the PTWC category at the World Triathlon Paratriathlon Championships that year.
“Going into the 2018 Paralympic Games, I was so new to the sport that I was going there for the experience. I had some personal goals, but there was no pressure. Triathlon is the sport that I started in. I’ve been looking forward to this day for nine years. This one is just so special,” Gretsch said as she fought back tears.
Racing at Odaiba Marine Park on Sunday in high humidity and temperatures in the low-80s Fahrenheit, Parker immediately created a wide margin between herself and the rest of the field during the 750-kilometer swim. She led by 1 minute, 42 seconds after that leg, with the Netherlands’ Margret Ijdema second and Moral Pedrero in third. Gretsch was sixth, 3 minutes and 29 seconds from the lead.
The American began to close the gap as quickly as she could, passing Ijdema, Moral Pedrero, Mexico’s Brenda Osnaya Alvarez and Australian Emily Tapp at the start of the 20-kilometer bike.
Now in second, Gretsch continued to pace what appeared to be a race for second with Parker out of sight.
Tapp crashed on a corner in the second of four laps and was out of the race.
Gretsch remained steady on the bike, decreasing her deficit to Parker from 2:24 after the first of four laps — at that point knowing she was a solid second as Ijdema was 1:49 behind her — then 2:01, 1:56 and finishing that leg with a still-wide gap of 1:46.
Her prowess on the run showed as she continued making up ground over the four laps that spanned 5 kilometers. Gretsch was still 1 minute, 3 seconds back after the first lap, then 44 seconds halfway through. With just over a kilometer to go, she was 25 seconds back and eventually had Parker back in sight.
In a mad dash, Gretsch was relentless in her hunt for the Australian, edging her in the final meters to cross the tape first.
“I couldn’t see her in front of me until the second half of the very last lap of the run,” Gretsch recalled. “As soon as I saw her, I thought, ‘OK, you have to dig, you have to give everything you can,’ and in that final stretch I just put my head down and did everything I could do.”
The men’s PTWC race was won by Para sport legend Jetze Plat of the Netherlands in a dominant 57 minutes, 51 seconds; he also won gold in the PT1 five years ago in Rio. Austrian Florian Brungraber was 2 minutes, 4 seconds back at 59:55. Italy’s Giovanni Achenza took bronze in 1:02:05, repeating his placement from the PT1 in Rio.
Plat is a two-sport Paralympic medalist. In addition to his two Paralympic triathlon gold medals and four paratriathlon world titles, the Dutchman earned bronze in the Para-cycling road race H5 in Rio and has swept the time trial and road race gold medals at his last four world championships in that sport.
Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020
750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run
Women’s PTWC — Complete Results
1. Kendall Gretsch (Downers Grove, Ill.), 1:06:25
2. Lauren Parker (AUS), 1:06:26
3. Eva Maria Moral Pedrero (ESP), 1:14:59
1. Kendall Gretsch (Downers Grove, Ill.), 1:06:25
Men’s PTWC — Complete Results
1. Jetze Plat (NED), 57:51
2. Florian Brungraber (AUT), 59:55
3. Giovanni Achenza (ITA), 1:02:05