For an over an hour and fifty minutes, Helen Jenkins looked on course for Great Britain’s first Olympic triathlon medal. But it wasn’t to be, as Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig and Sweden’s Lisa Norden staged the closest finish in Olympic history.
Both athletes recorded 1:59:48 but the 30-year-old Swiss took gold after the photo finish. Australia’s Erin Densham came third to ensure Australia have now won a medal in all four Olympic women’s triathlons.
Jenkins featured in the leading pack throughout the run but 1km into the final 2.5km lap the 28-year-old from Bridgend drifted back. She’d finish fifth in 2:00:19, which still elevates her to highest-finishing Brit in the history of the Olympic triathlons – a statistic that should be wiped out next Tuesday when the Brownlees go for gold in the men’s.
Pre-race rumours of a knee injury for Jenkins turned out to be true.
“I’ve been carrying an injury since San Diego [round of the WCS which Helen won back in May],” Jenkins told us. “I’ve been training through a lot of pain and it just didn’t happen today. I can’t thank the girls enough, though – they were fantastic.”
Those girls were teammates Lucy Hall and Vicky Holland, both selected for domestique duties to Jenkins.
The day had started well with 20-year-old Hall, the youngest in the field, stretching out the field on the swim. Some would argue the break Hall carved was too big, negating the domestique impact. Hall herself conceded it was difficult to see where her team were – accentuated by the wetsuit swim due to the 19.6°C waters.
But come the bike she helped to control the pace of the breakaway group of seven, ensuring Helen, who’d exited the swim in 10th, caught up and settled into the lead pack for the entire bike.
The bike proved to be an incident-packed affair with several athletes sliding off their bikes past Buckingham Palace. One of those included Australia’s former world champion Emma Moffat, who retired early into the bike. Canada’s Kathy Tremblay followed soon after because of a bike crash.
Aileen Morrison of Ireland also scraped off much of her arm in a nasty crash that left her visibly in pain come the finish. She would come 43rd.
A pack of 22 athletes entered T2. But it was the major players – Spirig, Norden, Jenkins, Andrew Hewitt, Sarah Groff – plus Emma Jackson, Jess Harrison and Spain’s Ainhoa Murua who soon strode away from the pack.
Halfway through the run, Densham, Norden, Spirig, Jenkins and Hewitt had forged a leading quintet. Groff had slipped back slightly.
Lap three and Hewitt became the next casualty, though the fastest third lap of the day propelled Grofff to a revised leading quintet.
Sadly Groff’s renaissance coincided with Jenkins’ suffering. Those injury reports were etched on the Welsh athlete’s face at the fourth lap’s beginning, and despite the best efforts of a massive crowd in Hyde Park, her medal hopes disappeared with every pained stride.
The winner would come from a group of Spirig, Norden, Densham and Groff.
They remained tight with 800m to go, and then Spirig upped the tempo. She’s spent the best part of the year sprinting, sprinting and sprinting and the victory now looked inevitable.
She’d broken Groff and Densham… but Norden dug in, closing the gap down the finish chute. If the race had been an extra metre, Norden would have won it but Spirig had won it. Gold for the second time to Swizterland after Brigitte McMahon’s triumph in Sydney.
Densham took third, Groff fourth with Jenkins down in fifth.
Vicky Holland, who’d been one of those who crashed on the bike, finished in 26th with Hall 33rd.
Saddest result of the day came in the form of Canada’s Paula Findlay in last position. Struggling with a debilitating hip injury for the last year, she looked in no state to race but bravely finished in 2:12:09.
We’ll be uploading athlete reaction and comment throughout the weekend.