Tasmania’s Commonwealth Games triathlon hope Jake Birtwhistle has literally hurdled his way to a stirring silver medal in today’s World Triathlon Series round in Edmonton after miscalculating the number of run laps.
In a dramatic turn of events the 22-year-old charged down the finish chute believing he was about to win his first WTS race – only to realise he had only completed two of the scheduled three lap-five kilometre Sprint Distance course.
Half-way down the blue carpet and realising his mistake, the long legged former Under 23 world champion who just two weeks ago anchored Australia to the World Teams title, hurdled the barriers and kept running.
He was eventually caught by two-time and defending WTS champion Mario Mola, who bolted away to win his fourth race of the season.
But despite his legs burning, Birtwhistle dug deep to keep bronze medallist South African Richard Murray at bay.
Two time Olympic medallist Johnny Brownlee was fourth and five-time ITU world champion Javier Gomez fifth.
Australia’s Rio Olympian Aaron Royle was again well up after the 750m swim and was part of the early break until the chase pack mowed the front nine down to form a group of 35 that hit the transition after 20km like the charge of the light brigade.
It didn’t take long for the running legs to sort the men out from the boys with Mola, Murray, Brownlee and Gomez running shoulder to shoulder, with both Gomez and then Mola each trying to break away.
It was Mola, who had already won three WTS rounds, who started to stretch the lead mid way through the second run lap, leaving Murray and then Brownlee and Gomez, as Birtwhistle moved clearly into fifth – and looking strong.
As the second lap built, Birtwhistle put on the afterburners, first running past Gomez and Brownlee and then Murray and Gomez, with Aussie boy looking over his shoulder, as commentator Barrie Shepley questioned whether the young Tasmanian had mis-judged the laps.
That became evident as soon as he made the turn into the finish chute, before he realised his mistake and leapt over the barrier “like Edwin Moses” said Shepley and kept on charging.
To his credit Birtwhistle hung tough and only Mola was able to catch and pass the long-striding kid who has already earned Commonwealth Games nomination for the Gold Coast next year.
As hard as he tried, even up the climb to the turn around for home, Murray could not catch his younger rival over another 1.5km.
Birtwhistle admitted he got to the front too easy and then doubted himself.
“But in the end the damage wasn’t too bad and I finished off ok,” Birtwhistle said.
Asked how he found the energy? Birtwhistle replied: “I don’t know really. I had to dig really deep and I’m sure it didn’t look all that pretty on TV. But I had to resurrect something after that mistake.
“I actually wasn’t feeling great after Hamburg (where he was second and anchored the World Championship Teams Relay gold) so to come back and race like that is a huge confidence builder.”
A perplexed Murray said later: “When I saw it my brain said is it a two lap run or he has gone too early? He’s gone alright, like Usain Bolt, like a bullet.”
Mola said: “I saw Jake moving and I didn’t think I could get back to him and the final kick; that’s him gone and then it was a case of ‘hey, wrong lane, only two laps.’
“It was a shame for him but (to his credit) he had the energy to get back.”
One commentator said to Birtwhistle: “ Your running is obviously better than you’re your mathematics.”
And the final words belong to Shepley who said: “This kid from Down Under is going to be a superstar one day and when he learns how to count he may even win a race.”
In other results for Australia Royle finished up 16th, Luke Willian 34th, Declan Wilson 34th and Matthew Hauser 38th while in the women’s race won for the fourth time by Bermuda’s defending world champion and Commonwealth Games favourite Flora Duffy, saw Gillian Backhouse 13th, Felicity Sheedy-Ryan 20th and Jaz Hedgeland 26th.