Australia will be the only country represented with a full quota of six triathletes on its team at this year’s Tokyo Olympics with the final chase to secure valuable quota points going down to the 11th hour.
The overall qualification period performances under an ever changing pandemic cloud of uncertainty will ensure the maximum number of Australian triathletes are presented with Olympic blazers.
And according to Triathlon Australia’s Performance Director Justin Drew it will not only provide his team with a level of protection over the three medal events but it also gives them options in being able to look at what is necessary to challenge for a gold medal in the newly added Mixed Relay competition two hours prior to the start.
“It’s been quite the ride to qualify three men and three women, and we are the only country in the world to do that,” said Drew.
“I know sport is about performance and we’ve got a job to do in Tokyo but outside that it means two more triathletes get an Olympic experience, and two more athletes will have the honour of representing their sport and their country and that should not be lost given the period we have been through.
“What it also gives us are the options that we wanted to ensure we had on the ground in Tokyo and some protection around relay performance which is obviously a major priority for Australia.
“So given the impact Covid will have on the Village, competition rules, and the late athlete replacement policy, having those six athletes in the Village provides us an advantage over other nations.
“There are a couple of different regulations that are in place around Tokyo but the most significant one is the timing of the late athlete replacement around the Relay. The window for that to be done based on medical considerations closes just over two days out from competition.“
“That could mean if you only have four athletes (two female and two male) and once you are in that two day window that it is very difficult to account for anything unforeseen and your team may never make the field of play.”
The competition scramble for Olympic qualification points for National Federations came down to a nail-biting affair after young guns Jaz Hedgeland (WA) and Luke Willian (QLD) earned maximum points with their victories in the Oceania Triathlon Championship in Port Douglas over the weekend.
Hedgeland’s win confirmed Australia had earned three female quota spots – and even though Willian won it was still mathematically possible for Australia to drop out of the top 30 in the last World Triathlon race of the period.
All eyes turned to Mexico and the final race of the qualifying period on Sunday night – the World Triathlon Cup Huatulco with Australia’s Aaron Royle and local hero Cristano Grajales facing off for the much sort after points.
If Grajales finished on the podium then Royle would have to finish in the top seven to earn enough points to keep three Australians inside the top 30 and keep the Americans out.
With the race due to start at the 11th (and final) hour of the qualification period (11pm Sunday night AEST) Royle woke up with a stomach upset and was forced to withdraw from the race in the early stages – after flying in from Spain.
Australian officials watching on Triathlon TV back home in the early hours of this morning faced a nervous wait – relieved when Grajales missed the podium, finishing seventh.
It wasn’t enough to improve Grajales score and that saw Australia hold off the Americans by a narrow six points gap.
Royle, the boy from Newcastle flew from his European training base knowing he had a job to do to maintain his positioning.
Drew admitted it was a tense time.
“It all came down to the final hour of the qualification period...you could not have scripted it...” said Drew.
“Aaron woke up with stomach issues before the race and he lined up, gave it a crack but he wasn’t right.
“He was certainly committed, and with what we’ve seen with sport and the pandemic and the number of turns and challenges we’ve had along the way, what’s one last hurdle at the 11th hour?
Drew was full of praise for both Hedgeland and Willian,
“Jaz held it together really well and put together a quality race while Luke had sustained a cut in his foot off the back of last week’s crash at Runaway Bay,” said Drew.
“He managed to get that treated and recovered ok during the week and put together a great run to set up that final quota challenge.
“Our athletes have all contributed to this chase around the globe, and have put team beyond self. Sport’s an interesting beast and you never know how it's going to play out….ultimately it’s up to what happens on the race course...and to simply know that those athletes had an opportunity...that they got it done....it’s been a great thing to watch. Now we line up Tokyo.”