NSW’s Natalie Van Coevorden produced her best ever career result surviving a day of carnage on a treacherous rain drenched course when she placed third in the opening race of the 2018 ITU World Triathlon Series in Abu Dhabi.
In a race marred by a series of dangerous crashes on the bike that took out some of the world’s best over the sprint distance course, Commonwealth Games team members Ashleigh Gentle and Gillian Backhouse both survived crashes to complete the course.
And in the men’s race Gold Coast-bound Jake Birtwhistle finished fifth, saying he was relieved to finish the race in one piece, describing it as “chaos.”
Van Coevorden was well positioned throughout and eventually ran herself into the pack of four athletes that produced the placegetters.
Race winner Rachel Klamer of the Netherlands and Great Britain’s Jessica Learmonth pulled away from Van Coevorden and American Kirsten Kasper and then the Australian slipped back to fourth place and looked as if she would finish frustratingly short of the placings.
Then close to the finish line, Kasper took a wrong turn, allowing the 25-year-old Wollongong-based Van Coevorden from Western Sydney to run past and then hold off Kasper in a desperate sprint to the finish line and win her first WTS medal.
“I’m really happy but it hasn’t sunk in yet and I can’t wipe the smile off my face,” Van Coevorden said.
“It was a fight for survival out there today and I tried to keep myself out of trouble and do the things I knew I could do really well and it paid off in the end.”
Gentle and Backhouse were both involved in the carnage – but Triathlon Australia’s High Performamce Director Justin Drew has reported overnight “the girls went down but managed to get back up and finish – they are both ok.”
Gentle finished 13th, one minute 24 seconds behind the winner, while Backhouse limping across the line in 27th.
Competitors were greeted by unusual cool, wet conditions at the Middle East city and even though the rain had stopped by the time of the women’s race, parts of the course in and around the Yas Marina Formula One Grand Prix motor racing circuit were wet and dangerously slippery.
A particularly dangerous downhill left-hand bend soon after the transition area took world No.1 Flora Duffy (Bermuda) out of the race when she was leading at the start of the second bike lap, and later also accounted for American world no.3 Katie Zaferes, who was taken to hospital semi-unconscious.
Gentle said on social media: “I’m feeling thankful that I went home with just…grazes and an ice pack. Thinking of those who are a lot worse!! Ran to 13th and disappointed. Well done to this year’s podium and a massive shout out my training partner Natalie Van Coevorden on her first WTS podium in third and Jake Birtwhistle in fifth.”
Games-bound Bermudan, Duffy said: “I suppose I had to crash out of a race at some point! Super sad not to finish especially as I was feeling so good. Good news- I'm ok. My bike was a little messed up hence why I couldn't continue. Thinking of everyone else who went down!!”
Tommy Zaferes, husband of Katie tweeted: “I’m with Katie at the hospital and she is conscious and talking. Quite loopy with some short term memory issues due to concussion, stitches above the eye, and lots of road rash. She will be oka.” A tweet that saw massive reaction and shout outs on social media.
Birtwhistle said: “I’m glad to get through that season opener in one piece (it) was chaos!
“Happy to safely make my way around the course to finish up fifth and to get the year underway. Australia bound now to prepare for the Commonwealth Games.”
Van Coevorden, who was seventh after the 750m swim leg, and many of the leaders took a cautious approach on the bike leg, but the crashes reduced what was at one stage a lead group of nine riders to just six by the end of the 20km ride.
The leading four then pulled away in the run and when Van Coevorden saw her opportunity near the finish, she didn’t hesitate to make the most of it and claim her deserved bronze medal.
“I didn’t know that Kirsten had a penalty and I could see her pull up just ahead of me and I thought, ‘go for it, this is now or never’ and we eventually ended up being in a bit of a photo finish,” she said.
“It was pretty tricky on the bike and I think you had to just keep to yourself and ride to what you knew you could do otherwise you could get in a bit of trouble.
“I was lucky to keep out of that bit of mess and get through it.”
Gentle was in 35th place coming out of the swim leg and struggled to make an impact, however, she unleashed a powerful run to pass many rivals and improve her position with just over one month until the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games on April 5 and 7.
Backhouse was in touch with the leaders after the swim and midway through the bike leg when she crashed but bravely battled on, limping to the finish.
A relieved Birtwhistle made a great solid start to the World Triathlon Series with his fifth placing.
Showing he is in strong form ahead of the Commonwealth Games, Birtwhistle worked his way into the leading pack during the cycle leg and then unleashed his powerful run leg.
Countryman Aaron Royle was prominent in the cycle leg but couldn’t quite keep pace with the fastest runners before finishing in a solid 12th place.
Birtwhistle eventually finished 37 seconds behind the race winner and one of his main rivals for the Commonwealth Games triathlon gold medal, South African Henri Schoeman, who led from start to finish in an impressive performance.
Spain’s world no.1 Mario Mola finished second, six seconds behind Schoeman, with Frenchman Vincent Luis third, a further 16 seconds behind.
Royle was 13th out of the water and moved well through the field to join the leading group just before the end of the first lap on the bikes.
That main pack eventually grew to about a dozen riders, including the two Aussies, but at the same time Schoeman moved clear at the front to establish a handy advantage.
Birtwhistle linked up with the pack on the third of five laps on the bike and positioned himself well for the run leg.
He and Royle eventually hit the transition area alongside each other, 22 seconds behind Schoeman.
Another Commonwealth Games bound athlete, South African Richard Murray also crashed saying on twitter: “It was dangerous to tell the least…10th after a good bike and run…I’ll take that…pity I felt great…thanks for (all the) support; on to Mooloolaba we go.”
1 Rachel Klamer NED 01:00:43; 2 Jessica Learmonth GBR 01:00:57; 3 Natalie Van Coevorden AUS 01:01:00; 4 Kirsten Kasper USA 01:01:01; 5 Melanie Santos POR 01:01:24; 6 Laura Lindemann GER 01:01:39; 7 Andrea Hewitt NZL 01:01:40; 8 Yuka Sato JPN 01:01:41; 9 Leonie Periault FRA 01:01:42; 10 Lotte Miller NOR 01:01:50; 13 Ashleigh Gentle AUS 01:02:07; 27 Gillian Backhouse AUS 01:03:44.
1 Henri Schoeman RSA 00:57:03; 2 Mario Mola ESP 00:57:09; 3 Vincent Luis FRA 00:57:25; 4 Léo Bergere FRA 00:57:34; 5 Jacob Birtwhistle AUS 00:57:40; 6 Joao Silva POR 00:57:45; 7 Jonathan Brownlee GBR 00:57:56; 8 Adrien Briffod SUI 00:57:57; 9 Gustav Iden NOR 00:57:58; 10 Richard Murray RSA 00:57:59; 12 Aaron Royle AUS 00:58:09.