Friday, August 29, 2008

Beijing: The Women

The Crash, originally uploaded by jfilliol1.

On race morning for the women I was up early again after a decent sleep. I did my usual run on the course to prep for the day (same loop every single morning over the bike course plus a bit). One positive aspect of arriving in Beijing closer to the race with the jet lag timing was being able to go to bed early and get up early. With a 10am start being a bit earlier than the athletes are used to (especially the men) its important to get food in and digestion happening, so the body needs to be awake for all the to happen efficiently.

With all three women ready to leave the villa about 7.45 we made our way to the race course. The road from the Jundu villas to the race venue was shut down expect for official vehicles so we opted to walk the 10 mins or so. In the Jundu parking lot some athletes were gathering for what looked like an official bus to the venue but it didn't look organized enough so we stuck with the plan of walking. Of course the bus eventually arrived at the venue about 30 secs before we did...

Getting through the security to the race venue went smoothly and the women set about their race preparation and warm up routines. One difference with major races like the Olympics is the pre race start formalities take a lot longer and they like to give themselves extra time so they can start at the exact time given the live TV, so the athletes had to have all their warm up done 30 mins before the start and then were held in a waiting area until they were marched out to the pontoon. Not a big change but the warm up routines have to be adjusted to accommodate.

Onto the pontoon, we had Kathy and Lauren on the right side, near a number of the top 10 ranked athletes, and Carolyn closer to the left side. The start went off and I was able to walk alongside for the first 200m before arriving at the swim exit and being blocked by the media areas. Lauren and Kathy both had good starts and I could clearly pick them out of the group closer to me. I could see Kathy was on Haskins' hip and moving well. Lauren was stuck on Vanessa's hip after a great dive and start. I couldn't see Carolyn on the other side of the field, so I was hoping she got going cleanly. I was able to take some nice photos with the zoom lens of the start sequence - check out my flickr page for more pics of the race.

After the women passed the swim exit I couldn't see much so it was a wait until they finished the full one lap swim to figure out what was happening. When the group came around the last turn before the exit it was clear that the swim hadn't spread out very much. I had expected a faster swim that might set up for a break early on the bike, perhaps from the americans among others but a huge pack of women exited together including Kathy in the top 8, which was an excellent swim for her and Lauren just 14 secs back, and at the tail of the front group, a great swim for her as well. There were a few more swimmers just off the back of the first group before the main second bunch came in over a minute back including Carolyn. Not a bad gap to the first swimmers in terms of time for a non-wetsuit swim, but still work to be done, so the chase was on.

As the riders came back towards the exit to the dam after the transition the first swim pack had actually spread out a lot more than it appeared coming out of the water. The big favorites were still together including heavy medal favorites Fernandes and Snowsill, but the back of the front pack was strung out by the quick early pace. Lauren was just a few seconds off the main first bunch so it was going to be all on for the first lap to get up there. I could see Spirig riding up behind her which I knew could be a back up plan as well if she didn't latch onto the first bunch. Kathy was in good position to make it up the first climb in the front group.

As a coach at a race venue there is really not a lot of coaching going on. Really I am there for the just in case support before the race and after the race, and to observe first hand, as often you see different things in person that if you follow online or even on TV. Sure often coaches are yelling encouragement or technical cues at the athletes but you can't rely on any message getting through given the speeds and crowd noise, not mention the often glazed over eyes of the athletes as they are focusing on what's in front of them, so you hope that the preparation you've done allows the athletes to make the right decisions out on the course in terms of tactics and strategy.

My spectating strategy was to stand near the entrance/exit to the dam to see the athletes going around that corner and along the front of the stands, and then run back over to the athletes recovery tent where there was a TV with the live feed so I could see the rest of the race unfold. Fortunately the athlete tent also was air conditioned and had free mini-snickers bars and coke....

After the first lap of the bike I could see Kathy in great position in the front bunch. Lauren was in the next group but within 10-20 secs, close enough that the gap could be closed with Spirig taking some big pulls. Carolyn came through in the next group about a minute back. The following laps the front bunch remained basically the same but Spirig simply rode off the front of the chase group dragging Ide from Japan with her in a very impressive piece of riding. With Spirig gone the momentum of the chase group was lost. Lauren took some solid pulls but was battling Spirig again who was now pulling the front group farther away. Eventually the second and third packs merged and settled about a minute back. With two laps to go out of the six, I was standing in my usual spot as the pack came up the spillway in the dam to the front straight away when "the" crash happened. I was snapping a few photos as it happened right in front of me. The course narrows before making the final turn onto the straight and one athlete touched wheels with another in front and down she went. I watched Lauren, as if in slow motion, have no where to go, ride overtop of the crashed athletes and go over the handle bars. The artificial surface of the course made things a bit worse as instead of sliding along the pavement they came to a dead stop right away, leading to some nice road rash. Lauren ended up bracing her fall with her arms outstretched and landed on her elbow. As soon as it happened I rushed over and tried to see if she could continue. It was obvious she was in quite a bit of pain and when it was clear should couldn't grip her hand or straighten her arm I knew she couldn't continue. She was very disappointed but it wouldn't have been safe to keep riding. There was lots of medical support as the medical area was right in that spot and soon enough Lauren was off the hospital in the ambulance.

Back to the race, the first group continued to gain on the chase bunch. Coming off the bike it was somewhere around 90 secs but the majority of the main contenders were all there in the front. Onto the run, Snowsill simply ran away from everyone in a display of absolute dominance that was very impressive to watch. To be able to do that with all the pressure in the world on her was just awesome. Fernandes never got going with Snowsill so was left of battle for the silver. For a while it looked like she would be challenged, but eventually found her legs and got some distance to 3rd. The battle for bronze was great with Bennett and Moffatt have a go at each other and Ide from Japan not for behind having an outstanding race. Eventually Moffy got clear and Bennett and Ida went back and forth before Bennett was able to dig in for 4th. With Snowsill, Fernandes and Moffy being the medals we had a very worthy podium of the most consistent performers of the last couple of years. There were no major surprises in the top 10 but Ide and Ryf rose to the occasion with big performances on the day.

As far as the Canadians, neither Kathy nor Carolyn seemed to really find their legs on the run. Kathy did everything right until the run but right from the beginning she didn't look light on her feet. The chase on the bike was always going to take a toll for Carolyn, but she's been in that position before. We saw some nice running from both women earlier in the year, but both struggled to get moving at that level today. Either from the heat, the efforts from the bike, or the expectations and pressure of competing at the Olympic games, its hard to say for sure. Being able to put it all together on the day you want it most is not easy and there are so many factors that go into a performance, which is what makes the podium so impressive in the Olympics.

With Lauren's crash the disappointment was also that she simply didn't get to show her run in the hot conditions which she usually excels in. Lauren had a challenging year with injuries and I was really impressed by how she was able to overcome those obstacles and arriving in Beijing fit and ready to go. Her swim was one of her best at a championship race and a few seconds more there or in the first lap of the bike might have made all the difference, but to not get a chance to show what she had on the run was frustrating.

All in all, although I didn't go into the race expecting to have a medal, I thought if things went right we could have top 16 performances and if everything clicked we might have a top 8 or two. So it was disappointing to come out of the race without anyone in the top 20. We have some work to do with our womens program leading into London, and there will be a hard look at where we are at in the coming months.

My major impressions of the race were Snowsill's dominance under all the pressure and the lack of any significant tactics on the swim and bike. There was a number of athletes whose strengths suited making the bike more tactical and who might have been able to get away had they taken the risk. Tactics like we saw in the womens race in Vancouver for instance. However doing it at the games is another thing all together with everything on the line. Much like in athletics, the higher stakes at championship races often means athletes are less willing to take risks and tend to conserve until closer to the end. The conditions also played a role with the course and the heat, but I can't help but feel that there were some missed opportunities.

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