EDMONTON – Canada’s Paula Findlay ended a two-year absence from international triathlon with plenty of hometown support.
The Edmonton native finished 15th at the ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final on Saturday but was overwhelmed by the crowd’s response to her return.
“I was so happy to be with the leaders on the bike and getting glimpses of my old self,” she said. “I think I am well on my way. I am just so happy to have been able to finish that race. There were deafening cheers. It just felt so good to be hearing ‘Paula, Paula, Paula.’ It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to race at World Championship in my hometown and I just tried to savour it. It was incredible.”
The 25-year-old looked very strong in her return and at one time led the cycling portion of the event. That’s in contrast to her last international appearance, which saw her cross the line in last place at the 2012 London Olympics.
Findlay left the Games in tears. But on Saturday she resembled her previous form as the top-ranked woman three years ago. She was tied for the most World Triathlon Series wins until she was passed by Gwen Jorgensen this season and suffered an assortment of injuries that has kept her out of competition for some time.
Findlay said the race gave her a good indication what she needs to do as she prepares to try to earn a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, both good and bad.
“Gwen passed me like I was standing still,” she said. “That’s the level that I am trying to get to. I have a lot of work to do, but I am well on my way.”
Jorgensen meanwhile wasn’t about to let a World Triathlon Championship title slip away for a second time.
The 28-year-old American rocketed through the run after sitting in 20th following the cycling leg to finish first and easily capture the overall series championship.
Jorgensen was the favourite heading into the 2013 Grand Final in London’s Hyde Park, but crashed on the second bike lap and did not finish, tumbling from first to fourth in the final rankings.
“I definitely wanted to win coming into this race after what happened last year,” Jorgensen said. “That has been my focus all year.
“I still don’t feel like a world champion yet. It hasn’t sunk it at all.”
The victory came with a $30,000 payday, with an additional $80,000 for the overall world title.
Jorgensen has been the clear class of the triathlon field for a couple of years, rapidly rising in a sport she only took up for the first time in 2010.
The Wisconsin native has won seven series races, the most by any women in the history of the ITU’s World Triathlon Series.
That record run has included becoming the first athlete to win four straight World Triathlon Series events this season, the four races she competed in leading into the Grand Final in Canada, skipping the previous stop in Stockholm, Sweden.
Jorgensen came into Saturday’s final leading the rankings by a massive 848 points, compared to eight going into last year’s disastrous Grand Final in London.
There were some worries that another title could be in jeopardy on Saturday as Jorgensen was 17th after the swim and 20th after the bike ride, sitting 1:09 back of the leader at the transition.
However, she turned on the jets and passed the field of the best triathletes on the globe with what seemed like relative ease to capture the gold medal and the overall title.
“I think I made the race difficult for myself at the beginning,” Jorgensen said. “That was not part of my strategy. My strategy was to swim with the leaders. I definitely put myself under the pump today. It’s going to make me go back to the drawing board, because I still have stuff to improve.”
Her competition may find that hard to believe, after watching her come blazing back to win in a time of two hours five seconds, 16 seconds up on New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt, who finished in second on Saturday to place third overall in the world standings.
“We had her by over a minute heading into the run and we tried our hardest, but she just keep creeping up and came past on that last lap,” she said. “The way to beat Gwen is to get away on the bike, but it wasn’t enough today.”
Fellow New Zealand athlete Nicky Samuels was third, while American Sarah Groff was fourth to finish second in the end-of-the-year points race.
It wasn’t a good day for the other Canadian racers as Kirsten Sweetland, ranked sixth in the world standings coming into the race, bowed out early in the cycling portion suffering from the flu and dropped out of the race after sitting in seventh exiting the swimming leg.
“I got sick on the bike,” she said. “I raced with a bad head cold in Stockholm last week, but did fine. I got on a long-haul flight and showed up in Edmonton with a stomach flu and was throwing up all Sunday and Monday. I thought I had kicked it and thought I could still race. But there I was, losing my cookies on the bike.
“I really tried, but my body wasn’t going to do it. It’s disappointing. I haven’t started a World Championships since 2010, so to get here structurally healthy, fit and ready, to have something out of your control happen like this is really hard. There is nothing I can do but try and pick myself back up. I am pretty good at that by now.”
Sarah-Anne Brault, ranked 11th, dropped out following the swim.
More than 3,000 athletes representing 75 countries descended on Edmonton for the World Triathlon Grand Final, running Aug.26 to Sept. 1, with the Elite men’s race scheduled for Sunday.
© The Canadian Press, 2014