RIO DE JANEIRO – For five kilometres, Stefan Daniel ate up the ground on his competition along Copacabana Beach.
But 5K wouldn’t be enough, and the 19-year-old from Calgary wound up with silver Saturday in the inaugural triathlon at the Rio Paralympics.
Daniel was fourth when he hopped off his bike, nearly two minutes behind leader Martin Schulz of Germany. But he made up massive ground with a terrific run portion, crossing the finish line in one hour three minutes and five seconds.
Schulz won the gold in 1:02.37.
“I was lucky to have the run legs today,” Daniel said. “I was in a podium position coming off the bike, so I had to earn every spot that I could. But Martin was too far up the road, he beat me fair and square, he was better today. But I gave it everything I could, I was lucky to get the silver.”
Spain’s Jairo Ruiz Lopez was third.
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Daniel was born with bilateral radial club hands, and his right forearm significantly shorter than his left, and so the swim is his weakness. His strong running allows him to compete in able-bodied triathlons – he beat a field of able-bodied athletes to win the Canadian junior title last year – plus he runs cross-country for the University of Calgary’s track team.
“I knew I’d have the run (to make up ground Saturday), but unfortunately I just ran out of real estate,” he said.
He had his sights set on Paralympic gold after beating the 26-year-old Schulz to win the para-triathlon world championships last September.
But Daniel, who was the youngest athlete in the field, surely has a long career ahead of him.
“We’re dealing with a man versus boy scenario,” said his coach Carolyn Murray. “We know in Tokyo (in 2020), Daniel will be a man. But Schulz had a phenomenal race. “He just put it down on the bike and I have to give him a lot of credit.”
While triathlon made its Olympic debut in 2000 in Sydney, where Canada’s Simon Whitfield claimed gold, this was the inaugural Paralympic event. Saturday, athletes swam 750 metres in the choppy waters off Copacabana beach, cycled 20 kilometres and ran 5K in the same venue that hosted the Olympic triathlon last month.
The transition zone went high-tech as amputee athletes in the PT2 category (Daniel’s category is PT4) swapped up artificial cycling legs for running blades.
“It’s cool,” Daniel said of the event’s debut. “It’s a historic moment for sure for the sport, and I know now that it’s debuted, it’s going to grow every single year, and I’m looking forward to Tokyo.”
Daniel would love to make the able-bodied team for the Olympics in Tokyo, but his dad Chris, who’s twice raced in the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, said he’d have to work on his swimming.
“His handicap is his arms, it’s hard because he doesn’t have that lever, the lever is not long enough on his right arm,” Chris Daniel said. “And in elite racing you get to draft off the bike, so the bike packs can work together so there’s a huge advantage. So if he’s not in the lead group out of the water, he’s basically riding by himself, and if there’s a group of 30 up the road, it’s very, very hard to catch those guys.”
“Absolutely on the bike and the run, no question (he’d have a shot to make the team). I would say he’s a faster runner arguably than what we have on our national team. But he has to get better on the swim.”
Daniel’s “love,” said his dad, is racing against able-bodied athletes.
“That’s what drives him, not necessarily the para stuff because he’s a bit young to appreciate that still,” said Chris Daniel, who sat in the grandstand Saturday hollering out split times. “But he loves to compete against the able-bodied guys, that’s his passion.
“It’ll be something we’ll talk about the next little while, to see if he wants to take a run at it.”
Daniel’s older brother Christian, who has cerebral palsy, represented Canada in para-swimming at the 2015 Parapan American Games.
“He’s back home right now, he’s watching,” Daniel said of his brother. “He’s been supportive with me, and he’s kind of taught me how to live with a disability, and how to be happy with it. So I owe him a lot.”
The women’s Paralympic triathlon is Sunday.
© 2016 The Canadian Press