Australian Emma Snowsill swept to a devastating victory in the 1 500m swim, 40km cycle and 10km run Olympic triathlon held in the normally tranquil Shisanling reservoir north of Beijing on Monday.
The three-time world champion was fifth out of the water in a swim that saw all but a handful staying in the lead bunch.
American Laura Bennett emerged first from the water in 19:49, with the top 21 athletes covered in less than 10 seconds. Mari Rabie was the first South African out in 11th place, 4,6 seconds adrift, with Kate Roberts 18th a further four seconds down.
Rabie made it to the front cycling bunch of 23 for the tough, hilly lap that — combined with the sweeping corners — made it difficult to keep the bunch together. Roberts tried desperately to catch the first pack as they headed out for the six-lap cycle, but was unable to hang on to the tail and dropped into the chase group.
Up front, all the main contenders were there with Daniela Ryf from Switzerland taking the early lead and France’s Jessica Harrison taking the pace through to halfway in the cycle.
On the second lap Rabie’s chain came off twice, causing the under-23 world champion to drop back to the third bunch, who were already a distant minute-and-a-half off the lead, and effectively out of medal contention.
Over the remaining laps Rabie tried to pull back into the main group, throwing in the seventh-fastest fourth lap and consistently clocking about 11 minutes for the 6,6km lap.
As the second and third packs merged, Rabie was able to finish the cycle in 32nd place, more than two minutes behind and clearly out of contention.
Snowsill was fifth going into the run, but even before she was out of the zone her choice of a more direct route put her directly behind New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt who had taken the lead in the transition.
Roberts, who spent much of the cycling trying to initiate a chase in the second pack, finished in the pack with Rabie and had soon overhauled her compatriot who was looking a spent force by this point.
From that point there was no question about the gold medal, as Snowsill carved her way around the four-lap course with a metronomic stride and an opening 2,5km lap of 7:20. As each lap unfolded, the lead dramatically extended, eventually lapping some back competitors — including the hapless Rabie.
Even allowing for a jogging flag-waving celebration over the final 200m, the Gold Coast athlete recorded an amazing 33:17 for the 10km and a final time of 1:58:28.
Portugal’s Vanessa Fernandes moved up from 12th to second with Australian Emma Moffat, ninth fastest in the cycle, constantly reeling in opponents to gain the bronze medal in 1:59:56, only 21 seconds behind Fernandes. Roberts picked up six places in the 10km to finish 32nd in 2:05:34, with Rabie getting back into her stride in the penultimate two laps to finish 43rd in 2:09:28.
”I was having a problem with my gears and in the second lap the chain fell off on the hill and again later. I dropped back to the third group,” said a despondent Rabie.
”It happens in triathlon, it’s unpredictable, but the important thing was to keep going — it’s the Olympics. On my last two laps of the run I was over it and picked up a bit. I won’t say I’m happy, but I won’t give up. It’s been a good Olympic experience, I would say.”
At 21 the Cape-based athlete has a number of years ahead. ”I’ll have to work hard for London 2012 and hope it doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Roberts also complained of the gear set up in the cycle discipline, but her problems started at the first transition.
”I had a good swim but had problems getting my bike shoe on and missed the pack. I lost the front pack, which was critical. Had I been able to bridge across, it could have been a different race. I had problems with my gears in the cycle but there’s nothing you can do about that,” said the Bloemfontein triathlete.
”I tried my best and gave my best, it was a very tough race, a very aggressive swim and some of the girls don’t have great bike skills. I am just so pleased to get here and race for South Africa.”
On the fourth lap there was a crash among the chase pack, spilling half-a-dozen riders to the road and resulting in three withdrawals.
The withdrawal of Hendrik de Villiers the week before the Games means South Africa will not have a representative in Tuesday’s men’s race. — Sapa