The obvious signs of the struggle were all around the finishing line, where Britain’s Vicky Holland hobbled around with a lacerated knee and the American Sarah Groff, her face still caked in the mud of the Serpentine, described riding over a downed competitor in the triathlon’s cycling stage. Helen Jenkins, the major British hope whose push for gold perished only in the last mile, has been carrying her own pain, quietly and anxiously, for weeks. She only revealed after finishing fifth yesterday that a knee injury had been limiting the frequency and intensity of her training sessions.
“I didn’t really feel any pain when I was running. There were too many painkillers inside me,” said Jenkins, the sport’s world champion, though the British team had actually been suffering agonies long before the 28-year-old began dropping off the leading group of four, as they approached Hyde Park’s Diana Memorial for the last time. The team’s fervent hope had been that the Serpentine waters would be deemed warm enough to be tackled in swimsuits. The judges instead decreed at 8am that it would be wetsuits, whose buoyancy help those weaker swimmers whom Jenkins and Lucy Hall – the (ital)domestique(close) of the team, working for Jenkins as much as Chris Froome has for Bradley Wiggins all summer – had hoped to burn off, leaving them too much ground to make up in cycling and swimming.
Hall, the British heroine of the day, played her part unstintingly, emerging first from the 1,500m swim before proceeding to haul Jenkins up to the front of the 40km cycling stage, peering back under her arm, over and over again, to see where the British gold contender might be. But they had not put enough daylight between themselves and the Swiss Nicola Spirig, whose reputation as a ‘weak’ swimmer is a relative use of that term. Spirig lurked ominously just off the lead, awaiting the sprint finish which would deliver her gold by a photo-finish over the Swede Lisa Norden, in a finale more extraordinary than perhaps any this Olympics will bring. No British gold, but the crowds approaching 200,000 around the course were rewarded.
The potential to grind Spirig and Norden into the dust might have been greater had not Holland been involved in a crash on the greasy track, on the first of seven laps of the cycling course, and then sustained a puncture on the last lap. “Someone took me out from behind and someone clipped me,” Holland related. The crash left her stranded, unable to ascend through the field for fear of bringing up others with her who might later run strongly. “It was a case of sitting in and waiting for the run,” added Holland, who finished 26th. “I hadn't done a lot of run training, though. My focus here was swimming and bike training, to try and put Helen in contention.” The immense tactical complexities of the triathlon team event were certainly beyond many of the masses who felt so exhilarated to see Hall emerge first from the water.
Jenkins allowed that audience some very substantial hopes. She threatened to give the Wellington Arch its biggest piece of combat history since George IV had it built to mark the Napoleonic wars, as she powered under it, easing through the field. And after the transition from cycling to running she was dominant in a leading bunch, gradually whittled to eight – then five. The Austrian Erin Densham, who took bronze, tried to shake them all off, twice accelerating out of a bend in the course to gain extra moment. The triathletes call it ‘sling-shotting.’ Twice, Jenkins reeled her in. Time was running out on her gold, though, even as the pack headed for home. Spirig’s trademark strong sprint finish demanded that the Briton build a lead over her. Instead, it was Jenkins who was dropped, reaching deep inside to find if she might have anything else to offer and finding nothing.
Jenkins did not attempt to mask the disappointment. “It was bit of an unknown where I would be but this is one of the biggest set backs,” she admitted. “When am I going to be in front of a home crowd like this again? I have never heard noise like it.” She spoke of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and of the Rio Olympics two years later - “you learn more from the set-backs,” she said - though you didn’t feel her heart was in that.
It will be of no consolation to Jenkins that others took a far more visceral type of punishment. Groff, who finished fourth, was trying to find the competitor who had been left beneath her tyres. “She crashed right in front of me and I rode over this poor girl. Right over her torso. It was kinda out there,” Groff said.