Alan Webb, the American record holder in the mile who switched to triathlon last year, will measure himself against Olympic-level competition in his new sport for the first time Saturday.
What is the 2004 Olympian’s expectation for his individual World Triathlon Series debut in Abu Dhabi?
“That’s a good question, I don’t want to give all my secrets away,” he joked in a Skype interview Thursday.
Webb, 32, doesn’t hide his ambition of qualifying for the Rio 2016 Games.
While the U.S. Olympic team criteria hasn’t been announced, his biggest proving ground to date comes in the season opener for elite triathlon’s regular season circuit in the United Arab Emirates capital at 8:06 a.m. ET on Saturday (Universal Sports, 8:30 p.m. on delay).
Webb got his feet wet in 2014, taking part in a World Triathlon Series mixed relay in July and placing 10th and 26th in lower-level September and October races. He spent the last four months training with a group in Scottsdale, Ariz.
On Saturday, he will dive in off the Abu Dhabi Corniche at the Abu Dhabi Sailing & Yacht Club with 17 of the top 18 men from last season’s World Triathlon Series (65 total entrants), including World champion Javier Gomez of Spain.
“I can be in the mix, in the top group is my goal,” Webb said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could compete with anybody. How good that actually is, specifically, it depends on the day for each person. That’s why they run the race.”
Webb expounded. He aims to be at least close to the top group coming off the 750m swim (his most crucial leg), maintain contact on the 20km bike and “close the deal on the run,” which is 5km.
“Not overly complicated,” he said of his strategy.
Abu Dhabi is a sprint, half the distance of World Triathlon Series races later this year and at the Olympics in August 2016.
USA Triathlon performance adviser Jonathan Hall is in Abu Dhabi with Webb and the other American man competing Saturday, 2008 Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker. World champion Gwen Jorgensen is favored in the women’s race.
Shoemaker was the top-ranked U.S. man last season (22nd overall) and thus one of the favorites to make the Rio Olympic team, which could include up to three men depending on how many quota spots the Americans earn via international results.
A U.S. man has never won an Olympic triathlon medal. It debuted at Sydney 2000. Hall cautioned expectations for Webb.
Webb’s plan this season is to peak for the Olympic test event in Rio de Janeiro in August and the World Triathlon Series Grand Final in Chicago in September.
If to-be-announced 2016 Olympic qualifying procedures are similar to 2012, a top-nine finish at one or both of those events could book an Olympic berth. Webb is confident he will make the start lists for Rio and Chicago.
“I’d probably be concerned if he was in that place right now, because I’d say that would indicate we pushed him too hard, or he pushed too hard,” said Hall, a former Australian road cyclist. “If Alan’s not ready the first day until that day in Rio, that’s soon enough.”
Webb is not mentioned in a World Triathlon Series preview for 2015 that includes a “New Kids on the Block” section. He ranks No. 133 on the International Triathlon Union points list, counting only 2014 results, with four races to his credit while most others had six.
He is one of the lowest ranked men in the field of 65 in Abu Dhabi, but that’s to be expected. Webb earned what he termed a call-up to the big show about 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he was granted a substitute spot on the Abu Dhabi start list.
“It’s flippity-floppity here,” said Webb, overcoming jet lag from his 16-hour, 30-minute flight that arrived Monday. “I did very well at the World Cup level [in 2014], and I wanted to keep going, so here we are.”
Webb plans to race three straight weeks, following Abu Dhabi in Mooloolaba, Australia, on March 14 and New Plymouth, New Zealand, on March 22. Neither is a World Triathlon Series event.
Webb does not plan to compete in the next World Triathlon Series event in Auckland, New Zealand, the last weekend of March. Races in Gold Coast, Australia, and Cape Town, South Africa, follow in April, but Webb hasn’t mapped out that far ahead.
A strong finish Saturday will help earn future World Triathlon Series starts. A nation can enter no more than six men per competition (eight for host nations).
One thing Hall is certain of is that Webb will be recognized in Abu Dhabi.
“One of the disadvantages that Alan has is that he’s Alan Webb,” Hall said of a man who appeared on David Letterman after he broke Jim Ryun‘s high school mile record in 2001. “I know that when he turns up on the start line, a lot of people have expectations. They have respect coupled with fear.”