Sarah True
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Sarah True’s quests for history in Rio against rival teammate, with potential teammate husband

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America’s two best triathletes, Sarah True and Gwen Jorgensen, both fought tears following the 2012 Olympic triathlon.

True was fourth, falling out of the medals in the final kilometer of the 10km run, after nearly two hours of racing, at cloudy Hyde Park. Jorgensen was 38th, her hopes punctured earlier by a flat tire during the 40km bike leg.

The two first-time Olympians shared a London-area suite for at least two nights following the competition.

“We were both pretty busy, just didn’t know each other very well at that point,” True said in a phone interview last week. “I think you have empathy for the other person. Some things are better left unsaid. You know how the other person’s feeling. I knew she was upset, and she knew that I was upset, but you just kind of get on with your other obligations.”

They moved on.

True met up with her boyfriend, and they headed west to Bath and to decompress in a castle.

True and Jorgensen both found new coaches for the 2013 season.

True, who grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., playing pranks on out-of-towners seeking directions, had been the best U.S. triathlete in the 2011 and 2012 seasons (accumulating results from the World Triathlon Series, a spring and summer calendar of competitions across the globe).

But it was Jorgensen, a former Ernst & Young accountant who took up triathlon in 2010, who shot to stardom beginning in 2013. She broke through with her first World Series victory, then won twice more to overtake True as America’s best.

“I think Sarah pushes me to be better,” Jorgensen said last week. “Maybe I push Sarah to be better as well.”

Since 2014, Jorgensen has won 13 straight top-level triathlons, captured back-to-back World titles and is now an overwhelming favorite to become the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion next year. The sport debuted at the Olympics in 2000.

“It’s probably fair to say she has competitively intimidated people,” True said of Jorgensen, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Jorgensen, who at 29 is nearly five years younger than True, credits her improvement to her new coach, Jamie Turner, and spending almost all of her training time in Australia and Spain.

“Gwen was definitely one of the up-and-coming superstars [in 2012, and earlier],” True said last week, one day before Jorgensen prevailed in the World Triathlon Series Grand Final in Chicago (and True finished seventh, but third overall in the season standings). “It’s just a question at what time she’d get her swim and bike up to par. It’s obviously happened.”

Which leaves True in an interesting position heading into the offseason and then the Olympic year.

She is the only woman other than Jorgensen to win World Triathlon Series (WTS) races in both 2014 and 2015. She is arguably the Olympic silver medal favorite. Both True and Jorgensen are already qualified for the Rio Olympics.

But to earn gold, she must find a way to solve her seemingly unflappable Olympic teammate.

In all seven of her WTS races this season, Jorgensen was the fastest woman out of fields of 50 or more in the run leg, and usually by more than 30 seconds. If she finishes the bike in the lead group, or near it, which she’s been doing at an increasing rate the last two years, her peers pretty much concede.

True says she’s been part of “conversations going on behind the scenes” about strategies to win against Jorgensen, with whom she could march into the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5.

“I think a few of us realize there’s potential to shake up the race,” said True, who is a top challenger along with Great Britain’s Non Stanford and Vicky Holland, New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt and American Katie Zaferes. “Obviously we don’t want to go into T2 [the transition from bike to run, the final leg] with Gwen because she’s that good of a runner, but we still have the swim and bike ahead of us.”

On Saturday, the day after the season finale in Chicago, True said she would no longer be working with her coach of nearly three years, Joel Filliol.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” she said, adding that she will probably focus most on improving her bike in the offseason.

Even if True doesn’t become the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion, she can still be a part of history in Rio de Janeiro.

She is married to distance runner Ben True, who finished sixth in the 5000m at the World Track and Field Championships in Beijing on Aug. 29.

If he can make the U.S. Olympic track and field team at the trials in Eugene, Ore., in July, the Trues would become what is believed to be the first husband and wife to compete for the U.S. in different sports at the same Summer Olympics.

Other U.S. Olympians in different sports married after their Olympic careers ended.

Though Sarah was “a blubbering mess” after finishing fourth in 2012, it was then-boyfriend Ben who perhaps endured more being in London. He failed to make that U.S. Olympic track and field team, saying he felt like he raced “in a fog” at trials due to Lyme disease.

“I was kind of bummed out that I wasn’t in London for myself, that I was in there only for Sarah,” Ben said this spring. “I did watch the [London Olympic track and field] races on TV, but even that was kind of hard, just wishing it. I felt like I deserved, or I could have been on the starting line.”

Ben did watch the Olympic women’s triathlon in Hyde Park, or at least the video board from the stands near the finish line, “curled up in a little ball freaking out” with his sweatshirt hoodie cinched up as Sarah fought for, and eventually fell short of a medal.

Ben was contrastingly calm before the race and with Sarah, whom he described as “a nervous wreck” leading into London.

“He was an absolute rock,” said Sarah, who met Ben, a former Dartmouth skier, the day he broke a toe in running training in New Hampshire in 2010. The two biked together, slowly one thing led to another and they wed last October.

In 2016, the Olympic women’s triathlon will go off on the final full day of competition on Aug. 20 at 10 a.m. ET. It will take about two hours. Later that night, the men’s 5000m final is scheduled on the track.

If Sarah can win a medal of any color in Rio, especially if she wins gold, she will face hours of media and commitments, making it tougher to see Ben before the 5000m final, if he’s able to make the Olympic team and advance through qualifying.

“I’ll be able to watch him,” Sarah said. “Theoretically.”

She’s won two career World Triathlon Series races, in Stockholm in 2014 and 2015, events that Jorgensen skipped. In 2014, Ben watched in person as Sarah won her first WTS race. He was in the Swedish capital for a track meet that same week.

“The day where I win a race and every single person is there,” Sarah said, speaking about Jorgensen, “that would be great.”

NBC Olympics researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Chicago.

MORE TRIATHLON: Gwen Jorgensen’s bike helmet includes Paul Bunyan, Bucky Badger

‘In Deep with Ryan Lochte’: Watch clips from Peacock film

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“In Deep with Ryan Lochte” is an hourlong journey of how a rambunctious Florida kid became the second-best swimmer of his generation (perhaps history). Of how he became an Olympic embarrassment. Of how he’s trying to regain respect by becoming the oldest male swimmer in U.S. Olympic history, this time as a father.

“After the Olympics, I read a headline, the worst person in the world,” Lochte says at the start of the film, now available for Peacock Premium subscribers. “Everyone’s been, well, where the hell’s Ryan Lochte?”

Lochte is back living and training in Gainesville, Fla., where coach Gregg Troy molded him into the world’s best swimmer what seems like a lifetime ago. Lochte attended the University of Florida in the mid-2000s and, by the end of the decade, supplanted Michael Phelps as the king of the sport before moving to different coaches.

“A lot of people ask me if Michael Phelps wasn’t swimming in the same era, you would be the Michael Phelps,” Lochte said. “That could be true.”

Phelps retired with an Olympic record 28 medals. Lochte owns 12, tied for the second-most for an American and for a swimmer and the most for any active athlete.

Before he matriculated at UF, Lochte was coached by his father, Steve, a junior college All-American who started the Daytona Beach Swimming club after moving the family from New York when Lochte was 12.

When Lochte earned his first individual gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, TV cameras caught his proud father in tears in the Water Cube crowd. Steve felt fulfilled, years after first telling his son that, to be great, a swimmer needed to break a world record and win an Olympic title.

From there, he started breaking Phelps’ records and beating Phelps in races, through the 2012 Olympics and Phelps’ first retirement.

Everything changed in 2016. Phelps was in the shape of his life for his last Olympics, winning another six medals. Lochte, slowed by a groin injury at Olympic Trials, made the team in one individual event and one relay and placed fifth in the 200m IM in Rio.

After he was done competing in Brazil, Lochte lied about an early morning gas-station incident after a late night of drinking. The spiral led to sponsors dropping him and a 10-month suspension. Then there was the alcohol addiction rehab stint. And the 14-month ban for an IV of an illegal amount of a legal substance, brought on by Lochte posting a photo of the infusion on his social media.

Lochte was planning to come back in full this year. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic halting sports, he must do it in 2021, looking to become, at 36, the oldest U.S. Olympic male swimmer in history.

“Yes, I made a mistake in Rio, and I need to earn the respect fro my fellow swimmers, from Team USA, from everyone in the world,” said Lochte, now married with two kids. “I gotta earn the respect. If I don’t make the Olympic team, they won’t see the change that I’ve made.”

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Wayde van Niekerk took 163 marvelous steps in Rio. One misstep in tag rugby changed everything.

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South African Wayde van Niekerk‘s talent turned out to be sprinting — to become the fastest 400m runner in history at age 24 in 2016 — but when the opportunity came in 2017 to play tag rugby with the nation’s other champion athletes, he did not pass it up.

“As a young boy, wanting to do a bit of sports and playing a bit of rugby with the legends of the country and so on, as you know, the rich history of South African sports,” van Niekerk said in a recent interview. “I got that privilege to rub some shoulders with such greats.”

The likes of not only rugby players, but also cricketer JP Duminy and soccer player Benni McCarthy.

Van Niekerk, two months after taking 400m gold and 200m silver at the 2017 World Track and Field Championships, took his place alongside them on the pitch at the 51,900-capacity Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. The celebrity game was a curtain-raiser for a match between New Zealand’s and South Africa’s national teams.

Fourteen months earlier in the Rio Olympic final, van Niekerk authored the perfect race from lane eight: a 43.03-second lap to break Michael Johnson‘s world record from 1999. He took 163 steps, according to World Athletics. He was expected to spend the rest of the Tokyo Olympic cycle trying to break 43 seconds in the 400m and cementing himself as the world’s best 200m runner, too.

In the rugby match on Oct. 7, 2017, one misstep and a twisted knee changed the trajectory of his career.

“This whole injury was so innocuous,” said van Niekerk’s career-long agent, Peet van Zyl, who was in the stands that day. “He tried to side step a guy, and he just stopped and he sat down. He got up again, and he walked off the field. He just said, ‘Guys, I’m done. I don’t want to play any further. I think I’m a bit injured.’ He walked off the field and all that. It wasn’t the case of him being stretchered off or anything like that. I think we thought maybe he’s just done something. It’s not too bad.”

Van Niekerk said it was quite painful.

“But I think you somewhat try and fight against the thought of it, or kind of denying your reality at that moment, hoping that it’s nothing serious, hoping that it’s something you can bounce back from really quickly, that it’s a bit of a knock, a bit of a twist,” he said. “The reality was totally different to what I was hoping it to be.”

Van Niekerk left the stadium and went across the street to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa for scans. He was with his fiancee, Chesney, whom he married three weeks later, and his stepfather. A doctor delivered the findings: an ACL and meniscus tear.

“He thought, he’ll be fine. It’ll be ready within a few months. and he’ll be able to start running again,” van Zyl said. “I think the actual severity of it sank in a little bit later.”

Van Niekerk sought another opinion, but surgery was inevitable. After his wedding, he flew to Vail, Colorado, for the operation.

“With everything that happened, now I think how silly it was, exposing my body to something like that and then putting my body in somewhat of strain that it has never trained itself [for],” he said. “I mean, rugby is a sport that my body is not conditioned for. That’s where my mind goes toward when asked about it.”

Van Niekerk began breaking the news of such an unusual injury for a sprinter, and through such unusual circumstances, to those around him. The toughest conversation to initiate was with his coach, Ans Botha, whose fame also skyrocketed in Rio.

“First of all, she’s not a fan of us doing any sport, obviously, away from track and field,” van Niekerk said. “Which is right. Which is also the advice I was obviously supposed to follow.”

Van Zyl said Botha was “totally against” van Niekerk participating in the rugby match.

“I wasn’t keen for him to do it, but growing up as a boy in South Africa, rugby’s almost like a religion,” van Zyl said. “She was really, really livid [afterward].”

Still, van Niekerk had time. Three years until the Tokyo Olympics. Two years until the next world championships. Van Niekerk, who became the world’s top sprinter with Usain Bolt‘s retirement, had to learn how to walk again. He was on crutches for about three months.

“There was a lot of doubt that creeped in the process,” he said.

Van Niekerk didn’t race at all in 2018, track and field’s fallow year without an Olympics or biennial world championships.

The rehab went as planned. First in Vail, then in Doha. Van Niekerk trained to return for the South African Championships in April 2019. But the week before the competition, he learned he developed a bone bruise in that right knee.

“He really pushed himself a bit too hard in the week before nationals just to see really what he could do,” van Zyl said. “We decided to pull him out because we can’t afford him to race when he’s not 100 percent.”

Van Niekerk missed the entire outdoor season, including the autumn world championships. He began the 2020 campaign early, with rust-busting meets in February, for a run-up to defending his Olympic title. Van Niekerk felt his speed returned.

“He was really healthy and in the physical and mental condition that he was able to start handling tough races again,” van Zyl said.

Then came the Olympic postponement, which means van Niekerk will go nearly four years between races at global championships.

When he raced in Rio, van Niekerk was an emerging star who just turned 24. The Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021, will mark his last global outdoor championships before turning 30.

It’s difficult to predict what he’s capable of. NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon couldn’t think of another top-flight sprinter who returned from an ACL and meniscus tear.

Before the injury, van Niekerk in 2017 ran the fastest 300m in history and lowered personal bests in the 100m and 200m. He remains the only person in history to go sub-10 in the 100m, sub-20 in the 200m and sub-44 in the 400m.

Even without the injury, Boldon believes breaking his own 400m world record was a tall order due in part to the circumstances of Rio: van Niekerk had nobody in front of him in lane eight, and two past Olympic champions on his inside for motivation, even if he could not see them.

“You can look at a bunch of people that ran a PR in the beginning of their careers, like Bolt, or in the middle of their careers, like many other people, and never got back there,” Boldon said (Bolt’s PRs came at age 23; Johnson, the oldest man to win an Olympic sprint title, set that 1999 400m world record at 31). “Sometimes the planets don’t align again.”

After not seeing Botha for two months, van Niekerk and his coach have been reunited on the Bloemfontein track for about a month. The plan this summer: fly to Italy, where it’s warmer than South Africa this time of year, to train and see if there are opportunities to race. Van Zyl said last week they received clearance to travel but still needed to find a flight.

Can van Niekerk return to his pre-injury level? What about the potential mental hurdle of pushing that right knee to the limit in a major race?

Before van Niekerk, the heir to Bolt’s sprint throne was Jamaican Yohan Blake, who hasn’t returned to his record-teasing levels since major hamstring injuries in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, Blake’s coach (also Bolt’s coach) said that Blake was running scared, in fear of getting hurt again. In other sports, athletes faced that psychological obstacle, from Derrick Rose to Lindsey Vonn.

“The mental challenges that come with track and field is part of the process,” van Niekerk said. “Yeah, mentally, there will be additional this time around, thinking of my leg, but it’s now part of, basically, who I am as an athlete. I’ve been someone that accepts my circumstance very easily.”

Van Niekerk compares the comeback to his ascent. He began working with Botha in 2012 as a marketing student at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He was a 100m and 200m sprinter.

Van Niekerk raced his first senior 400m in 2012, according to World Athletics. He broke the South African record in 2014. He broke the African record in winning the world title in 2015, when he ran himself to such exhaustion that he was stretchered off the track and taken to a hospital as a precaution. He ran another .45 faster in Rio.

But Rio actually wasn’t perfect. Van Niekerk said he was in tears before the 400m final due to hamstring and back injuries.

“I know how it is coming from nothing to achieving greatness,” he said last week. “Being able to break a world record with so much uncomfort that I did go through back then just shows me that I have the ability to continue pushing through the pain.”

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