Inside the Paris 2024 triathlon New Flag races

by Ben Eastman on 02 Jul, 2024 08:23 • Español
Inside the Paris 2024 triathlon New Flag races

With ten slots on the line across the five continental associations, the New Flag races were some of the most hotly-contested on the path to the Olympic Games. Athletes traversed the world in search of the all-important world ranking points that would put them ahead of their rivals. When Paris was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they were prepared to put everything on the line.

What, then, was it like to compete for the New Flags? To shine a lot on the experience, World Triathlon caught up with three of the athletes that came out on top in their respective races. Vicky Van Der Merwe (RSA) returned from a maternity absence to earn the Africa women’s slot. Felix Duchampt (ROU) will be making his second appearance at the Olympics after capturing the Europe men’s slot. Finally, Ekaterina Shabalina (KAZ) took the Asia women’s place after a series of breakthrough performances. The trio used words like “strategy”, “thrilling” and “journey” to describe their paths and it took everything they had to make it to Paris.


Strategic thinking

Being governed by the world rankings, the hunt for a New Flag slot has a simple remit. An athlete had to accumulate as many points as they could in the 12 months preceding the end of the qualifying window. To that end, Shabalina had a clear plan.

“My initial strategy was to focus on races that were not too far from my hometown and offered 200+ points for my optimal physical conditions,” she said. “Over time, I adjusted my approach to include a mix of high-points races and those where I had a strong track record, ensuring a balance between earning points and consistent performance.”

For Van Der Merwe and Duchampt, however, the picture was not so clear-cut. The former started her race on the back foot due to a later arrival in the qualifying race following a maternity break. Similarly, the latter spent much of 2022 and a good part of 2023 out of action with injury. In light of his Achilles injury, Duchampt noted his initial strategy “was then just panic racing and scoring as much as possible, despite this injury, for the first period.”


Watching the rivals

The nature of the New Flag competition is that Olympic qualification is only ever partially in your own hands. The performances of your rivals can make or break your dreams. As a result, it would be easy to obsess over what those around you in the rankings have done. In this respect, Duchampt was at an advantage having been through Olympic qualification before.

“I knew more or less how many points I needed to qualify after ‘studying’ previous Olympics and athletes for this one. At the end of 2023, I estimated I needed about 1900-2000 points in the new flag ranking to qualify.” Duchampt scored 2020 in the end while his closest rival, James Edgar (IRL), scored 1841. The problem was, with Edgar proving a tough opponent to shake, Duchampt could never afford to relax.

“I had all the points of all my rivals on my phone, updating them regularly. I very quickly understood it would be between James Edgar and myself for the European New Flag. I thought towards the end of 2023 that I was almost safe as my Achilles tendon was getting better, meaning I could race more, and as I had a big advantage in the rankings. However, James had a crazy good end of 2023 as well as a strong beginning of 2024, making it way harder than I had expected.”

Duchampt

Shabalina echoed the difficulty of not letting her eyes wander in the rankings lists. “It was challenging to stay focused amid the shifting rankings, but I reminded myself to concentrate on my own performance and improvements. Maintaining a strong mental game and sticking to my training plan helped me keep my eyes on my goals rather than my rivals.”

Meanwhile, Van Der Merwe acknowledged that she initially watched Shanae Williams (RSA) “as she was FAR ahead of me in terms of points, but once I focused on my own path I forgot about everyone else. It’s definitely not easy but I think that’s something that I did really well. I made a very conscious decision to control what I can control and not worry about the rest.”


The high points

Throughout their New Flag races, each of Shabalina, Duchampt and Van Der Merwe enjoyed standout performances. Shabalina identified her win at the Wels European Cup in 2023 as her breakthrough race. Alongside heaping a handy lump of points onto her total, her gold medal boosted her confidence heading into a vital run of races later in the year. Duchampt likewise highlighted a pair of wins – at the Chinchina and La Guaira Americas Cups – “as it is never easy to win”.

He also pointed to his top-5 finishes at the World Cups in Tongyeong and Weihai as being crucial moments in his Olympic quest.

Van der Merwe then pointed to her victory at the Africa Championships in Hurghada in 2023. “That was a breakthrough for me. One year before that I finished 7th and almost 8 minutes back at the African Champs (it was my first race back after having a baby) and a year later I won by almost 3 minutes!”

Van Der Merwe


The magic moment

Having successfully qualified, there had to be a point at which Duchampt, Shabalina and Van Der Merwe were confident in securing their New Flag berths. For Van Der Merwe, the situation was rather clear-cut after her triumph at the 2024 Africa Championships. That put her 40th in the world rankings with a buffer of over 600 points on her nearest competitor.

It was another win for Shabalina that made her confident that she would make it to Paris. She took the title at the Asia Championships over the sprint distance towards the end of 2023. “Having been the runner-up for the past two years at the Sprint Asian Champs, I was very proud of myself for making that important step forward and securing the win and New Flag slot,” she said.

“I don’t think there was a single day that I told myself that I would not be in Paris,” said Duchampt. “As I have dual citizenship (French-Romanian), I know that racing the Olympics ‘at home’ would definitely be a once in a lifetime experience and I did not want to miss that ! So I tried to remain confident even with deep lows during those past 2 years.”

It was on 18th May that Duchampt’s doubts finally left him. After taking 2nd place at the Iquique Americas Cup, only a top-4 from Edgar at the Samarkand World Cup would have been enough to deprive the Romanian athlete. After months of racing, Duchampt expected Edgar to be as tired as he was and woke up to news that Edgar had missed out, making the New Flag slot his. “But honestly, before that day when it was impossible anymore for him to catch me, the situation was a bit stressful!”


Final thoughts

After all the toil and work of qualifying for Paris, now the big show awaits. As with the rest of those that have qualified, our three New Flag qualifiers cannot wait.

“I am happy I made it to the Olympics,” said Duchampt. “I am very excited to race in the French capital on an iconic course and I will enjoy every moment!”

Van Der Merwe said, “It has been an INCREDIBLE journey for me! I’ve done this sport for a long time and have come close before but never made it. I was out of the sport for almost 8 years so to come back and qualify after having my son is just super special and an absolute dream come true!”

“Qualifying for the Olympics has been a transformative journey,” said Shabalina, “filled with intense challenges and incredible moments of triumph. It has taught me the value of perseverance, the importance of strategic planning, and the power of believing in oneself. I’m excited and honoured to represent Kazakhstan and look forward to the unique experience and competition that the Olympics bring. My childhood dream came true. Now I have to look for the next one!”


Follow the journeys of all of triathlon’s Olympic qualifiers and stay up to date with the latest news in the build-up to Paris across World Triathlon channels.

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