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September 15, 2000
Aussies versus best of the restMitch Phillips
The women's triathlon was always going to be Australia versus the rest but injuries, selection upheavals and the pressure of expectation could combine to produce an open and exciting Olympic curtain-raiser on Saturday.
Australian women filled the first five places in last year's World Championships and have won eight of the last nine world titles.
But only three women could make it into the Olympic team and, after months of appeals and court actions, they were Michellie Jones, Nicole Hackett and Loretta Harrop.
Jones, long regarded as the queen of the sport, has a bulging bag of titles ranging over the last 10 years, including back-to-back world titles in 1992-93, and at the age of 31 is still the world number one.
She was the only one of the three to be guaranteed selection early in the year. Harrop and Hackett found out only two weeks ago that their places were secure after former world champion Emma Carney's appeal against non-selection finally failed.
Harrop, 25, won last year's World Championships and then saw the honour pass to 21-year-old Hackett in April. The two younger Australians, both fearsome swimmers, are expected to make the early pace.
They line up side by side on the start pontoon and have said they will work together in the swim and bike legs to try to open up a sustainable lead going into the run.
Both have had to overcome injuries and the appeals saga, though they kept a low profile during the process, also cannot have helped their mental preparations. And while home support can be a huge advantage, the weight of expectation will heap massive pressure on to inexperienced shoulders.
Jones, however, is unlikely to be fazed by the screaming crowd and worldwide audience of billions.
"We all know how many people watch the Olympics and it's fantastic for our sport to open up the Games," she said.
"But for me personally I'm focusing on my individual performance and once we're in the water it will be just another race."
The Australian strength is there for all to see but there are another 45 world-class athletes doing their utmost to ensure a home 1-2-3 doesn't happen.
"There are so many athletes out there that people are forgetting about," said Jennifer Gutierrez, who with Sheila Taormina and Joanna Zeiger represents a powerful United States team.
"On the day there are any number of people capable of winning."
Taormina, an Atlanta swimming relay gold medallist, will push Hackett and Harrop over the 1,500 metres harbour course with Swiss pair Magali Messmer and Brigitte McMahon and Canada's Sharon Donnelly also likely to be in the mix when they climb on their bikes.
On what the athletes are describing as a difficult, technical six-lap bike course, the Australians will look to consolidate their lead but therein lies one of the enduring appeals of the event.
Going hard on the bike, especially on a hilly course, may stretch a lead but also takes its toll on the legs and makes for a slower run. If the chasing pack are able to work together on the bike leg, they can arrive for the run relatively unscathed.
That is exactly the scenario Canada's Carol Montgomery is hoping for. This year's world championship silver medallist is the best runner in the field, as evidenced by her appearance later in the Games in the 10,000 metres track event, and she is confident she can run the Australians down if she can stay reasonably in touch.
"If I'm in touch then I hope I can reel them in," she said. "But Loretta showed in Montreal (where she won last year's world championships) she can run but I also know I can't afford to let Michellie get more than about 45 seconds away."
It all adds up to an intriguing showdown and hopefully a grandstand finish to welcome the sport to the Olympic family.
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