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Morgan Pearson: from Colorado track & field to Olympic triathlon

Jul 25, 2021
World Triathlon

TOKYO – The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in men’s triathlon. Maybe the sixth try will be the charm. This spring, Morgan Pearson super-charged the hopes of the country by posting historic results, but the former Colorado runner has taken an unconventional route to Tokyo.

Even now, he’s coached by a man better known for working with top female cyclists (Dean Golich). He swims with a high school club team in Boulder and calls those kids “my primary training partners.” And when he graduated in 2016, his goal was to become a professional runner. But five years later, he shot to the top of the triathlon world with two podium finishes in the highest echelon of racing, the World Triathlon Championship Series. His first medal, a bronze in Yokohama in May, qualified him for the Olympic team. The second, a silver, three weeks later in Leeds, England, was unprecedented. No American man had ever won multiple medals in the WTCS.

But that’s not the prize and Pearson, 27, knows it. Since then, his goal has been to do what first-time Olympians sometimes fail to manage: “keep my head on straight and focus on performing at the Olympics. When you’re doing well, you don’t want to get complacent. You want to keep that edge…the mental grind that I pride myself on.”

Mental grind? Six days after capturing that silver in Leeds, he ran 15 miles at 9,000 feet elevation back home in Colorado, “not even for a physical benefit,” he said, “but just to get humbled. And destroy myself.” 

After graduating from Colorado in 2016, with a degree in math and economics, he applied for jobs in analytics but felt he had had more to give in running. He gave himself one year to get a running sponsor. If not, he’d give it up. Six months later, he signed with 361 Degrees, a Chinese shoe and sporting goods supplier but he lacked direction. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was tutoring at night, working as a swim instructor, working retail on the weekends.” Eventually, he said, “I was over it. I was like, ‘This is stupid,’ so I reached out to [USA Triathlon] like, ‘Ah, what’s up? I run.’”

USA Triathlon was interested, but just then, Pearson started to run better and suddenly, he was torn. As he was driving home to New Jersey to spend time with his brothers, USA Triathlon told him, ‘If you do this race in Omaha, we’ll get you a hotel room for the night and we’ll pay for your gas money,’ so I was like: I should do it. I could do it and no one would care. I didn’t even tell anyone. I didn’t realize Age Group Nationals was a big deal to some people. I just did it to see if I liked it, and see if I was any good. Then I won it, which was nice.”

In the fall of 2018, he moved to Arizona with the No. 1 goal of making the 2020 Olympic team in triathlon. “It was never an easy goal,” he said. “I don’t have easy goals. That’s no fun.”

His first race was a World Cup, a tier below the WTCS. He placed seventh. “Looking back, I think I could have been top-five,” he said, “but here’s the thing: I knew after that seventh place that I could do it. I was sick in the water and I was still with the leaders on the swim. After that race, I said, ‘There’s no doubt in my mind I can make the team. I never doubted it since that day.

“The second time that I really believed it,” he said, “was my fourth pro race” in May 2018, on the same course where he would later qualify for the Olympics. He placed 14th and thought, “Okay, I just got top-15 in my first World Championship Series with a 15-second penalty [for not placing his wetsuit in his bin], having no clue what I’m doing. I know I can make the Olympics. I believed in myself every step of the way.”

He never felt that kind of conviction as a pure runner. “Running, I loved,” he said, “I loved training, I loved racing, I think I’m pretty good, but I always thought: there’s someone out thee that’s better than me. Whereas in triathlon, I’m like: I can beat anyone.”

The one-year Olympic postponement only helped. “To extend my training time in the sport from a year-and-a-half to two-and-a-half years is significant. You can’t make that up. You can’t make up those hours on the bike and in the pool.”

Pearson gained more than skill, though. “I was listening to a lot of interviews of different triathletes at the top of the sport,” he said. One, in particular, resonated.

Kritsian Blummenfelt, a Norwegian who had won the overall series title in 2019, was talking about a 2019 race in Lausanne which has a notoriously steep hill on the bike. Pearson was in the same race and said, “I remember getting off the bike and my legs were just SHELLED, I was SO tired,” Pearson recalled. “And I’m a good runner, but I finished 11th.” Yet Blummenfelt said he got off the bike and was fresh. “If flipped a switch in my head,” Pearson said. “When I get off the bike I need to be FRESH so I can run my best. So I starting biking way more, crushing mileage on the bike.”

“Honestly, that’s what changed. Way more biking, 14 hours a week – and little things like I try not to take a day off in the pool. Michael Phelps always said one day off in the pool is like two days lost.”

Pearson also started doing the same speed workouts he used to do for coach Mark Wetmore at Colorado, including the famous 300m, 200m, and 100m repeats (six to 10 times) with 200m jog/rests in between and time targets of 46 seconds, 29-30 seconds, and 13 seconds, respectively.

And Pearson’s bold attitude has already rubbed off on his teammates. Fellow 2020 Olympian Kevin McDowell said Pearson changed the whole mindset of the U.S. men’s team.  

“USA people would always say, ‘I was the first American at this race, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, but you’re 20th, 21st [overall]. What does that matter?,” McDowell recalled. “When Morgan came, he’s like, ‘You guys are as good as these people [on the podium].’ Stop thinking local. We’re just as good. We can compete with them – and beat them.’ Slowly but surely, we started doing better, getting more consistent medals, then all of a sudden, podiums happen. It gave me this new belief.”

Now both men are in Tokyo for their Olympic debuts. Pearson has been going to bed early, trying to eliminate distractions so when he dives into the water at Odaiba Marine Park early Monday morning, he said, “I just want to have a race that I’m proud of. I don’t want to be overthinking a result, I just want to be in the moment…putting out what I know I can do. We’ll see where I finish and what that means, but if I can just have that output that I know I’m capable of, then I’ll be happy.”