The 23-year-old American spoke with the Trek Race Shop about her breakout 2021
Taylor Knibb, the newest member of the Trek Factory Racing Triathlon team, never particularly enjoyed watching her mother compete in triathlons as a kid. She didn’t dislike the sport. Quite the opposite, and that was the problem.
“If my mom was racing it meant that my dad was taking us to watch the race and we weren’t going to go for a bike ride or a run or anything fun,” Knibb says. “And then I’m watching everyone else get to do what I want to do. So I wasn’t in the best mood.”
Knibb, 23, now gets to swim, bike and run as much as she wants, and she’s rising fast in the sport as a result. In 2021, her first full season out of college, she won a World Triathlon Championship Series race in Yokohama and the series finals in Edmonton. She then took on an elite field at Collins Cup and won there, too, posting the fastest bike time while riding a road bike (!), before placing third place at Ironman 70.3 World Championships in St. George. Knibb even surprised herself and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, taking 16th in women’s triathlon and silver in the mixed relay for Team USA.
My coach has a set of six rules, and No. 5 is, 'Do not be afraid to fail.' Because in training or racing, that creates opportunities for learning and growth.
Knibb wasn’t aiming to have a career year. She didn’t race at all in 2020 due to a combination of injury and the pandemic. So instead of setting hard, fast goals, she used every race as an opportunity to learn and experiment. In the process, she discovered untapped potential.
“The worst thing that can happen is, ‘OK, that didn’t work,'” Knibb says. “But then sometimes you can learn what does work. My coach has a set of six rules, and No. 5 is, ‘Do not be afraid to fail.’ Because in training or racing, that creates opportunities for learning and growth.”
The Trek Race Shop caught up with Kibb to discuss her incredible year, her goals with Trek, and how excited she is to finally ride the new Speed Concept. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
After not racing in 2020, did you think you were capable of what you accomplished going into 2021?
Taylor Knibb: I think that if we rewind the clock to 2016, I felt like that was the year when I really exceeded expectations. But then 2017, 2018 and 2019 were mixed years, and I didn’t race in 2020. And so in 2021 felt like finally I was back on track.
But it was also a surprise. I podiumed in a World Triathlon Series race in 2017. And then this year was my first time back on the podium. So it felt like a while. But I recognize that this is my first year out of college and being able to actually focus on triathlon full time. I know the reasons why it took so long, but I’m also just grateful for the year I had.
I know the reasons why it took so long, but I'm also just grateful for the year I had.
Was it hard preparing for the year without any recent benchmarks for reference?
Knibb: Well, to really rewind the clock, I got injured in 2020. I tore a tendon in my ankle, and I got a stress fracture. And the doctor told me, ‘Well, the stress fracture I’m not really worried about, it’s the tendon tear.’ So that kind of instilled fear, and I took six weeks completely off. I tried to swim for two weeks and it wasn’t really working. It was very uncharted territory. And I switched coaches that November. And so there were so many new things, and the aim was to just gain experience, get better and learn as much as we can, both my coach and I together, and me as a racer
I’m not sure if my coach thought I had any chance of making the Olympic team this year, but he wouldn’t say that. [Laughs]. He just wanted me to get better and hit where we would want to be if 2021 was supposed to be like if the Olympics had happened in 2020. What would we want to do to set ourselves up for the 2024 Olympics as best we can? And I think that that was the mentality that I went into the year with, and that actually helped me perform better. A lot of things fell into place, and I’m so grateful for that.
You mentioned that being out of college helped you focus more on racing. Where have you improved the most to get to your current level?
Knibb: The first thing is consistency, and just a little stress externally. In college, I’d get sick every single year. Right around now, there’d be two weeks when I couldn’t move. And so that doesn’t really help the whole progression. So then I felt like I was always playing catch up each season when really, at my age, I should be progressing a certain percentage each year and improving. I think just the ability to stack week after week after week of consistency, that was the biggest thing.
Which doesn’t sound glamorous. It’s not like there’s any secret sauce. [Laughs]. I was able to do the training and have some consistency.
No race stands alone. If you talked to me right after Yokohoma, I'd say, 'Oh yeah, Yokohama was an awesome race.' But I think that it was then tough going into the Olympics.
Obviously there were a number of highlight races for you in 2021. What was your favorite race of the year?
Knibb: Oh, that’s tough. I think the best answer is, “It depends.” I actually think that one of the best races of the year for me was Edmonton WTCS, but because it was sandwiched within a six-race streak, and then the Collins Cup was right after it, I think I kind of forget about it. But I led out of the swim at a WTCS race — which, my swim has let me down a lot in the last few years. I think that was also part of the inconsistency in my racing. I wouldn’t even be in the race from 200 meters into the swim, and then you can’t come back. So then to lead out of the swim and then to get that breakaway on the bike, that was just huge
Also valuable is what I learned from each race and how it affected the next race. No race stands alone. If you talked to me right after Yokohoma, I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, Yokohama was an awesome race.’ But I think that it was then tough going into the Olympics, and I’m not sure it helped me there. And therefore I don’t have the same positive connotation associated with that race anymore because of how the Olympics went. Which sounds silly. They’re 10 weeks apart. But it influences everything. No race stands alone.
Did your first full year dedicated to professional triathlon live up to expectations? What did you learn?
Knibb: Now there are a few more external obligations, and it’s very positive, outside of the training that I get to do. I think I was getting used to that in the spring, and it wasn’t the same in the summer and then the fall.
I don’t really know if I had expectations. It’s hard to know. You’re dealing with the human body. Everyone else and your competitors are also human bodies. It’s just unpredictable. And I don’t love expectations, because they can sometimes be a limiter. They could both be a limiter or a motivator, but it depends on how you harness them.
Sure, sometimes expectations can put a ceiling on what you think you can accomplish.
Knibb: Yeah, and it depends on the aim. I think the racing after Tokyo was a lot better for me because the aim was just to learn the most that I could. You can kind of experiment a little. And the racing actually went well when it wasn’t so outcome focused. It’s the same race, just how do you approach it and attack it?
And I don't love expectations, because they can sometimes be a limiter.
You just mentioned experimenting a little bit. What do you mean by that?
Knibb: [Laughs] Well if I say that then all my competitors will know.
Just seeing how if I do something in a race, how it affects my race and the race as a whole. And just trying new things. I feel like I can’t necessarily experiment to the full extent that I want yet, because my run isn’t quite where I want it to be to win races if I’m coming off the bike with 30 other women.
But WTS Montreal is a perfect example. It was an eliminator format, so it was three races of a 300-meter swim, 7.2-kilometer bike and then a 2-kilometer run. And the legs started every 40 minutes, so if you finish in 25 minutes, you only get 15 minutes of rest. I just went out hard from the first one because I was like, ‘Well, I want to see what people have. We’re not saving for the last kick at the end, we’re gonna go.’ And it was interesting to see the body language of other athletes after the first one when the race was suddenly a lot harder than they were expecting.
In saying that, what do you think is the biggest thing you learned about yourself that you didn’t know before?
Knibb: I think that this year I learned that it can be really beneficial to try things out. The worst thing that can happen is, ‘OK, that didn’t work.’ But then sometimes you can learn what does work. My coach has a set of six rules, and No. 5 is, ‘Do not be afraid to fail.’ Because in training or racing, that creates opportunities for learning and growth. And so I tried to embrace that better, and I’ve enjoyed that process.
You’ve said that part of the reason you got into triathlon was watching your mother compete in the sport. What was it about the race atmosphere that drew you in?
Knibb: My mom raced and my dad would take my brother and I to go watch. And those days, I did not like watching the races because I just wanted to be out there. I’m like, ‘Well, I want to be doing this.’ And I was also at the age where it was like, if I wanted to go for a run or a bike ride on the weekend, I had to go with a parent. I wasn’t old enough to go on my own. And so if my mom was racing it meant that I couldn’t go out because my dad was watching us, and we weren’t going to go for a bike ride or a run or anything fun. And then I’m watching everyone else get to do what I want to do. So I wasn’t in the best mood. [Laughs].
That's the fun thing about triathlon. I actually have a debate with someone who I work with about, 'Can there be a perfect race?'
Then I got to race a kids race, and I just built up from there. Because every experience, I want to learn from it, and then just be better. And that’s the fun thing about triathlon. I actually have a debate with someone who I work with about, ‘Can there be a perfect race?’ And I think depending on the sport, maybe there can, but I’m not sure in triathlon that there can really be the perfect race. But that’s up for debate, if anyone wants to debate that.
What do you mean by that?
Knibb: Well like Edmonton, for example. I felt like I had a really good swim and ride, but I can still pick apart pieces of each of those legs that I could do better, and that I want to be better at. And then my run wasn’t great either. So just because you win doesn’t mean it was the best race. I look at things from more of an execution standpoint, and the effect that a race has on the next one and what you learn from the previous races. Because if I’m making the same mistake in a race again, I’m going to be mad at myself. I can make a mistake, but I don’t want to make it again.
Did your mom push you to compete at all, or was it in your blood to want to compete like you do?
Knibb: Yes, if anything, I feel like she wanted to hold me back.
I think that my parents wanted my brother and me to be very well rounded. So when I wanted to move up in a swim group, I really had to explain to my parents why I wanted to commit to more practices, and why that would help me. And sometimes I got to move up and sometimes I didn’t, because they were like, ‘You know what, this just might be too much at this point in life.’ [Laughs]. They didn’t want me to ever do too much, because once I committed to something, I was going to do it.
Going into next year, there’s no event as outsized as the Olympics. Do you have races you’d like to target, or are you, as you said before, just taking each race as a chance to learn?
Knibb: I would really like to go back to 70.3 Worlds and improve my race, both from an execution standpoint and how I prepare for it. And then I want to race the WTCS grand final in Abu Dhabi. It might be a challenge to do both because they haven’t announced the date for Abu Dhabi yet. It could be five days later, it could be seven days later, or it could be four weeks later. I don’t know. But I want to focus on the WTCS series and 70.3 Worlds. And then if other races fit in, great. If not, I know what my focus is.
I wanted to create partnerships and relationships now that I could see lasting for the entirety of my career.
How does stepping up to Trek Factory Racing improve you as an athlete? What are you hoping to get out of this new partnership?
Knibb: I’m super excited. First off, I’m getting a time trial bike. [Laughs]. That was one of the most frequently asked questions last year for me. But I’m also really excited that the team and I will get to ride SRAM. I love the wireless components. It’s just so much easier. Before 70.3 Worlds I got my battery stuck in the seatpost, and that took about three-and-a-half hours to get out. So when I get a new bike and it’s like, ‘Oh, you just take out these two batteries,’ I am so excited. [Laughs].
And part of the thing is that I don’t know a ton about bikes in general. Yet. I’m not super meticulous about some of my choices. But I’m looking forward to learning and really maximizing both my short course setup and long course setup, because I feel like that’s an area where there’s untapped potential.
Coming off a successful year I’m sure you talked to a number of other potential teams or sponsors. Why did you end up with Trek in the end?
Knibb: Everyone told me it was a very smart decision, because I don’t really know this realm a lot. I am a young athlete. I want to be in the sport for a while. And who knows, a lot of things could change, but I wanted to create partnerships and relationships now that I could see lasting for the entirety of my career. And whether they do or don’t, time will tell, but I wanted to set myself up and give myself the opportunity to form relationships that I felt could be long lasting.