Why Nicole Kelleher Lost the Iron Girl Triathlon Despite Finishing First

A penalty cost her two minutes and bumped her from first to fourth place.


As Nicole Kelleher crossed the finish line of the Athleta Iron Girl Columbia Triathlon, she had a big smile across her face and her hands raised high. The time above her head showed the winning time: 1:29:19. 

But Kelleher, of Charlottesville, VA, didn't win the race. A two-minute penalty cost her first place and $1,100 in prize money.

The penalty was for drafting during the bike portion of the contest, according to race officials. Unlike cycling events, where athletes form large groups of bikers called pelatons to conserve energy, drafting in triathlons is illegal.

"Triathlon is a single individual sport," said Rob Vigorito, founder of Tri Columbia and creator of the Columbia Iron Girl Triathlon. "You can't follow within 10 meters of the person [biking] in front of you. If you get within that zone you have a certain amount of time to pass the person, if you don't, you have to fall back."

Vigorito said riders have 15 seconds to get out of the drafting zone or pass an opponent, otherwise a penalty is applied.

In a post-race interview Kelleher openly admitted to working with Michellie Jones, who was eventually declared the winner.

"I came out of the water fourth and was able to work with Michellie Jones to move up in the bike, which is an honor because she is a legend in the sport," said Kelleher, in an interview with Explore Howard

Vigorito said it's legal for riders to work together, but pro riders, who receive their own set of officials, are watched carefully.

"If one enters the draft zone, it's legal, but you have 15 seconds to get out," said Vigorito. "The problem is if you stay there too long and don't get out of that zone in the appropriate amount of time, you get that two-minute penalty."

Vigorito said riders can save up to 25 percent of their energy by drafting with other riders.

Kelleher's official time with the two minute penalty added was 1:26:20 for the .6 mile swim, 17.5 mile bike and 3.4 mile run.

In the end, it was her biking partner, Michellie Jones, who finished first with a time of 1:24:56 and collected the $1,700 first prize. Kelleher's efforts still netted her the $600 fourth place prize.

The race featured 2,400 participants at Centennial Park on Sunday morning.

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jam November 14, 2012 at 09:54 AM
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