UA grad swims, bikes, runs his way to first Olympic triathlon

RIO DE JANEIRO — Ben Kanute’s interest in triathlon was born as a child growing up in Illinois, watching his father compete.

“My dad was doing them when I was really young, and I remember him doing the Chicago Triathlon,” Kanute said. “I was lucky enough to have a kids’ triathlon happen really close to where I lived and just fell in love with the sport there.”

As he got older, he began to spend more time developing his skills in the sport.

“I did cross-country in school, swimming in high school, all that,” Kanute said. “I just kind of got more and more focused on triathlon as I became more successful in that than just the singular sports.”

Now, the 23-year-old University of Arizona graduate is in Rio to compete in his first-ever Olympic Games.

Kanute credits his time at UA for his success, saying it was a fantastic school for both training and academics. He said he considers Tucson one of the best places in which to train.

“When I visited the campus at the University of Arizona it just all kind of clicked for me, and throughout those three years I was able to meet some amazing people who really helped me advance in my career,” said Kanute, who majored in physiology at the school. “The Pac-12 is kind of the same thing. It’s a great conference, and Arizona is lucky to be a part of it.”

Kanute will race alongside two other Olympic rookies from the U.S.: Greg Billington and Joe Maloy. All three triathletes expressed enthusiasm for the race and excitement to finally have made it to the Olympics. They confirmed their spots on Team USA at the World Triathlon Series race in Yokohama, Japan, in May.

“The best part of qualifying is simply the opportunity to represent my country,” Billington said. “There have been a lot of challenges, but I think this event is what makes us strive every day to find out what the best is that we can be.”

Kanute, Billington and Maloy said they are not spending too much time worrying about the challenging course, the unpredictable weather or the reported issues in water quality off Rio’s shores. They said they just want to see what they can do while competing against triathletes from around the world.

“Whatever it is, it’s going to be the same for everybody, and I think that’s probably all of our approach,” Maloy said. “It’s just to be flexible and take what the day gives us.”

Kanute said he is excited for all the opportunities triathlons have offered him, and he plans to keep making the best of each moment. He enjoys traveling to new places, each helping prepare him for this competition. He said he’s had a very positive experience in Rio so far.

“I think the city has really come alive with it,” he said. “The venues are looking great.”

When asked about the reports of high bacteria levels in the ocean around Rio, all three triathletes said they are focusing on other things. They said they hope nothing goes wrong, but they will not know for sure until the race on Thursday.

“I think, being down here, you can read all these reports and look at all these numbers and kind of convince yourself that there are any number of problems,” Maloy said. “But when you’re down here and you’re looking at that view and you’re looking at the ocean, it’s kind of hard to believe that there’s anything wrong with it. I think it’s more a product of hype than reality.”

Billington said there is risk with anything they do, and he and Maloy plan to swim in the ocean before the race.

“I mean, we go out and train still, we go for a run, but we could step off a curb and break our ankle,” he said.

Kanute said the course on which they will race is expected to be very challenging and fast due to the steep hills, technical descents and choppy water, but it is also unique.

“I’m just excited to go out there and see what I can do,” he said.