PREVIEW-Olympics-Triathlon-Young guns signal changing of the guard

LONDON, June 28 (Reuters) - Triathlon’s young guns went into lockdown gently knocking at the elite door but emerged by smashing it off its hinges and storming through to totally change the sport’s landscape heading into the Tokyo Olympics.

All professional sport takes place against the backdrop of a constant shedding of ageing performers, nudged off stage by impatient new arrivals, but the absence of any meaningful competition in triathlon for so long has meant the changes have appeared magnified and dramatic.

They were brought into the sharpest of focus at the Leeds leg of the World Championship Series on June 6 when some of the biggest names in the sport were left as also-rans and ideas about who would be the favourites in Tokyo had to be quickly reassessed.

In the men’s race 23-year-old Briton Alex Yee finally made the step from “great runner and future star” to real Olympic medal contender as he stormed home for a dominant win, his first World Series victory.

It was enough to secure Tokyo selection, alongside Jonathan Brownlee, but the double Olympic medallist looked off the pace in coming home ninth and, after years of being “the younger brother”, at 31 he suddenly finds himself as the elder statesman.

That is because sibling Alistair Brownlee’s dream of a third successive Olympic gold disappeared in his home town event.

He said he needed a miracle to have qualified after an injury-ravaged year but he did not find it. Miles adrift on the run, his grim day ended with disqualification after ducking a rival in the swim.

Yee’s winning speech was full of praise for the Brownlees, who he described as his “mentors and inspiration”, but the apprentice has now stepped out of the shadow.

Spain’s Javier Gomez, a monument of the sport, is also up against it in his bid to have a final shot at the Olympics having taken silver in 2012 but missing 2016 after a bike crash and then going on to huge success in long course racing.

The 38-year-old crashed his bike in Leeds and did not finish and, even if he did make the start line in Rio five years ago, it seems impossible to imagine him going stride for stride with the likes of Yee.

Second in Leeds was American Morgan Pearson, who heads to Tokyo as the latest athlete trying to win a first men’s Olympic triathlon medal for the country that invented the sport.

He had never had a top 10 finish before grabbing third in Yokohama to secure his spot, then going one better in Leeds - all after only three years in the sport.

The Leeds event also showcased the new order in American women’s triathlon as former world champion and Olympian Katie Zaferes struggled home in 18th place to say goodbye to her Tokyo dream. Taylor Spivey finished sixth, hoping to grab a third slot alongside 23-year-old Taylor Knibb and Summer Rappaport.

Dutchwoman Maya Kingma won the event, following a third in Yokohama, to throw another young hat into the ring.

In a sport with an Olympic history of surprises, the rise of the young brigade looks like making this year’s races there for the taking by whoever delivers on the day. (Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)