Katie Zafares led the USA women to a podium sweep in Yokohama and kept her perfect World Triathlon Series record intact for 2019.
The world No 1, who has finished fifth, fourth, third and second in the series in the past four seasons, made it three wins from three WTS starts to cement her favourite tag by out-running Summer Rappaport, with Taylor Spivey in third.
The race in the Japanese east coast city was also an opportunity for Britain’s women to achieve the first part of the selection criteria for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
A demanding podium finish was required to stay in automatic selection contention, but although Jess Learmonth once again led out of the water, she faded to sixth on the run, overtaken by the fast-finishing Georgia Taylor-Brown, with Non Stanford running through for eighth.
Although all were hopeful of a top three finish, it is likely to be 25-year-old Taylor-Brown who has most impressed the selectors. Having narrowly missed the breakaway on the bike, her 10km run split of 34:14 was only bettered by Zafares.
However, it was the Stars and Stripes that ruled the day in ideal conditions to record their fourth women’s podium clean sweep and first since Edmonton in 2016.
On that occasion in Canada, Rappaport (nee Cook) had beaten Zafares into third, but this time the fortunes were different.
“Summer pushed me on the run the entire way,” Zafares said. “I’m using a more risky mindset where I’m trying different things and I think it’s going well.”
An emotional Rappaport was relieved to have finally realised her potential again. “I had a really difficult 2018 and my first WTS in Abu Dhabi didn’t go as I’d hoped,” she said. “I’d been working hard but wasn’t able to transfer it into my racing. It was so discouraging. Today I was able to make everything click.”
Without last year’s winner Flora Duffy, who is side-lined with injury, it fell to Learmonth and Zafares to again push the pace at the head of the race.
Learmonth led out of the swim for a 12th time in the World Series and a front pack of seven formed that also included Holland’s Maya Kingma, Norwegian Lotte Miller and home favourite and reigning Asian champion Yuko Takahashi.
Stanford swam well to emerge from the water in the top 10 - just 17sec back - with Taylor-Brown in close contention but could not bridge up to the leaders and the lead extended throughout the nine laps of the 40km bike leg to be around 2mins by the time they reached T2.
From there Zafares and Rappaport contested the top spots with Spivey locked in a duel with Takahashi for third. The Japanese finally had to settle for fourth, but delighted the home crowd with her best performance to date on the World Series.
Zafares leads the overall standings with a maximum 3000 points followed by Learmonth and Spivey, who are tied for second. Taylor-Brown lies fourth, with Stanford in sixth. There are five races remaining and the racing now moves on to Leeds in three weeks’ time.