TOKYO — As he was gutting out a run to help his team to an Olympic medal, Morgan Pearson wasn’t thinking about his disappointing showing in the individual triathlon. He wasn’t thinking about the journey that led him here – one with his biggest career successes among the devastating loss of a brother, all within the span of a few months before the Tokyo Games.
He was focused on how he could preserve the United States’ mixed relay spot on the podium, playing it conservative to start before running down one of the world’s top triathletes to help the Americans win silver.
Pearson combined with Katie Zaferes, Kevin McDowell and Taylor Knibb in the first triathlon mixed relay event in the Olympics to finish 14 seconds back of Britain in gold and nine seconds ahead of France in bronze.
“The highs have been probably some of the highest I’ve ever experienced, but it’s also the lowest of lows. It does wear on you,” Pearson said. “I was a little bit worried about that heading into here, like maybe I’m out of steam.
“I know my family’s watching at home, family, friends. And my brother’s watching too. This is for my brother, if anything, and my family.”
They were watching. From Christine Pearson’s home in New Jersey, a small gathering of family and friends saw Pearson join McDowell as the first U.S. men to win an Olympic triathlon medal.
For the Pearsons, it was a bright spot in a heartbreaking year. On March 1, Andrew Pearson, Morgan’s older brother, died in his sleep from an undiagnosed heart condition. He was 29.
Just two years younger, Morgan Pearson went home to be with his family even as he hoped to be competing here.
“I’m really impressed at how he’s handled it, but I still think it’s a lot,” Christine Pearson said.
“I know that he wanted to bring some happiness and joy back to his family. I wanted him to do it for himself, and we all know that Morgan’s success doesn’t eliminate our heartache. But it gives us all permission to be happy.”
While he’s grieved his brother, Morgan Pearson has had the kind of breakout year Andrew would have loved to see. The oldest of four boys, Andrew was a lifeguard and his brothers all followed suit. Morgan Pearson credits Andrew with getting him into swimming and running cross country.
After his brother’s death, Pearson went on to claim bronze in World Triathlon Championship Series in Yokohama, Japan, in May to earn his spot on the Olympic team. In early June, he took silver in Leeds, England, to become the first U.S. man to win multiple medals in the series.
“He went from mourning the loss of his brother to really doing his job, which was training, and I think he was trying hard to compartmentalize,” Christine Pearson said.
“I’m so proud of him the way he has handled it. He’s done his best job to navigate through everything.”
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That included a disappointing finish in the individual race here, with Morgan Pearson finishing 42nd. He said he didn’t feel well during that race, and in the week since, he sought out his teammates, asking them to remind him of their confidence in him.
By the time the mixed relay started on Saturday, the group felt like they were in a good place.
Zaferes, the bronze medalist in the women’s race, gave the Americans a narrow lead on the first leg. They dropped to fourth after McDowell’s leg before Knibb gained a position.
Pearson just barely held off France’s Vincent Luis, who has been on three world champion mixed relays, on the swim before Luis briefly overtook Pearson and Britain’s Alex Yee to take the lead on the bike. The three leaders came into the final transition together, setting off a battle on the final run.
Yee took a commanding lead to give the Brits the gold, and Pearson passed Luis halfway through to get the United States to silver.
“I was like let me run the first bit a bit conservatively as if to not blow up. I didn’t know how far back the next group was, and I think I’d rather get third than no medal,” Pearson said. “And then I realized I was closing the gap on Vince. When that’s happening, you have to go after him. I just passed him and didn’t look back.”
The Americans celebrated together, and Pearson quickly called home to his mother before getting drug tested. The relay team looked forward to enjoying their time here before heading home.
For Pearson, that means going back to New Jersey and family. After the Games, Pearson, his brothers and friends will remember Andrew, fulfilling a lifeguarding tradition with a paddle out where they can share memories.
The medal he helped the American relay team win here won’t make that easier, but it’s sure to be one of those highs in Pearson’s up-and-down year.
“It’s just such an amazing, cool achievement,” Christine Pearson said. “Emotionally, it’s given us reason to have some joy.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Triathlon: USA takes silver in Olympics mixed relay debut in Tokyo