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Katie Zaferes is U.S. triathlon’s new leader, from baggy shorts to brink of world title

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It’s not often that one’s most memorable experience of an Olympics is the Closing Ceremony.

Triathlete Katie Zaferes arrived in Rio more than halfway through the Games. Her event was on the 15th of 16 days of medal competition. Zaferes, a podium contender in her Olympic debut, finished a disappointing 18th on Copacabana Beach.

She stayed for the Closing Ceremony the next night, the flame extinguished at the Maracanã.

“Leading up to the race I didn’t do anything Olympic oriented,” Zaferes said by phone Wednesday. “Once our race was over, basically the only event left was the marathon. For me, the Closing Ceremony was the only actual Olympic thing I could go to and experience.”

Zaferes left Brazil bent on ensuring the next Olympic experience would be different. It’s looking that way at the halfway point of the Olympic cycle.

The 29-year-old leads this year’s World Triathlon Series standings going into the Grand Final in Gold Coast, Australia, on Sept. 15. The math: whoever finishes higher in the Gold Coast race — Zaferes or Brit Vicky Holland — is crowned world champion.

Zaferes is the extension of the U.S.’ recent surge in Olympic-distance triathlon. It earned one medal (a bronze) from the first four Olympics with triathlon from 2000 through 2012.

Then came Gwen Jorgensen.

USA Triathlon’s development program plucked the former University of Wisconsin runner and swimmer from an Ernst & Young accounting job in 2010. It took Jorgensen four years to become world champion and six to win Olympic gold in Rio.

She left triathlon last year as arguably the most dominant athlete in its short Olympic history, eyeing gold in another sport.

“A lot of what I’ve gotten to experience is kind of because of Gwen,” Zaferes said. “As athletes we’re pretty different, but our pathways pretty similar.”

Zaferes, too, was an NCAA distance runner (at Syracuse) and had youth swimming experience. She even raced four triathlons, a Father’s Day tradition with her dad starting in 2007, just after graduating high school in Hampstead, Md.

There is an image that made the internet of Zaferes, in a baggy shirt and soccer shorts, in her first triathlon. At one point, she walked her bike up a hill.

She finished 11th among women, taking 1 hour, 24 minutes, 8 seconds to cover 400 meters in a pool, 14 miles on the bike and 5km on foot on the Maryland roads and grass. She beat her 46-year-old dad by 28 minutes and trailed the 50-year-old female winner by 11. Zaferes raced it each of the next three years, improving to third in 2008, second in 2009 and the first female finisher in 2010.

While at Syracuse, Zaferes was recruited to triathlon by the same woman who had persuaded Jorgensen, 2004 Olympian Barb Lindquist, who heads USA Triathlon’s collegiate recruitment program.

Zaferes graduated from Syracuse in 2012, nannied for a bit, and then moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in January 2013 to begin a triathlon career.

She finished fourth at the April 2013 national championships, then won a lower-level international World Cup event in July. Zaferes debuted on the top circuit, the World Series, six days later, and finished 35th out of 65, just 13 seconds behind American Sarah True, who had been fourth at the 2012 Olympics.

She was ranked 16th in the world in 2014, racing as Katie Hursey. She married fellow triathlete Tommy Zaferes in January 2015 and, racing with a new name on the front of her suit, truly joined the sport’s top echelon.

Zaferes made her first World Series podium and stayed there, finishing second or third in six of her eight starts. She then got her first win at the last World Series race before the Rio Olympics.

“I felt capable of medaling [in Rio],” Zaferes said Wednesday, looking out a window to the Pacific Ocean in Gold Coast, where she’s spending three weeks training ahead of the Grand Final. “I had been on podiums before. That was the goal.”

She was second out of the 1.5-kilometer swim and with the leading group of 18 off the 40-kilometer bike at the Olympics. But that bike leg, covering two tough climbs on each of the eight laps, zapped Zaferes.

“The bike really freaked me out,” Zaferes said, also noting challenging downhills. “After Rio, we knew that my bike skills had to develop more, but it was also developing the mindset to handle it if something was over my head.”

She followed the bike with the slowest 10km run of that leading group — 38:44, or 4:35 slower than Jorgensen and 42nd out of the 48 finishers.

“People were passing me. I tried to go with them, and I was falling off,” she remembered. “I don’t know if I’d call it the toughest run [of my career], but it was a hard run that I think I could have been better if I had prepared more mentally for it.”

A month earlier, Zaferes had the second-fastest 5km run in her maiden World Series win, 33 seconds slower than Jorgensen, known to be the best runner in Olympic-distance triathlon history.

Zaferes stuck with coach Joel Filliol‘s training group after Rio. She now leans more on a nutritionist and sports psychologist. Her husband isn’t racing full-time anymore but works in triathlon, allowing them to travel and train together.

Zaferes was third in the world last year, her best overall result yet and her first time as the top American. She also placed second in the 2017 Grand Final, ending a string of fading in season-ending events.

This year, Zaferes has five podiums in seven starts. Though she has no wins, that consistency put her slightly ahead of the Olympic bronze medalist Holland going into Gold Coast, even though Holland has three victories this season.

Zaferes said it wouldn’t mean anything less to earn a world title without an individual race win. She believes in delayed gratification. She’s had to wait two years since Rio. There are two more until Tokyo, which could be her final Olympic run with starting a family in consideration.

“If it doesn’t happen now, and this isn’t my moment,” she said of winning in Gold Coast, “it’ll happen in the future.”

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MORE: Gwen Jorgensen sets second marathon

Surfing world champion Gabriel Medina’s birthday bond with Neymar

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Of Brazilian Gabriel Medina‘s 7.7 million Instagram followers, most began tracking him after his first world surf tour win at age 17, his first world title at 20 or his second crown last year at 24.

But not Neymar. The soccer icon with 113 million followers got in on the ground floor. On Medina’s 14th or 15th birthday, to be more precise.

At the time, either in 2007 or 2008, Neymar was already big in Brazil, though he didn’t start playing professionally until 2009 and didn’t move from Brazil’s domestic league to the titans of Europe until 2013.

“My manager told [Neymar] I wanted to meet him, and then he pretty much organized it,” Medina said in December. “I met [Neymar] first time at his house in Santos.”

Medina, who lived a 90-minute drive from Santos in Sao Paulo, celebrated his birthday by presenting a gift to his fellow precocious athlete, a surfboard.

The two since palled around Brazil and Europe, playing Counter-Strike and poker and hanging at Carnival and on cruises, Medina said. In 2014, Neymar promoted on his social media a live broadcast of Medina’s competition as he tried to become South America’s first world champion in surfing, which makes its Olympic debut in 2020.

Neymar, whose lone sibling is a younger sister, calls Medina his brother. He attended a World Surf League contest in Portugal in October.

“Really good friend outside of the beach and inside of the beach and in the soccer fields,” Medina said. “He put a lot of work and is one of the best. It’s good to have a friend like that.”

Medina was in Rio for the start of the Olympics, a few weeks after he became the first surfer to land a backflip in a contest. But he had to leave before Neymar penned the moment of the Games, slotting the shootout winner to deliver Brazil its first Olympic soccer title.

Two months later, Medina’s stepfather and coach, known in Brazil as Charlão, was involved in an unspecified incident involving World Surf League officials.

He was suspended for six months. Medina struggled early in the 2017 season, rebounded to win the ninth and 10th events but lost in the quarterfinals of the Billabong Pipe Masters finale, ending his comeback bid and allowing American John John Florence to clinch a repeat title.

Medina said his climb back in 2018 to his first world title in four years was more difficult than earning that maiden crown, when he became the youngest male world champ since Kelly Slater won the first of his record 11 titles in 1992. Medina, whose favorite tattoo is a family crest inside his upper arm, mentioned dealing with his dad’s situation.

“When you win the first one you kind of get in a comfortable zone, you know?” he said. “That’s why I think the second is harder. You have to put a lot of work, even more than the first one.”

Brazil had its most successful Olympics ever in Rio, unsurprisingly, with national records of seven gold medals and 19 total medals. It finished 13th in the medal standings, also a best. Those numbers are expected to descend without a home-field advantage in Tokyo. The addition of surfing should be a boost, though Medina is not guaranteed one of two Brazilian spots at the Games. Three of the top four men in last season’s world tour standings were from Brazil.

Which led Medina to proclaim that surfing has passed volleyball as Brazil’s second-most popular sport.

“Of course,” Medina said, “soccer is No. 1.”

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MORE: Top U.S. female surfer has Olympic swimming, Egg McMuffin ties

Nathan Chen, Alina Zagitova among the top takeaways for the figure skating season

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A baker’s dozen takeaways, with some looks to the future, from the 2018-19 figure skating season, which ended Saturday in Japan with the United States winning the World Team Trophy.

1. It’s time to give Russia’s Alina Zagitova full – and massive – credit for what she has done the past two seasons.

Zagitova and her coaching team were unfairly criticized in some quarters for what turned out to be a brilliant strategy of doing all seven jumping passes in the second half bonus area of the 2018 Olympic free skate. Not only was that an impressive feat of stamina, the bonus points Zagitova got for those jumps were the difference between her winning gold and getting silver.

When a Zagitova worn down by a post-Olympic whirl of appearances flopped to fifth in the 2018 World Championships, staggered to fifth at this season’s Russian Championships and was beaten at Europeans, there were suggestions she might be a one-hit wonder. Then, as she later said in an interview on the Russian Skating Federation website, Zagitova became so unsettled by the pressure and the thought of failure at worlds her jumps deserted her in practice, and she had thoughts of quitting.

Some of her struggles were not unexpected. She had grown some three inches since the Olympics. Her body proportions were changing from those of a girl to those of a young woman. New rules minimized one of her strengths by limited skaters to just three jumping passes in the bonus area.

And Zagitova overcame all that, the psychological and the physical issues and the scoring changes, to win the 2019 worlds with two clean programs, a dazzling short and a strong, commanding free. At 16, she had added a world title to her Olympic title. That is worthy of unqualified acclaim.

2. Nathan Chen had a remarkable season, even if judged only by what he did on the ice.

When one puts his undefeated record in the context of having done it while simultaneously being a full-time freshman student at Yale University whose coach was 3,000 miles away, Chen’s was a season for the ages.

Chen was lights out in winning a third straight U.S. title. Then, he was even better in winning a second straight world title, this one more significant because two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was in the field.

Chen has not yet decided – or perhaps just not yet announced – whether he will be a full-time student again next season, although there doesn’t seem any reason to mess with success given there are two more seasons before the next Olympics.

If Yale allows him three straight semesters off – and the University already has been very accommodating of his travel schedule and his need for ice time on the Yale rink – it would make more sense for him to take an academic leave beginning with the second half of the 2020-21 season and academic year and going through the 2022 Winter Games.

3. Vincent Zhou of the U.S. no longer is just that guy who goes from jump to jump (while collecting under-rotation marks.)

Zhou’s improvement in the last two months of the season was tremendous. He went on from a bronze medal at worlds to do two terrific skates at the World Team Trophy, his free skate a seamless, compelling performance and an athletic tour de force. The under-rotation calls were disappearing.

Doing three quads at World Team Trophy instead of his usual four seemed to give Zhou the time to breathe and create an entertaining impression. Maybe he should keep thinking less is more.

4. The changes in the scoring system had a small mathematical effect on their goal of rebalancing athletic (TES) and artistic (loosely, PCS) scores in singles free skates, especially among the men.

This is tricky to calculate, because the drops in value of the highest scoring jumps were offset by the possibility of higher (and lower) Grades of Execution when the range was expanded from +3/-3 to +5/-5. And the limiting of free skate bonus area jumping passes lowered potential TES scores.

At the 2017 worlds, each of the top four men in the free (Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Boyang Jin of China, and Chen) had significantly higher TES scores, with none getting more than 44 percent of the total from PCS.

At the 2019 worlds, the top four men in the free did get a higher percentage of their total from PCS, even if the difference was insignificant for winner Chen (43.8 to 43.9). The others: Hanyu, 46.5; Vincent Zhou, 46.7; Uno, 49.8 (Uno’s TES scores were dramatically affected by two downgraded quads).

The women’s scores shifted in the opposite way. At the 2017 worlds and 2018 Olympics, six of the top eight in the free had higher TES. This season, it was seven of the top eight (only fifth-place Kaori Sakamato of Japan had a higher PCS, and it was a minimal difference of less than one percent). Japan’s Rika Kihira, second in the free, had a TES score nearly 12 points higher than her PCS, accounting for 54 percent of her total, even though she fell on a triple Axel.

Given the concurrent rise of PCS scores, almost across the board, it would have seemed the change in score percentages might have been more dramatic.

5. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron could take the next two seasons off and return to waltz to the 2022 Olympic gold.

The French ice dancers have a greater gap on their competition than any team in the 15-season history of the IJS. They won the 2019 world title by 10.89 points, a margin topped only by their 10.96 of a year ago, when reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada skipped worlds.

In the 13 previous seasons, no team had won by more than 5.95 (Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia in 2005).

Ice dance had been blessed with compelling rivalries from 2010 through 2018: Virtue/Moir vs. Papadakis/Cizeron, Virtue/Moir vs. Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. Now the French are unrivalled, competing only against themselves and abstract ideas of brilliance. So far, they haven’t been slowed down by having to play a solo game of “Can you top this?”

6. The most anticipated figure skating event in the United States next season is the Aug. 28-31 Junior Grand Prix stop in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That is where reigning U.S. senior champion Alysa Liu, 13 (until Aug. 8) and ineligible for senior international competition until the 2021-22 season, will likely debut in a consequential junior international junior event. (She could be in a lesser event before that.) Liu, who hit three triple Axels at nationals, may have added a quad by Lake Placid. She tried two unsuccessfully in last season’s U.S. Regionals.

7. The quad wave is about to sweep into senior women’s competition.

Russians Anna Shcherbakova (quad Lutz) and Alexandra Trusova (quad Lutz, quad toe, quad Salchow) who finished 1-2 in seniors at this season’s Russian Championships and 2-1 at the World Junior Championships, are the headliners. They join Kazakh Elizabet Tursynbaeva, whose quad Salchow at worlds made her the first woman to land a quad in a senior event.

8. Ting Cui, 16, looks ready to take one of the two U.S. singles spots at next year’s senior worlds.

Cui, 2019 junior world bronze medalist and fifth at senior nationals (third in the free skate), has a good chance to bump either Mariah Bell or Bradie Tennell, more likely the former. Bell has finished an unremarkable ninth, 12th, and 12th in the last three worlds. After underwhelming performances much of this season, 2018 U.S. champion Tennell (seventh and sixth) in the last two worlds, ended with the best free skate of her career at the World Team Trophy.

9. Rika Kihira rose and fell (literally) on the success of her triple Axel.

The jump carried her past Zagitova to win the Grand Prix title. Then it cost her a chance at the world title after Kihira popped (singled) the jump in the short program.

Kihira’s season triple Axel tally, in ISU or national championship events: 13 clean in 23 attempts (56.5 percent), with five falls, three pops, one downgrade and one double.

10. Yevgenia Medvedeva showed she deserved her spot at worlds. So did Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who did not get one.

Sofia Samodurova’s surprising win at the European Championships and the illness that sidelined Tuktamysheva at her nationals left the Russian federation in a quandary.

They couldn’t keep the European champion off the team. And they wanted to include Medvedeva, no matter that she had struggled – but slowly improved – all season after leaving Russia to train in Canada with Brian Orser. And hadn’t Tuktamysheva been an also-ran for the three seasons after her 2015 world title, no matter that she won two Grand Prix events and a bronze at the Grand Prix Final this season?

Medvedeva skated well enough at worlds to win a bronze medal when Kihira and Sakamoto made big mistakes.

Tuktamysheva went to the World Team Trophy and was outstanding in winning the free skate and finishing second in the short program. She did a massive, effortless triple Axel in each program, having regained full command of a jump she added to her arsenal in 2015 but could not land cleanly the next three seasons.

Beyond that, Tuktamysheva at age 22 became a presence: she developed a funny, outgoing persona on social media, pushed the limits with a sexy “striptease” in her exhibition program – and accepted her worlds snub with grace.

11. It’s great that French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres have decided to keep competing.

They began 2018-19 uncertain about their future beyond the season, then reached heights they never imagined possible a few years ago, coming into worlds as the undefeated European and Grand Prix Final champions. That worlds was their one poor competition of the season, leaving them fifth, undoubtedly was a motivation to continue.

James and Cipres finished with a stunning free skate at World Team Trophy, showing flawless unison on their big tricks.

It would be a real treat to see what the judges do if they and the sparkling Chinese world champions, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, both skate cleanly in the same competition next season.

12. Canada went without a world medal for the first time since 2004**.

Its best finish at the 2019 worlds was fifth in dance.

Its top woman’s singles finish, 11th by Gabrielle Daleman, was the lowest since Alaine Chartrand was 11th in 2015. And, according to Skate Canada, its top men’s finish, 15th by Keegan Messing, was its lowest ever (the previous low was 13th by Kevin Pockar in 1979.)

So why the asterisks**?

The gold and bronze medalists in ice dance, from France and the USA, are coached by Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal.

Montreal is also the site of the 2020 worlds, but Canada’s medal chances don’t look much better even on home ice. It earned just one 2020 worlds spot in men’s singles and barely got two in women’s singles.

13. Yuzuru Hanyu’s desire to push the technical envelope, admirable as it is, may shorten one of the greatest careers in the history of skating.

The Japanese superstar was out of competition for three months in both the last two seasons, missing two Grand Prix Finals and Japanese Championships, after injuring his right ankle while attempting quad Lutz (November 2017) and quad loop jumps (November 2018).

He has done just one quad Lutz in a competition. Although he has had 10 clean quad loops in 18 attempts, according to skatingscores.com, Hanyu won the 2018 Olympics without that difficult edge jump.

After he finished second at the 2019 worlds, the Japanese Skating Federation announced Hanyu would need two to three months of treatment on the long-term ligament damage in his ankle. Getting the ligaments to heal completely will not be easy, especially should Hanyu choose to try to reach his stated goal of landing a quad Axel.

Hanyu means too much to the sport for him to risk his future on jumps he likely can still win without if the rest of his skating is flawless.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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