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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

Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

GREATEST OLYMPIANS: Germany | Liechtenstein | Japan

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

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