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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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Reno-Tahoe drops 2030 Winter Olympic bid

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If the U.S. bids for the 2030 Winter Olympics, it will not be with Reno-Tahoe.

The Nevada/California region ended its pursuit of becoming a U.S. bid city, at least for an Olympics in the near future. The U.S. is expected to bid for 2030, and the U.S. Olympic Committee last year named Reno-Tahoe, Denver and Salt Lake City as cities that expressed interest.

“We have maintained from the start that a Reno-Tahoe bid would have to make sense economically, environmentally and socially,” Brian Krolicki, chairman of the Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition, said in a press release. “Given the parameters and conditions presented, we cannot make the numbers pass muster. To continue, at this point, would be untenable and unwise.”

The coalition noted the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Games having exclusive Olympic marketing rights from 2019 through its Closing Ceremony as an obstacle.

The region hosted the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. Since, the U.S. has hosted two Winter Olympics — in Lake Placid in 1980 and Salt Lake City in 2002. It hasn’t hosted a Summer or Winter Games since, its longest drought since the 28-year gap between 1932 and 1960.

The International Olympic Committee vote in 2019 to choose the 2026 Winter Olympic host city could impact a potential U.S. 2030 bid. The remaining 2026 bidders are Calgary, Stockholm and an Italian bid with Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Calgary’s bid hinges on a public vote Tuesday. North America has never hosted back-to-back Winter Olympics.

Olympic host cities are traditionally chosen seven years beforehand.

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MORE: IOC board nominates 3 bids for 2026 Olympics

Shaun White eyes his longest break from snowboard contests

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Shaun White said he has no plans to compete in snowboarding this season, which would mark the first time he goes a full year without entering a contest.

“I normally take every season after the Olympics off to clear my head,” White said in a statement via his team. “This time around I’ll be filling my time with skateboarding.”

White said in July that he would lighten his snowboard schedule as he returns to skateboarding competition. The triple Olympic halfpipe champion is considering a Tokyo 2020 run in the new Summer Olympic sport.

White entered his first skateboard contest in years in September and called his performance “pretty terrible,” but not surprising given it was his first-ever bowl event.

White earned five X Games skateboard medals between 2005 and 2011, but all of those came in vert, which is not on the Olympic program.

“Honestly, I am here to see how things go,” White said at the September event in Marseille, according to Agence France-Presse. “I haven’t made a decision either way [on 2020], I just figured, want to have some fun, skateboard, come to France and then hopefully make a decision come new year if I’m really going to go for it or not.”

As for snowboarding, White has typically eased off in post-Olympic years. In 2010-11 and 2014-15, his only contest was the Winter X Games, according to World Snowboarding, whose results show that White’s longest break from contests was 11 months.

White has said he would like to go for a fifth Winter Games in Beijing in 2022. He would be 35, older than any previous Olympic snowboarding champion. He’s already the oldest halfpipe medalist.

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