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

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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