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Katie Zaferes, world’s top triathlete, enters the heat chamber

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It’s not hot enough in Arizona for Katie Zaferes, the world’s top triathlete, who is training in a heat chamber for what should be the biggest three-week stretch of her career thus far.

Next Thursday at 7:30 a.m. local time, Zaferes dives into Tokyo’s Odaiba Marin Park water to begin the World Olympic Qualification event.

If she finishes in the top eight and is among the top two Americans, Zaferes will qualify for her second Olympics (and, this is key, her first Olympics without relying on discretionary selection; more on that later). If she doesn’t make it, she can still qualify next year in a last-chance international race.

On Aug. 31, Zaferes will likely be in much cooler conditions in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the World Series Grand Final, the season-ending event that determines the world champion. Zaferes clinches her first world title if she finishes 13th or better, thanks to her comfortable lead from four wins and a runner-up over seven regular-season events dating to March.

It’s clear which of the major upcoming races is the focus.

Zaferes has been in Flagstaff, Ariz., since mid-July, mimicking the expected weather in Japan for not only the World Olympic Qualification event but also the Tokyo Olympic triathlon, which is also scheduled for a 7:30 start next July to beat the heat.

Zaferes and British training partner Non Stanford have been doing stationary bike rides — building from 45 minutes up to 90 — in fixed temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees with humidity between 80 and 85 percent. She pools sweat three or four times a week in a homemade tent in a garage with two heaters and a humidifier.

“It’s pretty uncomfortable,” said Zaferes, who has had Tokyo’s weather on her phone app this whole year. “This is kind of like a dry run for the Olympics.”

Zaferes steadily ascended in triathlon since graduating as Syracuse’s school-record holder in the 3000m steeplechase and indoor 5000m in 2012. After nannying for a bit, she pursued triathlon in 2013. Her world ranking went from 16th in 2014 to fifth in 2015, fourth in 2016, third in 2017 and second last year.

Now that Gwen Jorgensen, who in Rio became the U.S.’ first Olympic triathlon champion, has moved onto marathon running, Zaferes has taken the mantle and is now favored to make it back-to-back golds for American women.

But she hasn’t yet succeeded in the most pressure-packed races.

In 2015, Zaferes finished sixth in the Olympic qualification event, which would have put her on the Rio team. But Jorgensen and another American, Sarah True, were first and third to take the two available spots. After the dust settled in spring 2016, one spot was left for USA Triathlon to fill at its own discretion.

Though Zaferes was clearly the third-best U.S. triathlete, the organization could have chosen a less-accomplished woman to act as a domestique for the gold-medal-favorite Jorgensen. It could have asked Zaferes, a medal contender in her own right, to be a domestique.

In the end, nine months after the Olympic qualification event and 10 days after the last selection race, USA Triathlon named Zaferes to the Olympic team without the domestique handcuff.

“That waiting period for them to actually select me, it led to doubts arising, well, am I going to get to go? Do I deserve this?” she said this week. “Now, I have a large drive to qualify automatically after what happened in 2016.”

Though Zaferes was free to race for a medal in Rio, her energy was zapped on the 40km bike leg with 16 tough climbs. She had little left for the 10km run, fading to 18th with the 42nd-best time on her feet of the 48 finishers. Her most positive memory of the Games was the Closing Ceremony.

Zaferes endured. She stuck with coach Joel Filliol and improved each year of this Olympic cycle. At last season’s Grand Final, Zaferes just needed to finish ahead of Brit Vicky Holland to claim the world title. Zaferes passed Holland on the 10km run, but in a rare instance, Holland retook the advantage with less than two miles left and beat Zaferes for the world title by 31 seconds.

“I took another step in the right direction,” Zaferes said that day, “so there is always next year.”

Zaferes stormed out this season by winning the first three events and coming within 11 seconds of winning the first five. It conjured memories of Jorgensen’s 13 straight top-level international victories over a two-year stretch in the last Olympic cycle. Zaferes has carried with her the defeat from the 2018 Grand Final, when she lost focus that she didn’t regain until after Holland had passed and gapped her.

“Now one of my mantras during a race is, ‘Be ready, be ready, be ready,'” Zaferes said.

But even as Zaferes has dominated the circuit, something has been missing. Someone, actually. When Zaferes is asked if she considers herself the best in the world, she says that she’s “one of the best” and brings up the name Flora Duffy.

Duffy, the 2017 World champion from Bermuda, has finished just three World Series races in the last two seasons due to a foot injury. She hasn’t started any this year, but said two weeks ago that she plans to race the Olympic qualification event and the Grand Final.

“I feel more like the most consistent athlete in the world,” Zaferes said. “I guess, for me, I think i want to see how Flora comes back. I want to race Flora.”

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Heat training for Tokyo means trying out new strategies to pass the time and deal with the heat. One of my favorite heat training moments so far was when @nonstanford and I decided to play a game for the last 8 minutes. The week before we had a tempo together on the roads swapping turns. So one day when we were both in the heat chamber on trainers facing one another, we decided to simulate that by trading off “taking pulls”. One of us would put our head down in the aero bars and push a bit harder while the other just spun and then after about forty seconds we would basically swap off as if we were rotating on the road. It was a “fun” way to pass the time and get us through those final moments. It is also a fantastic representation of how we can get better together even in some unorthodox ways. 📸: @tzaferes

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Dan Hicks, Rowdy Gaines call backyard pool swim race

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Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines covered swimming together at the last six Olympics, including every one of Michael Phelps‘ finals, but they’ve never called a “race” quite like this.

“We heard you were looking for something to commentate during the down time….might this short short short course 100 IM help?” tweeted Cathleen Pruden, posting a video of younger sister Mary Pruden, a sophomore swimmer at Columbia University, taking individual medley strokes in what appeared to be an inflatable backyard pool.

“Hang on,” Gaines replied. “This race of the century deserves the right call. @DanHicksNBC and I are working some magic!”

Later, Hicks posted a revised video dubbed with commentary from he and Gaines.

They became the latest commentators to go beyond the booth to post calls on social media while sports are halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NBC Sports hockey voice Doc Emrick (who has also called Olympic hockey and water polo) did play-by-play of a windshield wiper installation.

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MORE: Ledecky, Manuel welcome Olympic decision after training in backyard pool

Which athletes are qualified for the U.S. Olympic team?

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Soon after Tokyo Olympic qualifying events began getting postponed, the International Olympic Committee announced that all quota places already allocated to National Olympic Committees and athletes will remain with those NOCs and athletes.

The IOC repeated that position over the last week, after the Tokyo Games were postponed (now to open July 23, 2021). What does that mean for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee?

Well, 76 athletes qualified for the U.S. Olympic team before the Olympic postponement was announced. That full list is here.

Those 76 athletes can be separated into two categories.

  • Athletes who earned Olympic spots BY NAME via International Federation (i.e. International Surfing Association or International Aquatics Federation) selection procedures.
  • Athletes named to the U.S. Olympic team by their national governing body (i.e. USA Swimming or USA Track and Field) and confirmed by the USOPC using NGB selection procedures after the NGB earned a quota spot.

When the IOC says “all quota places already allocated to National Olympic Committees and athletes will remain with those NOCs and athletes,” it means just that. USA Softball still has 15 athlete quota spots from qualifying a full team via international results. Surfer Kolohe Andino still has his Olympic spot from qualifying BY NAME via the International Surfing Association selection procedures route.

USA Softball named its 15-player Olympic roster last fall. Those 15 athletes did not earn Olympic quota spots for themselves. Unlike Andino (and 13 other American qualifiers across all sports), the 15 softball players had to be nominated by USA Softball and confirmed by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Unless and until the USOPC confirms that any of those other 62 athletes remain qualified, for now the list of U.S. Olympic qualifiers is these 14 who qualified BY NAME:

Karate (1)
Sakura Kokumai

Modern Pentathlon (2)
Samantha Achterberg
Amro Elgeziry

Swimming (3)
Haley Anderson
Ashley Twichell
Jordan Wilimovsky

Sport Climbing (4)
Kyra Condie
Brooke Raboutou
Nathaniel Coleman
Colin Duffy

Surfing (4)
Caroline Marks
Carissa Moore
Kolohe Andino
John John Florence

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MORE: Qualified athletes go into limbo with Tokyo postponement