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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MORE: Tokyo 2020 Olympic triathlon to start early to beat the heat

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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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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA vs. Serbia Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada vs. Puerto Rico Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China vs. France Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia vs. Belgium Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA vs. Canada Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China vs. Semifinals
11 p.m. Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. Final

U.S. into FIBA World Cup semifinals after trailing, triple-double watch

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SYDNEY — Alyssa Thomas and her United States teammates were tested for the first time in the World Cup by a physical Serbia team.

After a slow start, the Americans used a dominant run spanning the half to take control of the game and reach the semifinals again.

Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists to help the U.S. beat Serbia 88-55 in the quarterfinals of the women’s World Cup on Thursday.

“I think you expect every team’s best punch in the first quarter,” Thomas said. “We just had to settle into the game and once we settled in, then we were really able to break away.”

Kelsey Plum scored 17 points and A’ja Wilson added 15 to lead the Americans (6-0) into the semifinals.

“They played super physical, more physical than we’ve seen the entire tournament,” Plum said. “Credit to them. I felt that early-on their pressure bothered us a little bit, but we were able to kind of get under control.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

The Americans had run through pool play, winning by 46.2 points per game and hadn’t faced any kind of challenge. Serbia (3-2) wasn’t afraid though, going right at the U.S. The Serbians scored the first basket of the game — marking the first time the Americans trailed in the tournament.

It was back-and-forth for the first 17 minutes, with the U.S. failing to go on any major run. Then, with 2:59 left in the half and the U.S. up by five, Kahleah Copper drove to the basket and was fouled. She landed hard on her hip and had to be helped off the court by the U.S. training staff. Copper, who has been a sparkplug for the U.S. in her first tournament, didn’t return.

“It’s too early to tell,” Reeve said of the extent of Copper’s injury. “We’re getting her some imaging and we’ll have information later.”

Plum replaced Cooper and hit the two free throws, starting a 12-0 run to close the half as the Americans led 50-33 at the break. Thomas had 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in the opening 20 minutes.

The U.S. extended its run to 20 straight points in the third quarter before Serbia finally ended a nearly 8 1/2 minutes drought with a 3-pointer by Yvonne Anderson. That cut the deficit to 22 points. Serbia didn’t get much closer after that.

Anderson led Serbia with 14 points.

Betnijah Laney went down hard early in the fourth quarter on a put-back. She left the game and sat on the bench for the rest of the game.

“She took a hard fall,” Reeve said. “She was in the locker room afterwards and I think in her case it was a little more of it took the wind out of her.”

The victory was the 28th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86.

After going unbeaten in pool play again, the U.S. reached at least the semifinals for the 12th consecutive tournament, dating to 1975. That year completed a cycle in which the Americans lost 14 games combined in four tournaments. They’ve only lost five games since.

PICASSO IT WAS NOT

The U.S. had dominated the paint even without Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 60.8-24.4 in pool play. Serbia held a 20-16 advantage at the half and ended up outscoring the Americans 28-26 in the game by constantly having two or three players inside to clog up the middle.

“It’s one of those things you got to live with,” Wilson said. “Hopefully these next couple of games we can get back to owning the paint. Serbia did a great job of locking it down.

TRIPLE-DOUBLE WATCH

Thomas, who had a triple-double in each of the last two games in the WNBA Finals, fell just short again of getting the first one at the World Cup since Erika Dobrovicova in 1994 for the Slovak Republic against Spain. Assists and rebounds weren’t kept before 1994. Thomas had 14 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in the opener against Belgium.

TIP-INS

Jewell Loyd returned to the U.S. starting lineup a game after resting according to the team. She had eight points.

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