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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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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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U.S. Olympic 3×3 basketball qualifying teams named with former NBA player, WNBA stars

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Former NBA player Robbie Hummel and WNBA stars lead U.S. Olympic qualifying teams in the new Olympic event of 3×3 basketball.

The four-man and four-woman teams will compete in a global qualifier in India in March, each favored to grab one of three available Olympic berths per gender for the U.S.

Hummel, who unretired to become world champion in 3×3, is joined on the U.S. Olympic men’s qualifying team by Team Princeton teammates Canyon Barry and Kareem Maddox, plus Dominique Jones, who has played with Team Harlem. Team Princeton is guided by an investment firm CEO who once beat Michael Jordan one-on-one.

Last year, Hummel, Maddox and Barry (one of Rick Barry‘s sons) were part of a team that won the world title.

The U.S. women’s 3×3 qualifying roster is made up of WNBA stars Napheesa Collier, Stefanie DolsonAllisha Gray and Kelsey Plum. The U.S.’ top-ranked 3×3 player, as of last month, is Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, who can’t play internationally this spring as she is in the thick of the NCAA season.

Olympic teams will not necessarily be made up of players from the qualifying tournament.

If the U.S. qualifies for Tokyo, it will then choose its roster(s) in a similar fashion to its traditional basketball teams — via selection committee. It’s unlikely active NBA players will be eligible.

Like with the qualifying tournament, two of the four Olympic players must be ranked in the top 10 among Americans in FIBA 3×3 rankings (as of a May 22 cutoff).

In 3×3, games last 10 minutes, or until one team reaches 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores.

MORE: Kobe Bryant embraced the Olympics, on and off the court

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First U.S. sailors qualify for Olympics; gold medalist misses on tiebreak

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The first five members of the U.S. Olympic sailing team were finalized this past weekend. The last American sailor to win an Olympic title missed on a tiebreaker.

Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea (49er FX), Anna Weis and Riley Gibbs (Nacra 17) and Charlie Buckingham (Laser) qualified after world championships competition concluded in Australia. The U.S. Olympic roster across all sports is now at 43 qualified athletes.

The closest race for a U.S. Olympic spot came in 49er FX. Roble and Shea edged Paris Henken and 2008 Olympic champion Anna Tobias on a tiebreak. Roble and Shea, both first-time Olympic qualifiers, won Saturday’s medal race and earned an overall bronze medal.

That put the two U.S. duos in a tie in Olympic qualifying — combining placements from the 2019 and 2020 Championships, according to TeamUSA.org. The tiebreak went to Roble and Shea for having the better finish at this year’s worlds.

Tobias, a 37-year-old who won the individual 2008 Olympic Laser Radial as Anna Tunnicliffe, came out of retirement in a bid for a third Olympics. She left competitive sailing in 2014, took up CrossFit competitions and returned to crew for Henken more than two years ago.

“We are very sad and upset,” was posted on Tobias’ Instagram, “but we wish them [Roble and Shea] the best of luck.”

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