Katie Zaferes had every reason to smile Saturday, two weeks after receiving 23 stitches inside her mouth.
The American captured her first world triathlon title, cementing herself as the Tokyo Olympic favorite.
Zaferes won the World Series Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland, sitting on and then outsprinting world No. 2 Jessica Learmonth of Great Britain at the end of the 10km run. She had built up such a lead from winning four of the previous seven races this season that she needed only to finish in the top 12 to secure the championship.
The crowning moment came two weeks after Zaferes crashed in the Tokyo Olympic test event, biking into a barrier while looking behind her. She hit her face, her gums separated on impact and she suffered a broken nose.
“But luckily nothing too serious,” was posted on her social media. Zaferes returned to training within a few days for the Grand Final.
“I had a lot of emotions coming into this race after the last one, a lot of doubts,” Zaferes said Saturday. “I knew physically I would be OK, but, mentally, I had some doubts. I struggled on some of the corners [on the bike].”
That test event DNF meant Zaferes can’t qualify for her second Olympic team until next year. But there’s little doubt she will be in Tokyo next summer as U.S. triathlon’s new superstar following Rio Olympic champion Gwen Jorgensen‘s retirement and switch to marathon running.
Zaferes, much like Jorgensen four years earlier, rebounded from Olympic disappointment (came to Rio as a medal contender, finished 18th) to become the world No. 1. Her world ranking went from 16th in 2014 to fifth in 2015, fourth in 2016, third in 2017 and second last year.
Earlier Saturday, Frenchman Vincent Luis took the men’s world title, ending Spain’s six-year run at the top between Javier Gomez and Mario Mola.
British triathletes Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown had clinched a 1-2 finish Thursday morning in Tokyo in a test event preceding next year’s Olympics that, for some athletes, doubled as an Olympic qualification race. Overjoyed, they clasped hands and crossed the finish line together.
By the letter of the law, they can’t do that. Specifically, International Triathlon Union competition rule 2.11.f, which concludes with the fateful phrase, “athletes who finish in a contrived tie situation, where no effort to separate their finish times has been made will be DSQ.”
“DSQ,” of course, stands for “disqualified,” and the British triathletes did indeed lose their places.
The finish could have lent itself to all sorts of conspiracy theories under different circumstances. With Learmonth and Taylor-Brown disqualified, teammate Vicky Holland moved up from fifth to third. Under British Triathlon’s selection criteria, a medalist in Thursday’s race would automatically qualify for the 2020 Olympics if that athlete had also finished on the podium in a race earlier this year in Yokohama or the 2016 Olympics. The USA’s Katie Zaferes, Summer Rappaport and Taylor Spivey swept the Yokohama race without linking hands, but Holland took bronze in 2016, making her the only British athlete eligible to qualify directly for the 2020 Games on Thursday.
However, British Triathlon ruled before the race that it would not count for Olympic qualification because organizers shortened the running phase from 10 kilometers to 5km because of excessive heat. Organizers almost had to cut the swimming phase in half to 750 meters because the water temperature was 30.3 degrees Celsius (86.5 Fahrenheit), barely under the ITU’s limit of 30.9 (87.6) degrees.
British Triathlon’s selection document reads: “The above automatic nominations will not apply if, in the opinion of the Panel, the results of either race (and in the case of returning Rio medallists, the Test Event only) are/is significantly impacted by: i. a large-scale racing incident (such as a crash); OR ii. environmental conditions/exceptional circumstances which result in substantial alteration to the race format.”
The “Test Event” in question is Thursday’s race in Tokyo, and it also had a crash that took out Zaferes, the top-ranked triathlete in the world who was very much in contention until the accident. The crash may not have been deemed sufficient for British Triathlon to disregard the results, but the “substantial alteration” was.
So in the end, the chain of events didn’t affect qualification for the British team, though the unfortunate 1-2 finishers missed out on prize money. Taylor-Brown was gracious about the incident on Twitter, saying, “we promise not to do that again.” Many British triathlon fans on Twitter were less polite.
Nor did the reshuffling affect the U.S. qualification — Rappaport crossed the finish line seventh and was bumped up to fifth. Under USA Triathlon criteria, if no U.S. athlete is on the podium, the highest-placed finisher in the top eight will qualify, so Rappaport qualified with or without the disqualification, and Spivey’s bump from 10th to eighth was irrelevant.
Both British Triathlon and USA Triathlon will have selection dilemmas in the future. The British team will be selected entirely by the federation’s discretion out of a stacked roster in which four women are in the top seven of the ITU’s Olympic qualification rankings: Taylor-Brown third, Holland fourth, Learmonth fifth and Non Stanford seventh.
The other three in the top seven are American: Zaferes first, Spivey second and Rappaport sixth. One more U.S. triathlete can claim an automatic qualifying spot by finishing on the podium in another race next spring in Yokohama.
The USA, like Britain, is virtually assured of earning three spots in the 2020 Olympics.
When all the decisions were finalized, the winner was Bermuda’s Flora Duffy, who was competing in her first race after missing a year with a foot injury.
Learmonth finished the swim phase in first, with Zaferes and Rappaport in pursuit. The bike phase settled into a lead pack of roughly 10 riders until Zaferes collided with teammate Kirsten Kasper. Kasper was able to resume the race and rejoined a chase pack, but Zaferes withdrew. The lead group was eventually whittled to six, including Spivey, Duffy, Italy’s Alice Betto, Brazil’s Vittoria Lopes and the British duo that would later cross the finish line together.
Duffy and Betto crossed the finish line behind the disqualified duo to claim first and second, while Holland made up a gap of nearly two minutes to pass Lopes and Spivey. Rappaport rode in the same chase pack as Holland and passed Spivey as well.
Olympic berths are also on the line Friday morning in Tokyo (Thursday evening in the USA) in the men’s race.
Heat isn’t unusual for Tokyo in the summer. Takeo Hirata, a professor of sports sciences working with the 2020 Olympic organizers, recently shared some heat-mitigating ideas in The Japan Times, including specially coated road surfaces.
Former Villanova swimmer and runner Summer Rappaport earned a spot in the 2020 Olympic triathlon in a qualifying race Thursday morning in Tokyo (Wednesday night in the U.S.) that was beset by unusual circumstances.
The race had a shorter distance due to heat, a crash that took out top-ranked Katie Zaferes of the United States, and a disqualification of the top two finishers because they crossed the finish line together.
Rappaport, who won a World Cup race in June and finished second to Zaferes in a World Triathlon Series race in May in Yokohama, Japan, crossed the finish line seventh to earn the spot on offer for the highest-placed U.S. competitor in the top eight. If the disqualifications of British triathletes Jessica Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown are upheld, Rappaport will move up to fifth.
Because no American finished on the podium, which would have opened the possibility of having two automatic qualifiers from Thursday’s race, another spot will be available in another qualifying race in May in Yokohama. Should the U.S. have three athletes in the top 30 of the Olympic rankings, a virtual certainty, the third pick will be discretionary.
Bermuda’s Flora Duffy will be the race winner if the disqualifications stand.
Rappaport and Zaferes finished the swim phase among the leaders and remained in the top three early in the bike phase.
But Rappaport wound up in the chase pack at the end of the bike phase, nearly two minutes behind a pack of leaders that included American Taylor Spivey. Joining Rappaport in the chase pack were Taylor Knibb and Kirsten Kasper, who was also involved in the crash that ended Zaferes’ race.
Rappaport rallied in the running phase with the second-best time (16:36) of any competitor in the race.
Athletes ran 5 kilometers instead of 10km because of excessive heat that has afflicted Japan for weeks and contributed to the deaths of scores of residents, including an Olympic construction worker.
The heat also affected a test of the Olympic open-water course on Sunday, where swimmers reported excessive heat and some concerns that efforts to clean the water were not sufficient. The water temperature at 5 a.m. was 29.9 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), just shy of FINA’s limit of 31 degrees (88 degrees). Concern over heat in the long distance swimming events ramped up after the death of U.S. swimmer Fran Crippen in 2010.
Triathlon’s organizing body, the ITU, has a slightly slower temperature limit of 30.9 degrees. The temperature at the race start Thursday morning was 30.3 degrees.
The men’s race takes place Friday morning in Tokyo (Thursday night in the U.S.).