Katie Zaferes

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Katie Zaferes, after 23 mouth stitches, wins world triathlon title

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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.

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Triathletes chase direct Olympic qualification berths in Tokyo test event

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Top-ranked Katie Zaferes and other U.S. triathletes can clinch berths in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo on Thursday morning local time (6:30 p.m. Wednesday Eastern Time).

Zaferes, who won four of the first five World Series races this year and placed second in the other, is part of a strong U.S. team that includes two two-time podium finishers this season in Taylor Spivey and Summer Rappaport, along with Under-23 world champion Taylor Knibb and 2016 mixed relay world champion Kirsten Kasper.

Zaferes, Rappaport and Spivey swept the medals in earlier this year in Yokohama, Japan.

Unless the U.S. takes a dramatic tumble in the world country rankings, U.S. athletes can clinch up to two spots in the Tokyo race. The scenarios are:

  • Two or more U.S. athletes on podium: Top two qualify
  • One athlete on podium, at least one more in top eight: Medalist and next-highest finisher qualify
  • No athlete on podium, at least one in top eight: Highest finisher qualifies (only one spot)

The men’s race follows Friday morning Tokyo time (Thursday evening in the U.S.). U.S. men aren’t rated as highly as the women — Eli Hemming leads the way with the 21st seed after picking up his first World Cup win last month. Other U.S. competitors have had occasional successes — Matt McElroy became the first U.S. man to medal in a World Triathlon Series event since 2009 with his silver medal in June, Tony Smoragiewicz won his first World Cup medal in February, Kevin McDowell has five World Cup medals, and former University of Colorado runner Morgan Pearson took a World Cup silver in June after just three years in the sport.

Paratriathletes will compete the next day to gain points toward qualification, but they cannot qualify directly for the 2020 Paralympics.

The final day features the mixed relay, a new Olympic event in which two men and two women each swim 300 meters, bike 7.4 kilometers and run 2 kilometers, considerably shorter than the individual races’ distances of 1.5 kilometers, 40 kilometers and 10 kilometers.

Mixed relays will be especially important because the top seven countries in the ITU Olympic ranking will automatically qualify two athletes per gender, which may be crucial for the U.S. men. The U.S. currently ranks third.

The next opportunity for individuals to qualify directly for the 2020 Games will be next year in Yokohama.

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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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