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Who Will Qualify For The Final Spot On The U.S. Olympic Women’s Triathlon Team?

By Peggy Shinn | May 12, 2016, 12:53 p.m. (ET)

Katie Zaferes competes at the ITU World Triathlon Cape Town on April 25, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Last August, Katie Zaferes finished sixth at the Rio de Janeiro ITU World Olympic Qualification Event. With this top-eight finish, she met the Rio 2016 Olympic qualification standard.

Except U.S. teammates Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah True finished ahead of her. And only two athletes from the U.S. finishing in the top eight of that event automatically qualified to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Zaferes was disappointed but had a good perspective.

“Sarah and Gwen are super deserving of getting those two spots,” she said. “I’d given it my all during that race so it was a bummer because most countries don’t have that problem. But at the same time, we knew it was going to happen to one of us.”

Zaferes, 26, and several other U.S. triathletes have one more chance to qualify this Saturday. A top-three finish at the ITU World Triathlon Yokohama will automatically qualify an American triathlete for the Rio Games.

Kirsten Kasper competes at the 2015 Huatulco ITU Triathlon World Cup on June 14, 2015 in Huatulco, Mexico.

Challenging Zaferes for the final spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team is a handful of strong U.S. women. In particular, Kirsten Kasper and Renee Tomlin — both in only their second full seasons as pro triathletes — have scored top-five finishes in two ITU World Triathlon Series races this season.

Kasper, 24, began the 2016 season with two third-place finishes at ITU World Cups, then finished fifth at the World Triathlon Series race in Cape Town, South Africa, on April 24 — only nine seconds off the podium in a sprint-distance event.

A member of USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program and a 2014 graduate of Georgetown University, Kasper has had her eye on Rio since she began competing in triathlons in the summer of 2014. In her elite triathlon debut, she finished fourth in the ITU Under-23 World Championships that summer.

A year later, she finished 16th in WTS rankings — and 12th at the Rio test event. Making a run for the Rio Olympic Games suddenly became a reality.

“I realized that this is something I could do, and Yokohama would be my focus for training during the winter,” she said.

Tomlin, another Georgetown grad, has had similarly good results this season. The 27-year-old finished fifth at the World Triathlon Abu Dhabi race on March 5 — just 36 seconds out of third place. A week later, she finished fifth in a world cup race in Australia.

A four-time NCAA All-American in track and field and cross-country running for Georgetown, Tomlin tried for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in track & field. She competed in the 1,500-meter at the Olympic Trials that year, making it as far as the semifinals.

Tomlin competed as an elite runner for one more year in 2013, then decided to try triathlon after a high performance advisor for USA Triathlon encouraged her. A former lifeguard in Ocean City, New Jersey, Tomlin was a strong open-water swimmer. All she had to learn was how to race a road bike — and put all three sports together.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s kind of crazy,” she added. “Sometimes I’ll think that I just went from a four-minute race to a two-hour race. What was I thinking?”

Renee Tomlin competes at the Rio de Janeiro ITU World Olympic Qualification Event on Aug. 2, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro.

Tomlin has learned quickly. She finished fourth in the Yokohama race last May and was ranked highly enough that she qualified to compete in the Rio test event last August (she finished 53rd).

“There was a long climb to make it to the start line (in Rio last August),” Tomlin said. “Unfortunately, I couldn't peak properly for that specific race.”

But in that race and at the 2012 Olympic Trials for track, she learned how to physically and mentally prepare for a trials.

Now, with one qualification race left, Zaferes, Kasper and Tomlin — as well as Lindsey Jerdonek and Summer Cook — must finish first, second or third in the Yokohama race to automatically qualify for the final spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Triathlon Team. Also registered for the race are podium regulars Jorgensen and New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt.

If none of the American women (excluding Jorgensen) finishes in the top three, the remaining spot on the U.S. team will be filled using USA Triathlon's Objective Rankings System.

In this system, athletes earned points at four events in 2015 (the Rio test event, the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final Chicago, and the Edmonton and Stockholm World Triathlon Series races); the Yokohama event is the final opportunity for athletes to earn more points as part of the system. An athlete’s best score will be tallied using her top two finishes in these five races (with the score calculated by points earned in the race multiplied by a pre-determined number that weights the qualifying races).

(Note: Alternatively, if no one automatically qualifies at Yokohama, the third spot on the Rio team may be selected based on an athlete’s compatibility as a domestique or team player for Jorgensen and True. Such an athlete would be a strong swimmer and cyclist and have demonstrated knowledge of cycling tactics.)

On paper, Zaferes has the best chance of making the Rio team using the Objective Rankings System. Her best two finishes are sixth in the Rio test event and second in the Stockholm race. And she finished on the World Triathlon Series podium six times last season.

But every American triathlete in Yokohama this weekend is gunning for the podium.

To manage her nerves, Zaferes likes to remember a quote from Shalane Flanagan to Kara Goucher after the two elite runners women joined the same team in 2013. Goucher confessed to Flanagan that she gets nervous before races, and as Runner’s World reported, Flanagan replied, “Kara, I get scared, too. You're just more vocal about it.”

Zaferes found Flanagan’s confession calming and reminds herself that everyone on the starting line is just as nervous as she is. Instead, she focuses on her abilities.

“I know what I’ve accomplished and all the work that I’ve put into it,” Zaferes said. “I’m able to have the confidence that I’ve been on the podium and confidence in my training. I’m kind of in a happy place, and that should keep the nerves at bay.”

Kasper and Tomlin are equally confident.

“I’ve had a good start to the season, so I’ve got to take confidence in that,” said Kasper. “I’m in good form, I’m ready to race.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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Katie Zaferes

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