Katie Zaferes is headed back to the Olympics, this time ranked No. 1 in the world.
The 2019 world champion, who has struggled thus far to post competitive results this season, received USA Triathlon selection committee's final discretionary pick, the national governing body announced Wednesday in a finalization of its roster for this summer's Tokyo Olympics. She entered the Rio Games ranked top-five but finished 18th.
Zaferes, a three-time world medalist, finished an unusual 22nd in May and 18th earlier this month in her two races on this year's World Championship Series (WTCS) circuit. But about a month before the first in Yokohama, Japan, she announced the sudden passing of her father – a difficult moment for any athlete or person to endure, let alone midst trying to make an Olympic team. In an Instagram post Wednesday, Zaferes said the last two months have been challenging, but she never lost faith she would be ready.
"My biggest goal for the Olympics has been, and continues to be, to use all that I learned from Rio 2016," she said. "All the work and lessons that have accumulated over time, with every experience preparing me for this moment. I look forward to standing on the start line ready to go and be the best version of myself. Swim hard, bike hard, run hard and most of all have fun and honor those that helped me get there."
Zaferes joins fifth-ranked Summer Rappaport and 23-year-old Taylor Knibb in representing the U.S. women.
Kevin McDowell, a silver medalist at the 2010 Youth Olympics who happens to be a cancer survivor, also received a discretionary pick. He and No. 2-ranked 2021 WTCS triathlete Morgan Pearson will represent the U.S. men in Tokyo.
McDowell said being chosen is a childhood dream come true.
"No words can describe this feeling right now and will take a little bit to really sink in," he said in a post on Instagram. "Thank you to all those who have been with me from the start and believed in me, even when I didn’t through some very tough years. This has been a huge team effort and seriously wouldn’t be where I am without all of you. Ready to represent on the biggest stage next month!"
Zaferes is the only returning Olympian. Rappaport, Knibb, Pearson and McDowell will all make their Games debuts.
Notably left off the team is Taylor Spivey, the No. 2-ranked female triathlete in the world.
When Rappaport became the first U.S. triathlete to qualify for the Games at the Tokyo Olympic Qualification Event in August 2019, that left only two women's spots up for grabs. Last month, more than a year and a half later, a second was locked up by Knibb when she stunningly captured gold at WTCS Yokohama. Had another U.S. woman joined her on the podium other than Rappaport, they, too, would've secured a spot, but it didn't happen; thus, the next pick was left up to a committee.
With just one spot remaining, USA Triathlon was handed an incredibly tough decision to make: to choose between the two best triathletes in the world.
The team's GM, John Farra, noted the situation in Wednesday's press release:
"I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the very difficult decisions that the Games Athlete Selection Committee faced in order to finalize this team," Farra said. "USA Triathlon has an incredibly deep field of athletes, with more individuals deserving of a nod than there are spots available to Tokyo."
Zaferes also recognized the difficulty.
"My heart aches for the athletes that have not been selected," she said. "In this pursuit, we all put the entirety of ourselves out there every single day. Aware that I could have not been selected, I reminded myself, no matter what happens, you are as strong and resilient as you think you are and there are so many good things to come that everyone else should be ready for."
Birthplace: Denver, Colo.
Hometown: Thornton, Colo.
Residence: Durham, N.C.
College: Villanova '13
summerrappz | @Summerrappz
TeamUSA.org: "Rappaport, 29, was the first athlete to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team in 2019. She grew up in Colorado and attended Mountain Range High School in Westminster, achieving first team all-conference honors in both swimming and cross-country. She went on to compete in NCAA Division I swimming and cross-country at Villanova University. As a collegiate swimmer, Rappaport placed in the top eight of the Big East Championship in each of her four years. Throughout her cross-country career, she earned 2011-12 Academic honors, 2012 All-Mid-Atlantic Region, 2012 All-Big East, and placed fourth at the 2013 Big East Championships in the 5,000. After college, she was recruited to triathlon through the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program and began competing as an elite in March 2014. She is a five-time World Triathlon Championship Series medalist and 13-time World Triathlon Cup medalist. Rappaport trains with The Triathlon Squad, an elite international training group coached by Paulo Sousa."
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
taylorknibb | @taylorknibb
TeamUSA.org: "Knibb, 23, is the youngest woman ever to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team. She has been the U.S. National Team’s youngest member since she first made the team in 2017. A triathlete since childhood, she grew up competing in USA Triathlon’s youth and junior elite circuit while running for her school’s cross-country and track teams (Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.) and swimming with Nation’s Capital Swim Club. She went on to win the 2016 and 2017 Junior World Championships and the 2018 Under-23 World Championships — one of just three women ever to capture world titles at both the Junior and U23 levels. Knibb is a 2020 graduate of Cornell, where she ran NCAA track and cross-country for four years while balancing her elite triathlon career. She also joined the Cornell swim team her senior year. Today, Knibb trains in Boulder, Colorado, with Origin Performance Squad, an elite international training group coached by Ian O’Brien."
Birthplace: Baltimore, Md.
Hometown: Hampstead, Md.
Residence: Cary, N.C.
College: Syracuse '12
kzaferes6 | @KZaferes6
TeamUSA.org: "Zaferes, 32, grew up in Hampstead, Maryland, and was a multi-time state champion in track & field at North Carroll High School. She went on to compete in track & field and cross-country for Syracuse University, specializing in the steeplechase and breaking multiple school records. She was later identified by USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program founder Barb Lindquist, who recognized her steeplechase background as a strong foundation for success in triathlon. Zaferes began competing at the elite level in 2013 and made her Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games, where she finished 18th. Zaferes has risen steadily through the international rankings throughout her career, placing fifth overall in the World Triathlon Championship Series in 2015, fourth in 2016, third in 2017, and second in 2018, before capturing her first career World Triathlon Championship title in 2019. She is the No. 1-ranked athlete in the World Triathlon Olympic Qualification Rankings heading into Tokyo. Zaferes lives in Cary, North Carolina, and is coached by Joel Filliol."
Hometown: New Vernon, N.J.
Residence: Boulder, Colo.
College: CU Boulder
morgan_cadwell_pearson | @_Morgan_Pearson
TeamUSA.org: "Pearson, 27, is originally from Spring Lake, New Jersey, where he grew up as a competitive swimmer, ocean lifeguard and promising high school runner. He went on to run cross-country and track & field at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was a seven-time All-American. He got his start in elite triathlon through USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program, which identifies top NCAA swimmers and runners who have the potential to excel as triathletes. After winning the overall title at the USA Triathlon Age Group Sprint National Championships in 2017, he debuted as an elite triathlete in 2018. He is experiencing a breakout 2021 season, winning bronze in Yokohama on May 15 and silver in Leeds, England, on June 6, to become the first U.S. male ever to earn multiple World Triathlon Championship Series medals. Pearson currently trains in Boulder and is coached by Dean Golich."
Birthplace: Park Ridge, Ill.
Hometown: Geneva, Ill.
Residence: Colorado Springs, Colo.
College: CU Colorado Springs
kevinmcdowell1 | @KMcDowell1
TeamUSA.org: "McDowell, 28, grew up participating in USA Triathlon’s youth and junior elite triathlon circuit as part of the Chicago-based Multisport Madness Triathlon Team. He was USA Triathlon’s Junior Athlete of the Year in 2009 and 2010 and represented Team USA at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, where he earned silver in the individual event and bronze in the Mixed Relay. He went on to win a bronze medal at the 2011 Junior World Championships. Later that year, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and took six months off to complete chemotherapy. A year later, he returned to elite competition, making his senior-level World Cup debut. He would go on to win gold at the 2014 FISU World University Triathlon Championships, and silver at the Pan American Games Toronto 2015. McDowell is now a seven-time World Triathlon Cup medalist and recently celebrated 10 years cancer-free. He currently lives and trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is coached by Nate Wilson."
Tokyo will be the second time Team USA's brought a five-person triathlon team to the Olympics — in four of the other five Games in which the sport has been contested, it has brought six members. London was the only other occurrence, also missing an athlete on the men's side.
Team USA has two of the 30 total triathlon medals awarded at the Olympic level: a 2004 Athens bronze from Susan Williams and 2016 Rio gold from Gwen Jorgensen, the reigning Olympic champion, who is instead competing in track and field. She's entered to run both the 5000m and 10,000m at U.S. trials.