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Orange Olympians Fired Up for Tokyo

Six former Syracuse University student-athletes are competing in the Summer Games—and so far, two have claimed medals.

Olympic rings in Tokyo. Click to read the story.

Ever since star Syracuse University athlete Myer Prinstein collected a gold in the triple jump and a silver in the long jump at the 1900 Paris Olympics, there has been a frequent Orange presence at the Summer Olympics. Our alumni have participated in nearly every sport, from basketball, soccer and field hockey to softball, rowing and the hammer throw.

The Tokyo Games will be no exception. Six former Syracuse University student-athletes are geared up to go for gold in the Tokyo Olympics. 

“Having our alumni compete in the Olympic Games brings great pride for all of us in Orange Nation,” says Syracuse University Director of Athletics John Wildhack ’80. “Making an Olympic team is a testament to the commitment they displayed at Syracuse and their dedication to competing on a worldwide stage at the Olympic Games. We wish each of them all the best in their pursuit of Olympic excellence.”

Here’s a look at the Orange who are all-in for the Tokyo Games:

Justyn knight running to Syracuse University
Justyn Knight heads for the finish line en route to winning the 2017 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship in Louisville, Kentucky. The Toronto native will compete for Team Canada in the 5,000 meters at the Tokyo Olympics.

Justyn Knight ’18: Ready to Roll in the 5,000 Meters

Justyn Knight is primed for the Tokyo Olympics. Earlier this year, the Team Canada distance runner turned in personal bests—and qualifying Olympic standard times—in both the 1,500 meters and the 5,000 meters. In May, at the USA Track & Field Golden Games in Walnut, California, he finished second in the 1,500, posting a blistering 3:33.41. In June, he placed fifth in the 5,000 at a professional Diamond League meet in Florence, Italy, finishing in 12:51.93. Canadian teammate Moh Ahmed crossed the line in third (12:50.12). Their times elevated them to the two fastest North Americans in history at that distance.

“In Italy, I made it known that I’m going to stay with the lead pack, and I was in a top five position the entire race,” Knight says from Charlottesville, Virginia, where he trains with the Reebok Boston Track Club under the guidance of his former Orange coach, Chris Fox. “That was a really big deal for me, because it showed how much I’ve grown and how much stronger and faster I’ve gotten. For my first 5K in two years, it wasn’t bad to start off on that note, and hopefully we can improve on that.”

Justyn Knight races for Canada team
Team Canada member Justyn Knight heads for a ninth-place finish (13:39.15) in the 5,000 meters final at the World Track and Field Championships in London in August 2017. He would go on to win Syracuse’s first individual NCAA cross country title that November. Photo by Claus Andersen, Athletics Canada.

Knight, who will run the 5,000 in Tokyo, is considered Syracuse University’s all-time greatest distance runner. As a senior, he won the 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championship and the 2018 NCAA 5,000-meter indoor title. He also helped lead the Orange to the 2015 NCAA cross country crown, placing fourth as a sophomore. During his Syracuse career, the Toronto native also collected 11 individual ACC titles and earned All-America honors 10 times.

Knight first represented Canada at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships, placing eighth in the 5,000 meters. He followed that up by clinching the 2015 Pan Am Games Junior Cross Country title. In the 5,000 at the 2017 and 2019 IAAF World Championships, he crossed the line in ninth and 10th, respectively.

For several months during the pandemic, Knight trained solo and worked on building his mileage base. He even got creative during some of his runs to hit the optimum pace he was after. “Sometimes my shadow would be slightly in front of me, and I’d pretend that shadow was a person and I was chasing it,” he says. “It sounds really weird, but when you’re desperate, you’re desperate, and I had to come up with all these little ideas just to give myself some extra motivation.”

That motivation enabled Knight to hold a faster pace for a longer period of time, and he says he’s grown a lot mentally and physically over the past year and a half. When he steps up to the line in Tokyo, his right wrist will be wrapped in two handcrafted bead bracelets given to him by a friend from Kenya. One is red and white with the Canadian maple leaf and says Knight on it. The other is blue with Syracuse written in orange. He says it shows that no matter where he goes, he has his Canadian and Syracuse families with him. “I hold them very dear to my heart,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to showcase them on the world stage.”

The first round of the 5,000 meters is August 3, with the final scheduled for August 6.

Justyn Knight ’18 shares how he altered his training regimen during COVID-19, the difficulty of training his body and mind for the Olympics, how the sting of missing out on the 2016 Olympics by less than one second fueled him over the last five years, and why he discovered a unique family atmosphere and sense of community at Syracuse University.

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Katie Zaferes ’12: Tuned Up for the Women’s Triathlon

Katie Zaferes running in triathlon race
Former Orange All-American Katie Zaferes makes her second trip to the Summer Games as a member of the U.S. Olympic triathlon team.

As a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic triathlon team, Katie Zaferes finished 18th in the Rio Games. When she lines up in Tokyo at the start of the grueling swim, cycle and run event, she’ll carry a new title with her: World champion. Zaferes captured the International Triathlon Union (ITU) world title in 2019, winning five ITU World Triathlon Series races, including the Grand Final race in Lausanne, Switzerland. “I’m most looking forward to using everything I have learned over the years, and especially since Rio, come race day,” she says. “Some big parts of that mean really taking in the Olympic experience, and the opportunity that I have, and remembering my strengths and all my preparation that enables me to say ‘I am ready’ come race day.” 

For many, it may seem improbable that she only began competing professionally in elite triathlons in 2013. At Syracuse University, Zaferes (then Katie Hursey) competed in cross country and track and field, where she specialized in the steeplechase. She earned All-America honors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 2011 and 2012, and was identified through the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program as a prospect for the three-sport event. She was named the 2013 USA Triathlon Elite Rookie of the Year and began to climb in the World Triathlon Series overall rankings. In 2015, she placed fifth overall; in 2016, she was fourth; in 2017, she collected a bronze; and in 2018, she nabbed silver in the series and the Grand Final. All told, she’s earned 23 medals (including six golds) in the World Triathlon Series and is a five-time ITU Triathlon World Cup medalist (including four golds). She was also the 2018-19 Super League Triathlon women’s overall champion.

I’m most looking forward to using everything I have learned over the years, and especially since Rio, come race day. Some big parts of that mean really taking in the Olympic experience, and the opportunity that I have, and remembering my strengths and all my preparation that enables me to say ‘I am ready’ come race day.

—Katie Zaferes ’12

Zaferes first gave the triathlon a try when she was in high school at her father’s urging. Sadly, she lost her father earlier this year, but she continues to be inspired by his advice to “race hard, but most of all have fun.” That she will do, with plenty of motivation. “It feels really amazing to be able to represent USA in the triathlon for a second time,” she says. “It’s been a pretty rough start to the year with my dad passing away unexpectedly in April, so to make the Olympic team brings me and my family a lot of joy and gratitude.”

Update: Zaferes claimed a bronze medal, finishing the rain-soaked course in 1:57.03.  

Katie Zaferes holds her bronze medal with Mike Tirico at the Tokyo Olympics.
In a meeting of all-star Orange alumni in Tokyo, NBC Olympics host Mike Tirico ’88 checks out the bronze medal that Katie Zaferes ’12 won in the women’s triathlon. Photo courtesy of USA Triathlon.

Kayla Alexander ’13: Carrying a Love for Basketball

Kayla Alexander shoots basketball for team Canada
Team Canada member Kayla Alexander launches a jump shot over Brazil’s Clarissa Dos Santos in the 2019 International Basketball Federation Women’s AmeriCup semifinals. Photo courtesy of FIBA/Canada Basketball.

Kayla Alexander loves basketball so much that she published The Magic of Basketball, a children’s book that she illustrated and co-wrote with her sister Kesia. That love for the game has journeyed with her from growing up in Milton, Ontario, to Syracuse University, and on to the WNBA and international play. Now she’ll pull on the red and white for Team Canada in Tokyo.

Alexander was a member of the 2020 International Basketball Federation Olympic Qualifying Tournament team that went undefeated (3-0) and locked up Canada’s third straight Olympic appearance. In June, the Canadian Senior Women’s Basketball Team, ranked fourth in the world, dropped a double-overtime loss to Brazil to take fourth in the Women’s AmeriCup 2021. Alexander scored 13 points and grabbed four rebounds in the game, and averaged nine points and seven rebounds in Canada’s six games of the tourney.

In 2019, Alexander helped lead Canada to a silver in the AmeriCup, averaging 15.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game and notching a double-double three times during the group stage. She was named to the tournament’s all-star team.

At Syracuse University, the 6-foot-4 center was a force on the court as a three-time All-Big East selection who earned an All-America honorable mention in her senior year. She is the program’s all-time leader in points (2,024), blocks (350), field goals (736), free throws made (552), free throws attempted (750) and games played (140). She also owns the Syracuse single-season marks in scoring (573, 2012-13), field goals (151, 2012-13) and blocks (96, 2011-12).

Alexander was the second ever Orange player to be selected in the WNBA Draft, when she was the eighth overall pick in 2013 by the San Antonio Stars. Since then, she’s played with the Las Vegas Aces, Indiana Fever, Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx. She’s also played internationally with professional teams in Australia, Belgium, France, Poland, Russia and South Korea, and has represented Canada at the junior, developmental and senior national levels.

The Canadian team opens against Serbia on July 26 in group-stage play.

Jerami Grant ’15: Golden Opportunity in Men’s Basketball

Jerami Grant slam dunks at a Syracuse basketball game
Former Orange forward Jerami Grant is a member of Team USA, which looks to clinch a fourth straight gold.

Jerami Grant came into his own during the 2020-21 NBA season, displaying skills that proved he had an all-around game. Evidence: The Detroit Pistons forward was one of 12 elite players selected to represent Team USA, which is aiming for its fourth consecutive gold.

This season, in his first year with the Pistons, Grant was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 22.3 points per game, and he contributed 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest. His efforts earned him a nod as a finalist for the NBA Most Improved Player award. The 6-foot-8 forward entered the 2014 NBA Draft after two seasons with the Orange and was a second-round pick (39th overall) by the Philadelphia 76ers. Grant also logged time with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets, where he became known as a defensive specialist and helped the Nuggets advance to the 2020 Western Conference finals.

As a Syracuse freshman, Grant was a member of the 2012-13 NCAA Final Four team that posted a 30-10 record. He played in all 40 games that season, with nine starts. In his sophomore campaign, he averaged 12.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game for the 28-6 Orange, had 20 starts in 32 appearances, and totaled seven double-doubles. He also played on two gold medal-winning USA Basketball teams (2012 Under-18 and 2013 Under-19 squads).

Grant is the second former Orange player to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic basketball roster, following Carmelo Anthony, who played in four consecutive Olympics. Anthony’s teams won a bronze (2004) and then three straight golds (2008, 2012, 2016). Syracuse men’s head coach Jim Boeheim ’68, G’73 served as an assistant coach for USA Basketball on those three gold-medal teams.

“I’m thrilled to learn that Jerami Grant will represent the United States at the Olympics in Japan,” Boeheim tweeted last month. “He’s worked extremely hard on his game for many years, and this is just reward. I know ’Cuse Nation will be behind Jerami and Team USA as they go for the gold.”

Team USA opens its group-stage play on July 25 against France.

Jenna Caira ’12: Pitching Legend Hits the Softball Field

Jenna Caira pitches on Syracuse University softball field
Softball pitcher Jenna Caira is a longtime member of Team Canada and looks to use her lethal change-up against opponents in the Tokyo Olympics.

Softball returns to the Olympics for the first time since the 2008 Beijing Games—and Team Canada will be in the medal hunt. The Canadians finished fourth in Beijing and are currently ranked third in the world. Orange pitching legend Jenna Caira was officially named to the Tokyo-bound team in May and will look to fire pitches past opponents in hopes of meeting those medal expectations.

The Toronto native has been representing Canada in international competitions since 2007, when she competed in the Junior Women’s World Championships. In 2009, she moved up to the senior national team and was part of three bronze-medal performances in the world championships. The Syracuse All-American, known for her fierce change-up, helped lead Team Canada to a gold in the 2015 Pan Am Games. The team clinched its Olympic berth in September 2019, when it finished second in the Americas Olympic Qualifier in Surrey, British Columbia, where it registered a 7-1 record.

On the diamond for Syracuse (2009-12), Caira relentlessly racked up records and accolades. She helped lead the Orange to two straight Big East tournament crowns—earning Most Outstanding Player honors in 2010 and 2011—and three consecutive NCAA appearances. She is the only player in Big East history to register more than 1,000 strikeouts, and she collected conference honors as 2009 Rookie of the Year and 2011 Pitcher of the Year. The two-time team captain was a third-team All-America selection in 2012 and is the Orange’s all-time leader in multiple categories, including career wins (97), lowest earned run average (1.87), strikeouts (1,051) and lowest opponent batting average (.190). Following her Syracuse playing career, she also served as an assistant coach for two years. 

Update: Caira helped lead Team Canada to a bronze medal—its first medal in the sport. Canada defeated Mexico, 3-2, to earn the bronze.

Hattie Taylor ’17: Making Waves on the Water

Hattie Taylor rowing with Syracuse University team
Hattie Taylor (center) will compete in the women’s four in Tokyo as a member of the Great Britain National Rowing Team.

In 2020, Hattie Taylor fulfilled her quest to compete in the Olympics when she was selected for the Great Britain National Rowing Team. Taylor started rowing at age 12 and developed Olympic aspirations several years ago. “I’ve loved the sport since I started, but it was at my first Under-23 Championships in 2015 where I realized that the senior team and going to the Olympics was something I really wanted to achieve,” Taylor said in recent interview with row2k.com. “The whole process of it—getting selected, getting the kit, getting to race for Great Britain and then standing on the podium that year for the first time was so exciting and something that I wanted to do again and again.”

Taylor reminisces about Syracuse, why she relishes the school pride associated with being an alumna, the joy she felt qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and how she was motivated to requalify after COVID-19 delayed the Games.

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For Taylor, the joy of making the national team was short-lived as the COVID-19 pandemic knocked the 2020 Tokyo Games off course by a year—and Great Britain required its rowers to be re-selected. But she met the challenge and will compete for the Great Britain women’s four. Along with becoming an Olympian, Taylor will have the opportunity to build on her international success that includes winning two world championships, two European championships and five world cups.

The whole process of it—getting selected, getting the kit, getting to race for Great Britain and then standing on the podium that year for the first time was so exciting and something that I wanted to do again and again.

—Hattie Taylor ’17

Taylor competed for the Orange from 2014 to 2017 and was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference First Team selection. She earned medals at the ACC championships, the O’Leary Cup and the Clemson Invitational. She’s also the sixth Syracuse women’s rower to make an Olympic team since the 2004 Athens Games.

Update: The Great Britain women’s four advanced to the Final A (medal) race and finished fourth.

Jay Cox

This story was first published on July 20, 2021 and last updated on .


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