Katie Zaferes: No looking back in triathlon chase

Katie Zaferes #6 of USA runs to the finish line in the female elite race at the 2016 ITU World Triathlon Hamburg (Photo by Petko Beier/Getty Images)
Katie Zaferes #6 of USA runs to the finish line in the female elite race at the 2016 ITU World Triathlon Hamburg (Photo by Petko Beier/Getty Images)

Team USA triathlete and medal favourite Katie Zaferes spoke with Tokyo 2020 about big crashes, pandemic challenges and her hopes of making up for missed chances back at Rio 2016.  

Caught looking backwards

It was only a quick glimpse. A thin sliver of a split second. But on the bike, on a straight at speeds approaching 40km an hour, that’s all it takes.

“It’s not something I ever thought I’d do – crash going straight,” United States triathlete Katie Zaferes, who is among the medal favourites for this summer’s Olympic Games, told Tokyo 2020. “I just turned my head to, I think, yell something to the group and my wheel went into the barrier.”

The effects of that crash on 14 August 2019 are still faintly visible on Zaferes. It’s not uncommon for competitors at this level to wear their mistakes for life. She needed 23 stitches to reconnect her lower row of teeth to her gums where they separated. And she broke her nose flying over the concrete barrier.

“It’s a little fuzzy now,” she said of the crash that left her bike in a twisted heap on the track in Tokyo, where the Olympic Triathlon will be contested. “But I remember just standing by the barrier trying to decide, ‘OK, can I keep going?’ And then I realised, blood was dripping out of me.”

This was not Zaferes’ first crash. But it was a costly one. It kept her from qualifying for the Games with time to spare. But looking back? Second-guessing? That’s not something she does too often when she’s running, swimming, riding or just living her life. In fact, just a few weeks later, she was back in the saddle again and with her eyes set dead ahead on the horizon line.

Back up and at it

“I was really nervous about the next race, especially right after what happened in Tokyo,” she said of the World Triathlon Series Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland.

It was just 17 days after her big crash.

“I was like: 'Am I going to be able to even race?' But I ended up winning, winning the Grand Final, and winning the world championships. I learned then… all was not lost by crashing.”

It’s something of a sporting cliché – the elite athlete able to put adversity to one side and laser-focus on the next challenge.

But these are people. They’re not robots.

Talking to the affable Zaferes for even a short time, the human side of sport – and the mad pursuit of the Olympian – is on full and endearing display. And even if she hasn’t yet officially qualified for this summer’s Games, she’s got her sights set on a return to Tokyo and the site of that wicked fall.

“I’m really focused on getting back to the Olympics,” said Zaferes.

Her next chance to qualify comes in mid-May, at a World Triathlon Series event in Yokohama, just a few months before the start of the Summer Games which were postponed, due to COVID-19, from last July to this coming one. The change wreaked havoc on athletes and their training regimes.

“Even though I haven’t qualified, that’s the goal. That’s where I’m focused and I have been for the whole year.”

Katie Zaferes of the United States leaves the water during the Women's Triathlon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Katie Zaferes of the United States leaves the water during the Women's Triathlon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

Bitter memories of Rio

Should she reach them, these won’t be Zaferes’ first Olympics.

She competed in the Rio 2016 Games four years ago as part of Team USA, always among the medal favourites. After all, it was in the U.S., in the 1970s, that triathlon – a gruelling hybrid sport comprised of swimming, cycling and running – was invented.

When asked about her first Olympic experience, it’s not the camaraderie of the Athletes' Village, or the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony that she remembers best.

“It [the Games in Rio] was one of the most impactful moments of my career and it wasn’t necessarily in a feel-good way,” she said earnestly, fidgeting with a zipper on her Team USA training top.

She finished a disappointing 18th while her veteran teammate Gwen Jorgensen took the gold.

“Our event was on the second to last day [of the Olympics] and so I didn’t let myself get distracted,” Zaferes said. “When the race was over, I was disappointed. [About] the result, of course, but I realised I just missed this whole experience. I was left with the feeling that if I get the chance to do this again, I have to take it in more. I have to enjoy it more.”

It was a life-changing lesson learned by Zaferes that day. And it didn’t just apply to singular moments like the Olympics. She used this shift in perspective to change the way she trains – and top-tier triathletes are always training. It opened her mind to the benefits of sports psychology and it helped her undergo an overall adjustment of attitude.

“I don’t need to wait for Tokyo to enjoy racing more,” said the 31-year-old who only took up the triathlon well into her twenties after a collegiate athletics career.

“I took that desire to enjoy it more into all of my races. I’ve been doing better on the course since then because I’m not limiting myself...”

You can’t argue with the results. Zaferes’ performances since she shed tears at Rio in 2016 have been dominant. She simply hasn’t stopped climbing. She went from fifth in the world overall in 2015 to four in 2016, then third in 2017, second in 2018 and, yes, you guessed it, first in 2019 (the last year World Triathlon held a complete World Championship).

Top of the heap

Zaferes is among the top female triathletes in the world by the numbers. Her Women’s Olympic/ITU Triathlete of the Year honour for 2019 was a no-brainer. And her husband Tommy Zaferes – a triathlete on the Men’s circuit – is least surprised of all by her achievements. He’s had a front-row seat to his wife’s progress and has been integral in her improvement on the bike and the all-important transitions between the swimming, cycling and running sections.

“She went from a ranking of fifth to world champion – best in the world – one year at a time,” said Tommy, who’s begun to transition out of competition and focus more on behind-the-scenes work in the sport like photography and social media coordination.

The two train together and live overlapping lives in the hyper-competitive world of elite triathlon. They’ve rarely been apart since they met, started dating inside a month, got engaged after a year and then married three months after the engagement. And during the pandemic year of 2020, that intensity ratcheted up another notch.

“Each year she’s gotten better,” said Tommy. “She’s gotten stronger all the time.”

The challenges of a pandemic year

In March of 2020, Katie and Tommy were about to board a plane to Abu Dhabi for a race on Yas Island when news started to filter in about COVID-19 cases in the United Arab Emirates. They decided, after much debate, not to get on the plane. Later that night the UAE tour race was cancelled. Soon after that, everything was cancelled. And much more was in doubt.

When that year of Covid-19 began in earnest, Zaferes was stuck in Florida. Her training partners were in their respective home countries and her coach was at his home in Scotland, unable – like most people – to travel. That’s when Katie and Tommy decided to rent a van and drive the few hundred kilometres north to Katie’s childhood home, in Carroll County Maryland, and do whatever training they could there.

“We were in a lucky situation because Tommy and I were in our home country and my parents had room for us, so we just drove on up,” said Zaferes about returning to the house where she grew up, where her mother’s job at a local bakery represented a constant temptation and a challenge to a strict training and nutrition regime.

She swam in a nearby lake and discovered what her home region looked like from a bike seat. It was a long way from the controlled and scientific methods preferred by most high-performance athletes.

“The main challenge was just how comfortable it was!” Zaferes laughed. “Normally we're in a very specific location where swimming, biking and running is all very easy.”

I'm in such a good place because I did reserve a little mental energy in 2020.

Now I have so much more in my bucket.

Another year to consider

When Tokyo 2020 was eventually postponed – in late March of last year – Zaferes suddenly found herself with an extra year to consider. All the doubts about what would and wouldn’t happen unfurled in front of her. But she wasn’t fazed. She continued with her eyes set ahead – on the goals she’d set for herself and making use of a rare ability to tune out the noise.

Tommy, there through the ups and downs of it all, put his wife’s approach into proper perspective: “There’s all this talk in the media and it’s all around you. 'The Games will definitely happen and then no, they definitely won’t happen',” he said, his voice rising and falling to accentuate the sudden seismic shifts. “I ask her [Katie] how she feels about that. She says: 'I don’t care about it one bit. It doesn’t affect me in any way'. That’s why she’s the best in the world at what she does. I don’t have that mindset. I take it all in. Most people do.”

Zaferes somehow found a way to keep looking forward in that extra year. She downshifted a gear out of necessity.

“If I put all my mental energy into it and tried to crush 2020, what am I going to have left for 2021?” she said, describing her approach, both physical and mental, to her big goal up ahead in Tokyo.

“I'm in such a good place because I did reserve a little mental energy in 2020 (There was only a World Triathlon mini-tour in 2020, consisting of fewer events). Now I have so much more in my bucket.”

She always kept her big goal in mind. Even with crashes and setbacks and all manner of surprises. It’s still up there in the distance, if slightly delayed: the promise of fresh victory and another step toward Olympic glory.

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