Just when it seemed safe to say Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah (Groff) True were the top American triathletes, along came Katie Zaferes.
The 25-year-old former collegiate runner and steeplechaser is a relative newcomer to triathlon. But in the first two ITU World Triathlon Series races this year, she has finished in second place — her first WTS podium finishes.
“I don’t know if I’d say this early in the season that I expected it,” Zaferes said via Skype from a training camp in New Zealand. “But I’ve always felt that I’ve been capable of podium-ing.”
Zaferes also believes that she is capable of winning a WTS race. And she says it without bravado. Just a matter-of-fact statement, punctuated with a warm laugh.
With the third WTS race coming up this weekend on the Gold Coast (Australia), she would like to step onto the podium again. But that isn’t her primary goal.
Despite the depth of the women’s field — with Americans Jorgensen, True, Lindsey Jerdonek, and Kaitlin Donner all scoring top-10 finishes this season — Zaferes aims to be one of the three women who will represent the U.S. at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games next summer.
It’s a bold goal for someone who just turned pro two years ago.
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Although Katie Zaferes (nee Hursey) didn’t know it at the time, she was raised as if triathlon were in her future. Growing up in Hampstead, Maryland, her favorite sports were soccer, swimming and lacrosse. But in high school, she dropped lacrosse for track. She figured running would keep her in shape for soccer.
Then she won a state title (1,600-meter run) her first year on her high school’s track team and never looked back.
Zaferes matriculated at Syracuse University, where she broke several school records in track, including in her favorite event, steeplechase.
“I get really bored running around in circles,” she said with her easy laugh. “I loved cross-country. Cross-country to me was my favorite part of the year. When it came to track, I guess I lost focus. Steeplechase suited me. You can’t lose focus because there’s a barrier in front of you. You have to jump. I like having more elements.”
For this reason, triathlon also suited her — an event she first tried with her dad. During her senior year of high school, her dad had convinced her to join him in a Father’s Day triathlon. Wearing the same outfit for cycling as for running (baggy soccer shorts and a shirt), she looks back now and laughs at her wardrobe.
Zaferes redshirted in track her senior year at Syracuse, then returned for a fifth year. With no more eligibility for cross-country, she spent the summer and fall cross-training with triathlons and knew that she wanted to pursue the sport after graduation.
Barb Lindquist, USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program coordinator, remembers watching Zaferes compete in an age-group race in Buffalo, New York, that summer. She knew about Zaferes’ strong running and swimming background, then noticed that she also looked comfortable on the bike — “with legs like pistons.”
“Coming from a steeplechase background, I knew that Katie’s hips and legs would be strong and well adapted to the bike,” Lindquist said via email. “She was not a waif distance runner. Also, steeplechasers in general have to be more ‘athletic,’ meaning in the talent ID world that they have the potential to pick up bike handling more quickly.”
After graduating in 2012, Zaferes took a job babysitting for two families in Syracuse. Between nanny gigs, she trained.
That summer, she finished first and second in two Life Time Tri Series triathlons, then claimed third overall at age group nationals.
She became a pro triathlete in 2013 and won two ITU World Cups that year. In 2014, she entered her first WTS races — ITU’s highest level of competition. After a bout of bad luck — getting disqualified in one race, then crashing in the next — she finished seventh in the Stockholm WTS race, then ninth in the WTS Grand Final.
One day last summer, it dawned on her that she could make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team. While finishing a run, she thought, “I can do this.”
“It didn’t seem like a crazy idea anymore,” she added.
Since then, her life has changed dramatically. She married fellow triathlete, Tommy Zaferes, in January. And she joined a new team: Joel Filliol’s professional triathlon squad, featuring Sarah True, among other Olympians.
“Katie changed everything over the winter, new coach, new squad, new training environment, new location, new perspective, (new husband!),” Tommy said via email.
When asked about her new perspective, Katie Zaferes explained that she feels more confident this year and less like a development athlete.
“I’m still learning,” she said, “but I see myself more as a competitor.”
“Katie is an incredibly quick learner, so just getting the racing experience last year, she knew where she needed to be for this year,” added Tommy. “Her training has been really consistent and she has been super happy (which is a huge performance booster for her).”
At the first two WTS races this year (a sprint in Abu Dhabi in early March and an Olympic-distance race in Auckland, New Zealand, in late March), Zaferes moved into medal contention during the run — again telling herself “I can do this,” as she picked off people in front of her.
Both Lindquist and Tommy Zaferes credit Katie’s forward focus as key to her quick success.
“One of the many intangibles I saw in Katie was her balance of a happy-go-lucky outlook, while still being extremely focused and detail oriented,” wrote Lindquist. “She has the ability to let go of a bad workout or setback. And believe me, with as many workouts as triathletes do in a week, this is a needed attribute!”
“She's not satisfied being the ‘best triathlete,’” added Tommy. “She wants to be the fastest swimmer, the strongest cyclist and the best runner. She trains every day to have no weakness. The focus is incredible.”
To be the best triathlete, Zaferes will have to beat Jorgensen, who has won 10 career WTS races (seven consecutive) thanks to a gazelle-like run. It’s not the easiest goal, Zaferes realizes.
But the goal is about more than beating Jorgensen.
“At that point, I can always be confident going into a race that no matter what happens, I don’t have to be off the front,” said Zaferes. “I can be confident sitting in a pack with 40 other girls going into the run.”
Hopefully, that point will come at the Rio test event in August — the first Olympic qualifier. Up to two women will be nominated to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team if they finish in the top eight at the test event.
The U.S. women’s field is deep, with Jorgensen at the top.
But as Zaferes tells herself: “If she can do it, I can do it.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.