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How Olympic Triathlete Katie Zaferes’ Tiny House Just Might Help Her Win Gold In 2020

By Peggy Shinn | May 10, 2017, 1:39 p.m. (ET)

Katie and Tommy Zaferes recently moved into their tiny house, featured on the TV show "Tiny House Nation."


Triathlete Katie Zaferes has big Olympic goals for 2020.

To help meet these goals, the 2016 Olympian and her husband, Tommy Zaferes, have gone tiny. Just before the 2017 triathlon season started, they moved into a tiny house — featured on the TV show “Tiny House Nation” on March 25.

So why did they decide to go tiny? And how will a tiny house help Katie make the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and win a medal?

Triathletes lead a nomadic lifestyle. Katie — who’s currently ranked second overall in the ITU World Triathlon Series standings — and Tommy are on the road nine months a year, training with coach Joel Filliol at camps in Australia and Europe and racing the World Triathlon Series and other races. They are only home in the U.S. about three months each year.

Until this winter, Katie, 27, and Tommy, 30, spent most of those three months living in a rental place near Santa Cruz, California, where Tommy grew up. Or visiting Katie’s parents in Maryland. At the end of the off-season (November and December), they would have to pack their belongings into boxes and store them, except for a couple of suitcases for the road.

Always intrigued by the tiny houses depicted on “Tiny House Nation,” Katie brought up the idea to Tommy last June.

“I didn’t really expect him to be so open to it,” she said via FaceTime from Brisbane, Australia, where they trained for a month leading up to the WTS race in Yokohama, Japan.

While Katie geared up for the Rio Olympics, Tommy ran with the idea. They filled out an online application — which asks detailed questions such as projected budget, square footage of your current home, and “what will you miss most about ‘living large’?”

Once accepted by the TV show, the Zafereses worked with the show’s architects last fall. They told the architects what they wanted in the house for their $57,000 budget, then tweaked the initial plans. Unlike most tiny house customers, Katie and Tommy needed room for several bicycles, plus a place to work on them.

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“We basically got to design a custom house that's exactly what we want,” said Tommy.

Then for 10 days in January, Tiny House Nation shot footage of the house’s final construction phase, plus Katie and Tommy trying to pare down their belongings. On the show, Katie and Tommy displayed the common angst of figuring out what to give up. How much Olympic memorabilia from the Rio Games should Katie keep? And how many bikes would Tommy have to give up? (The show showed eight bikes total for the two triathletes.)

“Shoe after shoe after shoe …,” host John Weisbarth said, while the camera panned to shelves of running shoes.

In the end, paring down was a good process for the two triathletes. In the boxes that Weisbarth gave them for “items to keep,” Katie and Tommy ended up piling in items to give away.

They ended up donating no-longer-used triathlon gear to a local triathlon club.

“When you first get started, triathlon equipment is pretty expensive when you’re not even sure if it’s something you like or want to do yet,” said Katie. “For us to be able to help with that and just give to people in need, it was really good for us.”

For the items that they kept, Katie and Tommy made sure that their tiny home has lots of storage. Unseen on the show, the two helped the show’s builders construct a front doorstep with over a dozen cubbies for their shoes.

Their trapezoidal-shaped 370-square-foot house is 8 feet wide by 28 feet long, with a large sleeping loft over the kitchen. It features a full kitchen with washer/dryer, a bathroom with a tub, and a living room with a coffee table that converts to a power-generating bicycle trainer. Off the back, a fold-out “shed” stores four bikes and opens to a work area. (They gave up four bikes, although some of their bikes are at a local bike shop that sponsors Tommy.)

By comparison, the average single-width mobile home is 15 feet wide by 72 feet long and about 1,000 square feet. The Zafereses tiny home is more the size of an RV trailer.

“It’s a tiny house, but for us, it seems pretty big,” said Katie.

“Yeah, massive,” added Tommy with a laugh. “Because we normally live in hotel rooms.”

Which leads to the question: how will a tiny house help Katie make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team and win a medal in Tokyo?

By having a place of their own, they no longer have to spend time and energy finding a rental in the off-season, then unpacking and repacking for storage when the next season starts.

“We can leave it here and when we come back, it’s going to be there,” said Tommy. “We don’t have to put it in storage. We don’t have to move it, we don’t have to organize it because it’s not in my parents’ house. It’s not at my sister’s house. It’s not at Katie’s parents’ house. It’s just nice to have our own place to put all of our stuff in.”

This includes their wedding gifts. They married on Jan. 18, 2015, and many of their wedding gifts were in boxes for two years.

They also have pictures on the walls, along with a painting that Tommy’s uncle created of the pair and other mementos that make a house a home.

The two have yet to encounter any downsides of tiny living — except for the clothes dryer’s spinning shaking the small house as it spins. They only spent two days living in their new home before leaving for the 2017 season. For the moment, their tiny house is sitting on its wheels at Tommy’s sister’s house near Santa Cruz.

After the Yokohama race, they will return to their tiny house for a month before resuming the World Triathlon Series.

With the goal of winning a medal in Tokyo in 2020, Katie is working on executing her race plans, especially during the WTS Grand Final in Rotterdam, Netherlands in September. She also wants to enjoy the places she and Tommy visit while they are on their nomadic triathlon journey — something she lost during the pressure of the Olympic year. And the tiny house will give them a home base.

“The tiny house is something that, at least for now, works as we’re living this ITU lifestyle of traveling all over and not being in one location,” said Katie. “In four years, we’ll have to re-evaluate.”

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

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Katie Zaferes