When Katie Zaferes crossed the finish line in second place at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final on Saturday in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the 28-year-old triathlete capped her best season yet. And she led a contingent of strong young Americans in the WTS standings.
Even without Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen, who sat out the 2017 season to have a baby, and Sarah True, who did not race much this season, the U.S. women were podium contenders in six of the eight World Triathlon Series races.
Kirsten Kasper, 26, earned her first WTS podium finish with a bronze in Yokohama, Japan in May and ended the season ranked fourth overall. Taylor Spivey, 26, earned silver in Leeds, England, for her career-first WTS medal. And Taylor Knibb, 19, finished second in Edmonton, Alberta in late July — also the first WTS podium in her young career.
Coming off her Olympic debut, Zaferes earned hardware in three WTS races this year and was more consistent than she has ever been, finishing in the top 10 in all but one race. She finished the WTS series ranked third overall, which marked her first-ever world championship medal (the series standings serve as triathlon’s world championships). She was fourth overall in 2016 and fifth in 2015.
“I definitely wanted to keep with that upward trajectory,” Zaferes said.
Knibb defended her junior world championship title in Rotterdam. She has finished on the podium at junior worlds for the past three years. And Tamara Gorman, 21, the country’s first junior world champion (in 2013), won the U23 world title. The win was unexpected. Gorman took last year off to focus on running, and this was her first summer back competing in triathlon.
So what has led to this deep pool of female American triathletes?
Zaferes credited Jorgensen, who dominated the WTS series for three years before winning Olympic gold in Rio last summer.
“Whenever you have someone do so well from your country, it makes you chase them,” said Zaferes, who has finished on the WTS podium with Jorgensen five times (beating her once), and with True as well. “All of us see each other doing great things, then that makes you feel like ‘Wow, that’s really cool for them, but also if they can do it, then I think that I can too.’”
Zaferes also credited USA Triathlon, which gives American triathletes the freedom to pick their coaches and train where they will thrive.
In the Grand Final in Rotterdam, Zaferes’ race came together perfectly. She had targeted the race as her primary event this season and was happy to end her season on a good note. (At the Olympic Games Rio 2016 last August, she finished 18th.)
“I really just wanted to be able to perform on the day of a big event,” she said. “Getting second at the Grand Final and having a good race and seeing everything come together that I had had sneak peeks of throughout the season was really good for me. I was really proud of myself.”
Those sneak peeks included a best swim, best ride and best run. She emerged from the water in first place at the Montreal WTS race in August. She followed that up with her best bike ride in Stockholm at the end of August — until she crashed. She had made the lead group with two-time world champion Flora Duffy and knew that she could hang with the Bermudan on the bike. In Yokohama, Zaferes — a former track standout at Syracuse University — had her best run, finishing second in that race.
“In different parts of the season, I saw different things and was waiting for them to come together,” Zaferes said. “I knew I was a complete triathlete.”
Zaferes also hammered the transition between the swim and the bike, which allowed her to make the lead bike break with Duffy and Jessica Learmonth from Great Britain, whom Zaferes dropped during the run.
“Little moments like that, capitalizing on those types of things,” she said, referring to her transitions, “and just wanting it enough to go after it and take risks and go hard. I think that’s what allowed me to have the race that I had. I wasn’t holding back. I was going hard for the swim, bike, run and even the transitions.”
Zaferes spent the season focused on the process, not results. She would focus, for example, on having a good swim to the first buoy, or getting herself in a good position during the bike leg, or just on her gearing on the bike. She knew that results would come.
“Obviously, you want to win and be on the podium,” she said. “But I never went into any race with that as my goal.”
This new way of training and competing left Zaferes feeling fresh, even at the end of the season.
“Usually by the time the Grand Final rolls around, I’m tired, and I’m ready to be done,” she said.
“This time, I feel like I’m just getting started. The WTS series just ended, and I’m really excited for next year to know that I can pick up where I left off.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.