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Triathlon World Champion Katie Zaferes’ 2019 Season Was The Best Of Times And It Was The Worst Of Times

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 24, 2019, 10:17 a.m. (ET)


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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

That quote from Charles Dickens sums up Katie Zaferes’ 2019 season. The 30-year-old triathlete met some of her loftiest goals — such as becoming world champion at the ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final.

She met that goal just 16 days after her lowest point this season. At the 2019 Tokyo ITU World Triathlon Olympic Qualification Event, she crashed in the bike leg and missed her biggest goal — to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 this year.

Zaferes’ season is not quite over yet. She is racing two Super League triathlons this fall, the first on the English Channel island of Jersey on Sunday, Sept. 29.

But it was not the highs or lows that defined this season for Zaferes. It was having family there to share it all.

Here’s how her 2019 season played out, with a look to 2020.

Best Of Times
The ITU World Triathlon Series kicked off in March in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Zaferes had crashed in this race in 2018 and not finished. But 2019 would be different. She crossed the line first in 55:31 — one of the fastest times in history for a sprint triathlon, noted Triathlon Magazine.

It was Zaferes’ first World Triathlon Series win in almost three years — she had not won a race since before the Olympic Games Rio 2016.

“I wrote in my journal, ‘Win multiple WTSs,’” she said by phone from the Isle of Man, where she was training for the Super League races, “so to start off the season with a win was a great start towards that goal.”

Zaferes then won the second World Triathlon Series race, this time in Bermuda on two-time world champion Flora Duffy’s home course. Duffy had dominated the 2018 Bermuda race — winning the swim, bike and run. Zaferes wanted to have “a Flora-like race.”

And she did. Although Zaferes did not win every leg, she finished almost two minutes ahead of her closet competitor.

“Everything from what I’d envisioned and how I’d prepared physically and mentally, it all played out almost exactly as what I would have hoped for and wanted in an ideal situation,” she said.

Race conditions change from year to year, but it’s worth noting that Zaferes’ time in the Bermuda race was almost two minutes faster than Duffy’s 2018 winning time. 

Zaferes then won the Yokohama, Japan, race in 1:52:12. Triathlon Magazine called Zaferes — a former steeplechaser on Syracuse University’s track team — one of the fastest women in history in Olympic-distance triathlons (noting that courses vary, as do race conditions). Only Australia’s Jackie Gallagher has gone faster (1:50:51 in 1996 on a course with a bike leg that might have been shorter than 40 kilometers). Ever humble, Zaferes laughed at the idea that she is one of the fastest of all time.

By the Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Aug. 31, Zaferes had won four races, finished second in another, and was leading the World Triathlon Series standings by 755 points. Still, she had to race or one of the two British women behind her could win. If she won, it would mark a perfect progression up the standings since 2015, her first full season racing the series when she finished fifth. She was fourth in 2016, third in 2017 and second in 2018. As one headline asked, “Will it be 5-4-3-2-WON for Katie Zaferes in Lausanne?”

Zaferes nailed it. With the fastest run, she won the race and her first ever world championship title. It was a “really, really, really big high.”

But what she will remember most from this season is her family’s support. Husband Tommy Zaferes is always with her. But in Bermuda and Lausanne, her parents and Tommy’s were there as well. Coming into the finish of the Bermuda race, Zaferes was so far ahead that she had time to hug her dad.

“Having so much support,” she said, “and, as I get closer to what might be the end of my career — I don’t know for sure — but being able to put those in my memory and share those with my family and friends, it made this year more special than if it were just about the outcome.”

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Katie Zaferes competes at the World Triathlon Series on March 8, 2019 in Abu Dhabi.

Worst Of Times
For all the highs, Zaferes had one big low this season: she crashed in the Tokyo test event and must now wait until next season to try to qualify for her second Olympic Games.

The summer of despair started in Hamburg, Germany, in early July. Someone crashed in front of her on the bike leg of that World Triathlon Series race, and Zaferes went down. She picked herself up but finished 35th. 

With the Tokyo test event just over a month away, she knew she had to mentally reset. Her main goal of the season was to qualify for the 2020 Games; she had circled it in her journal. So she skipped the Edmonton, Alberta, leg of the series and instead stayed in Flagstaff, Arizona, for altitude training.

In the days leading up to the Tokyo test event on Aug. 15, she felt mentally and physically ready.

“I was in such a great place,” she said. “Happy and confident.”

Once in Tokyo, she felt even more prepared. She often finds new courses intimidating. This one looked fun. To qualify, she had to finish as one of the top two U.S. women on the podium – or, if none were on the podium, finish as the highest American in the top eight.

But during the bike, she had a momentary lapse in focus. On a straightaway, she hit the footing of a metal barrier marking the wheel pit. She hit the pavement face first, breaking her nose, separating her gums from her bottom teeth, and bruising her left shoulder and right leg.

“It was super disappointing,” she said. “I set myself up well [to qualify for Tokyo]. At the time of the crash, I was in the pack with people that if I was running against them, there would be a pretty good chance I would qualify.”

Initially, Zaferes’ facial injuries appeared the worst. She had 23 stitches in her mouth. But over the next couple of weeks, her shoulder became the biggest concern. There were only 16 days between the Tokyo test event and the Grand Final. Would she be able to compete?

Bike crashes have a way of hurting triathletes (and cyclists) more than physically, too. They can amp up the fear of riding in a pack again. Zaferes’ biggest issue was to “not be scared of racing.” 

In Lausanne, she heard other competitors talking about the size of the barriers’ feet. 

“Do people always talk about this?” she wondered. “Or am I being really sensitive right now because I just hit one?”

She had to refocus and remember that she is as skilled as she was before the crash, that it was just a fluke.

In the end, her shoulder was fine (just achy) and after letting out a sigh of relief upon finishing the last technical section on the bike course, Zaferes won the world title by four seconds.

Spring Of Hope
After the two Super League races this fall, Zaferes will return to Maryland, where she grew up, to visit her family. Then she and Tommy will spend the winter training in Santa Cruz, California. 

The 2020 World Triathlon Series kicks off in Abu Dhabi in early March. But Zaferes’ main focus is the Yokohama race in mid-May. The top American on the podium in Yokohama would earn her an automatic nomination to the team, joining Summer Rappaport (who finished fifth in the Tokyo test event). If no American woman finishes on the podium in Yokohama, then Zaferes would have to be the top U.S. competitor in the top eight.

Should she make her second Olympic team, Zaferes has valuable experience from the Rio Games, where she finished 18th, more than four minutes behind gold medalist teammate Gwen Jorgensen. In addition to improved strength and skills since 2016, Zaferes is now stronger mentally than she was in Rio.

“Going into Rio, I still knew that the focus was on the process,” she said. “But I didn’t fully understand what that meant. I was focused on the process but I had the feeling that, well, I can win a medal. I believe I’m a medal contender. On a scale, maybe that weighted more than the process focus.” 

Now more than ever, Zaferes is driven by the process, not the outcome. How fast can she push the bike leg? How quickly can she chase those ahead of her, or how quickly can she build a gap to those behind? It’s a mindset that has worked well this season — and will work well in the mixed relay, which makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo.

But first she must qualify. She is confident but knows anything can happen.

“It’s not a spot I take for granted or feel like is mine already,” she said. “I feel like if I do everything that I’ve been doing, then I would feel confident that I would either be able to earn it in Yokohama by my placement or earn the discretionary spot through my results over the past few years.

“I feel in a good place but it’s not resting easy or comfortable.”

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