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Katie Zaferes Aims To Defend Triathlon World Title In First And Last Race Of The Season

By Alex Abrams | Sept. 03, 2020, 11:37 a.m. (ET)

Katie Zaferes celebrates after crossing first the finish line during the Elite Women's race on the ITU World Triathlon Hamburg on July 16, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany. 


Katie Zaferes couldn’t go swimming for at least two months, and she was unable to train with her triathlon coach because he was stuck in Scotland.

Social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic upended training for elite athletes around the world. Zaferes, though, had a pretty good fallback: Her husband, Tommy, is a retired triathlete who could train alongside her while the couple was keeping their distance from everyone else.

Zaferes, a 2016 Rio Olympian, was planning to train in Florida in March as she prepared to defend her ITU World Triathlon Series championship this season.

Once her training camp was cancelled because of COVID-19, Zaferes and her husband rented a van and drove from Florida to her home state of Maryland to work out together.

“It was just me and my husband, Tommy, training together, which actually works out pretty darn well,” Zaferes said. “And that is something I’m very fortunate to have, is that he was able to train with me through this whole COVID time just as we would (normally).”

Zaferes will finally get a chance to defend her ITU world championship on Saturday, though it will come under much different circumstances than when she last raced one year ago in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Hamburg Wasser World Triathlon in Germany was initially scheduled for July 11-12, but the event was moved to this weekend because of the pandemic. It was expected to be one of six races during the 2020 WTS season. However, the season has been shortened like other professional leagues around the world because of the coronavirus. After every other WTS triathlon was cancelled, the Hamburg event earned an odd distinction.

Along with being the WTS season opener, the triathlon in Germany will also serve as the world championships. Triathletes will do a 750-meter swim, bike for 18.9 kilometers and finish with a 5-kilometer run.

Among the U.S. athletes joining Zafares in Hamburg are Summer Rappaport, the lone American triathlete to already qualify for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, and Taylor Spivey. All three are ranked among the top 5 in the women’s field.

“I have no idea what to expect. I think it’s a pretty similar feeling to like coming off of the offseason,” Zaferes said of the long layoff in between races. “So every year when you have your break and you’re doing the base training in the winter months and you have our first race in March, it’s always a little bit more nerve-racking, a little bit more like, ‘Do I remember how to do this? How am I going to stack up against the field?’”

Zaferes has also submitted her name to compete in Sunday’s mixed relay world championships, in which 20 four-member teams will compete for the title. The team rosters won’t be finalized until after the individual triathlons on Saturday.

As unconventional as this weekend will be, Zaferes said she hopes the Hamburg triathlon will help springboard her toward a place in the Tokyo Olympics, where she would be considered among the gold-medal favorites.

Despite winning five WTS triathlons last year and ending the season ranked No. 1, Zaferes still hasn’t qualified for the Olympics. She missed an opportunity to do so in April 2019 when she suffered a serious accident in an Olympic test event that forced her to get stitches.

“If anything, I’ve learned this past year so many things happen that are unexpected,” she said.

Zaferes said safety protocols at the Hamburg triathlon have been put in place to protect the competitors from contracting the coronavirus.

All of the triathletes are being tested for COVID-19, and the informational briefing that’s typically held for them prior to the start of the race will be held virtually to maintain social distancing.

Once the race begins, though, the triathletes will remove their face masks and compete as usual. However, they won’t get any encouragement from fans.

The triathlon won’t be held in downtown Hamburg with spectators crowding the streets like in past years. Instead, this weekend’s event will take place in a large park near Hamburg’s central square — without fans.

“For sure it’s different. I mean Hamburg typically has the best atmosphere of any race, or one of the best atmospheres of all the races that we do, where it’s just like the most people who typically come out and watch Hamburg in the city center,” Zaferes said. “So this being a little outside of the city and nobody being allowed to spectate, that makes it pretty strange.

“But I’m just very grateful that this race is being put on and we have any race. So it will be sad in the sense of the same sadness I feel like (that’s) in a lot of parts of the world right now where things aren’t normal, where you just kind of wish it can be normal. But I’m happy that we have an alternative.”

Zaferes typically gets nervous before the first race of every season, and she admitted she has felt plenty of nerves in the days leading up to the Hamburg triathlon. But she no longer feels rusty after going two months without being able to get into a pool.

“I definitely started with feeling not great in the water and not paying so much attention to (my) time and just feeling kind of uncoordinated to now I feel stronger and smoother and a lot more consistent in the pool,” she said.

Alex Abrams

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Katie Zaferes