Katie Zaferes: America's Top Olympic Hopeful That Almost Wasn't

By A.C. Shilton | Aug. 13, 2019, 7:01 p.m. (ET)

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of USA Triathlon Magazine.

Katie Zaferes races in Yokohama

William Hursey couldn’t find his daughter, Katie.

The two had spent the night at a Marriott an hour outside of Colorado Springs. After breakfast, they planned to drive the last leg of their 1,637-mile trip from Hampstead, Maryland, to the U.S. Olympic Training Center (OTC). There, Hursey’s 23-year-old daughter would take part in USA Triathlon’s first-ever Collegiate Recruitment Resident Program, a development program where athletes lived at the OTC. Except, well, Katie had vanished. 

He looked around the continental breakfast buffet. He checked back in the hotel room. Finally, he checked the stuffed-to-the-gills Honda FIT. “She’s in the car, and she’s crying. She says to me, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” remembers Hursey. 

So her dad did what any dad worth his “world’s #1 dad” mug would do: He gave her a hug. And then he struck a deal with her. If at the end of the first week she still wanted to go home, he’d fly back out to Colorado and pick her up. 

Spoiler alert: She never asked to come home. And that 2013 pep talk and hug may have set in motion America’s best chance at an Olympic triathlon medal in 2020.  

Hursey’s daughter is Katie Zaferes, 30, who is currently ranked No. 1 in the International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Series. She also captured the overall champion title in the 2018-19 Super League Triathlon series. With her fierce aptitude in the water and no-holds-barred approach to the run, it’s hard to imagine Zaferes sitting and crying in a hotel parking lot.

But that’s where this story begins. 

Recruiting a steeplechaser

Well, actually, this story begins back in 2008, when ITU and USA Triathlon Hall-of-Famer Barb Lindquist hatched the idea of a Collegiate Recruitment Program.

“Every year [at USA Triathlon], we’d have to write our goals. So, in 2008 one of my goals was to figure out how, if someone wanted to methodically recruit runners and swimmers, they’d go about doing that,” she says. Her boss loved the idea. “He asked me, do you want to make this your job?”

Phase one of the plan was simple: Reach out to collegiate track coaches and ask if they had stars who also happened to know how to swim. Word got around to Chris Fox, the Syracuse University cross country coach. He reported back that he had just one such athlete. Her name was Katie Hursey, and she was currently ruling on the track in steeplechase.   

“If I could have every runner we recruit be a steeplechase athlete, I would. They’re a little bit mongrel. Their hips are stronger; they’re not afraid of getting their shoes wet; they can be more resilient,” says Lindquist. 

She flew out to watch Zaferes race and saw exactly what she was looking for: grit and strength. This was a woman who could climb to the top of the sport, Lindquist thought. 

Over the years, however, Lindquist had learned to be low-key when approaching potential recruits. Most have never considered “professional triathlete” as a possible career avenue. Some don’t even know triathlon is an Olympic sport. 

That was Zaferes. 

“I guess I never really planned to run professionally; I didn’t think I was good enough. It [triathlon] didn’t even cross my mind as something I could do,” she remembers. Plus, at the time she was mulling over graduate school. 

Zaferes wasn’t a total newb, though. She had done a couple local sprint triathlons with her dad. But, they had been pool swims so she lacked open-water experience. And, like most age-group races, there was no drafting allowed. What Lindquist was putting on the table now was the equivalent of graduating from a pony ride at the fair to racing the Kentucky Derby. 

But Zaferes had experience with the steeplechase, even though her version didn’t include an actual horse. So she decided to saddle up and ride. 

“I’m pretty good at saying yes to things,” she says, adding, “Every time I’ve said yes to something it’s pretty much led to a really cool life adventure.” 

What followed was one heck of a life adventure. And it’s still in progress.

Katie Zaferes steeplechase Syracuse University

‘One Of The Easiest Athletes I Ever Coached’

Lindquist’s program for new recruits starts with the athlete spending a year paired with a local coach. For Zaferes, that coach was Stephen Wright. The two met up in Syracuse to talk about Zaferes’ background and goals. Wright remembers the meeting vividly. “I called my girlfriend at the time, now wife, as soon as I got in the car and said: ‘I know it sounds absurd but this woman is not only going to be able to race at the professional level, but I honestly think she could win an Olympic medal someday.’”

What impressed Wright was Zaferes’ attitude. “She had every workout she had done for the past few years written down in detail and had notes about how she felt,” he remembers. Plus, “She was eager to learn everything she could, and wanted to learn the basics and build from there.” Where some collegiate stars enter the sport with hefty doses of ego and expectation, Zaferes came without that baggage. She asked Wright point blank: “What do I need to learn to be the best I can be?”

Coaches will often talk about something called coachability. Yes, genes granting efficient hearts and lungs are crucial for building pro athletes. But without coachability — or the humility to listen to your coach the first time — even the most genetically gifted athlete will stall. “Katie was one of the easiest athletes I ever coached,” says Wright. If he put a workout on her schedule, she did it. If Wright gave her advice about her technique, she took it. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met an athlete so relaxed and comfortable with the training process,” he adds. 

Even better: she has the genetics and the heart to match that perfect, coachable temperament. 

Humble And Kind

Zaferes spent her first year racing age-group events. In the local races, she started winning almost immediately. But to climb toward that Olympic goal, Zaferes would have to conquer racing in a pack, so she and Wright began working on her bike handling skills. Then she headed west to the Olympic Training Center, where she learned such essential lessons as how to ride in a pack and “not to wear underwear under your triathlon shorts.” 

Finally, in 2013, she headed to her first ITU race in Clermont, Florida. “It was so different than all the age group races I’d done, and even though we’d practiced for it, it was pretty intimidating,” she remembers. 

She came out of the water and hopped on her bike, pedaling fast to join the pack. And then, well, the course took a turn. In draft-legal racing, holding your line around a corner — i.e., making a smooth, dependable turn — is crucial. Zaferes didn’t know that.

“[Veteran pro triathlete] Alicia [Kaye] yelled at me and was like ‘what are you doing?’ I yelled back, ‘I have no idea!’”

Now, six years later, she has a bit more of an idea of what she’s doing, but she’s quick to say she’s still learning. We asked her when she finally started feeling comfortable on the bike and she laughed and said, “last year?” 

For being the top-ranked ITU triathlete in the world right now, she’s still amazingly humble — a trait she’s had since the beginning. “When she first started having success, she would personally thank everyone who reached out to her on social media. Even as she became more successful, she continued to do it,” remembers Wright. “After the Cape Town WTS race in 2015, where she got second, I remember watching her spend about 45 minutes replying to every tweet someone sent congratulating her.”

She likely got that trait from her dad. William Hursey jokes that the only things he gave his daughters are his height and his anxiety. Clearly, that’s not entirely true, though. “My ID bracelet says to be humble and kind. That’s something I always wanted my daughters to remember,” says Hursey. That message got passed on to Zaferes and she still holds it dear.

And, of course, he gave his daughter that hug and nudge from the nest in the hotel parking lot so many years ago. Which helped Zaferes find her wings — and she’s been flying ever since.  

Katie Zaferes aims for gold