After A Heavy Year, And Then A Momentous Olympics, Triathlon’s Katie Zaferes Keeps Moving
by Karen Price
Katie Zaferes celebrates winning the bronze medal during the Women's Individual Triathlon at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Rest? Who said anything about rest?
Certainly not recent two-time Olympic medalist Katie Zaferes, who jumped right back into competition after medaling in both the women’s triathlon and the first mixed team relay event in Tokyo.
The 32-year-old from Hampstead, Maryland, had an ever-so-brief beach trip to the Outer Banks with her family after coming home from Tokyo before heading to Montreal for the World Triathlon Championship Series. As if that wasn’t enough, the competitors were dealing with a brand new eliminator format using multiple “super-sprint” races with only 15 minutes between each one and the bottom athletes being dropped as the day progressed.
Zaferes finished in fourth, behind Olympic gold medalist Flora Duffy of Bermuda and U.S. teammates Taylor Knibb and Taylor Spivey. Afterward, Zaferes wrote on social media that she felt “a couple different things, but mostly I am really happy.”
“After the Olympics I had no idea where my body and mind would be and I felt torn a few different ways in whether or not I wanted to race so soon after,” she wrote. “However, I’m really glad I decided to race and that I put together solid races while feeling a bit off my mental game.”
No one could blame Zaferes for being a little sapped.
Her performance in Tokyo, winning individual bronze and team silver, was the payoff following years of ups and downs, both professionally and personally.
Zaferes made her Olympic debut in 2016 and was considered a medal favorite, but finished a disappointing 18th. But from there her world ranking continued to rise to No. 1 in 2019 as she won four of her last seven races heading into the world championships.
But then at the Tokyo Test Event in 2019 she crashed into a barrier while on the bike, broke her nose and needed 23 stitches in her mouth. That race was also the Olympic qualifier for the U.S., and since she didn’t finish it meant she wouldn’t have another chance to make the team until May 2020.
A couple weeks later, the resilient Zaferes won her first-ever world title. It was perfect timing, or so everyone thought.
There was no race in May 2020, and no Olympics in Tokyo later that summer.
Then this past April, Zaferes had just gotten to Europe for training when her father, Bill Hursey, died unexpectedly while out running errands. In subsequent WTCS races she finished 22nd and 18th and failed to win the U.S. women’s automatic qualifying spot for Tokyo. By the time she was named to the Olympic team by the Games Athlete Selection Committee, some in the triathlon world called it a “semi-surprising pick” given that Spivey was ranked third in the world, ahead of Zaferes.
After she was named to the team, Zaferes posted on Facebook:
“Today I got the call that I’ve been officially selected for the Tokyo Olympics! It fills me with so many emotions thinking of the highs and lows of this Olympic Selection period. These last two months have been challenging but I never lost faith that I’d be ready for Tokyo. My biggest goal for the Olympics has been, and continues to be, to use all that I learned from Rio 2016. All the work and lessons that have accumulated over time, with every experience preparing me for this moment. I look forward to standing on the start line ready to go and be the best version of myself. Swim hard, bike hard, run hard and most of all have fun and honor those that helped me get there.”
On race day, the start was delayed as a tropical storm passed through, and competitors still had to race in rain. Zaferes was at the front of the pack after the first lap of the swim, and in the lead group on the bike until the second-to-last lap, when she took the lead.
She also saw a rainbow.
“I saw the rainbow. I just gave a little, ‘Hi dad.’ I felt like that was him,” she told reporters after the race. “I feel like he’d be so happy.”
Zaferes was passed by Duffy and Great Britain’s Georgia Taylor-Brown on the run, but no one else. Her bronze was just the third Olympic medal for the U.S. in triathlon.
In the debut of the mixed team relay, Zaferes and her teammates took silver behind Great Britain.
Afterward, she posted to social media:
“Tokyo2020, you have been so good to me. Coming into this Olympics my main goals were to use everything I have learned since Rio on the course and really take in the experience of being at the Olympics off the course!
“I did just that and it feels so good. There were many moments during the races that I drew on past events and sessions. During our time off the field of play I loved being in the village, meeting other athletes and trading pins, hanging out with our awesome @usatriathlon team, enjoying the moments with the rest of our triathlon family, and having (husband) Tommy at the races.
“As always it’s the people who make the biggest difference and I was surrounded by so many awesome ones. Heading home feeling fulfilled and happy!”
Home, but not for long.
The World Triathlon Championship Finals, the last stop of the tour after which the overall leaders will be named world champions, takes place Saturday in Edmonton.