NewsKatie Zaferes

What Olympic Triathlete Katie Zaferes Would Tell Athletes Considering Motherhood

by Peggy Shinn

Katie Zaferes poses with her bronze medal during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

After the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Katie Zaferes thought she might retire as a pro triathlete. She had won just about everything there is to win in triathlon — including two Olympic medals in Tokyo, plus the 2019 World Triathlon Series title — and she and husband Tommy Zaferes wanted to start a family.

 

A year minus 20 days after she won an Olympic bronze medal in women’s triathlon, Zaferes gave birth to son, Kimble William Zaferes (July 7, 2022). Although she did not train through pregnancy, Zaferes had remained active. Inspired by other elite triathletes who are now moms, like two-time Olympic medalist Nicola Spirig from Switzerland, Zaferes realized that she did not have to choose between her athletic career and being a mom.

 

“I really wanted to come back to triathlon because I love my job,” Zaferes said by phone as she pushed Kimble in a stroller around their new hometown of Cary, North Carolina. “I never once felt tired of the sport or burnt out from it. Besides wanting to start a family, there was no reason I wanted to stop.”

 

So, a month after Kimble was born, Zaferes started training again — slowly at first, with a run of just one minute. By October, she had resumed what she considers normal training with her coach Joel Filliol.

 

Now, Zaferes, 33, is back racing, with her eye making the U.S. Olympic Team in 2024 — what would be her third Games. Calling it “a bonus round,” Zaferes’ goals are not just focused on winning gold. And she has sage advice for other athletes considering motherhood — advice that’s applicable to all women.

 

 

 

When asked about the best and worst aspects of returning to triathlon as a mom, Zaferes laughed. There was the time this winter when she traveled alone with Kimble and all her gear to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She had her bike bag, a stroller with Kimble in it, car seat, and assorted other luggage to schlep from baggage claim to the car rental desk.

 

“I was like a pack horse,” she laughed. “I will never again take for granted traveling with just a bike.”

 

Even funnier — in retrospect — a fellow traveler offered to help. But she declined, assuming he would just get her to the curb. Then where would she be? He ended up at the same car rental desk.

 

Now Kimble is learning that he can move, adding to future air travel fun.

 

“He really likes people, so he’ll just stand on my lap and look at others,” said Zaferes, with a smile that somehow carries through the phone.

Katie Zaferes competes in the mixed relay triathlon during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

Less amusing is how time off for pregnancy has affected her world ranking—and thus her ability to enter World Triathlon Series races.

 

When Zaferes returned to racing in March 2023, her world triathlon ranking had fallen so far that she started the World Triathlon Series Abu Dhabi literally at the back (bib 61 in a field of 61 triathletes). She finished 37th — a humbling experience. Earlier in her career, she had bounded up the rankings quickly and had not spent much time at the back of the pack.

 

World Triathlon now freezes points for women during pregnancy. But the new rule (spearheaded by Swiss triathlete Nicola Spirig) came too late for Zaferes.

 

“I always expected the physical component (of returning to racing after childbirth) to be hard,” Zaferes said. “I just didn’t really realize how hard it would be coming back to World Triathlon Series racing because of how many points (I had lost).”

 

With two podium finishes in triathlon world cups this spring, Zaferes has climbed considerably in the rankings. But she is not yet guaranteed WTS race starts, and WTS races serve as 2024 Olympic qualifiers. Six other American women are ranked ahead of her, and only five from each country are granted starts in WTS races. Zaferes is currently sitting on the waiting list for the Yokohama WTS race in May.

 

Zaferes is also trying to find a good mom/athlete balance in training and on race days. Initially, she and Tommy tried to do it all. Now they have a babysitter four days a week for four hours.

 

On race days, Zafares is searching for the sweet spot between being an athlete and a mom. She needs someone to watch Kimble before races so she can focus on physically and mentally preparing herself.

 

“If I’m around Kimble, I just want to do everything and be there,” she said.

 

Despite the challenges, Zaferes sees many positives to her new life as a mom and an athlete (momathlete?).

 

“The best thing is just being able to do something I love with Kimball seeing it and being part of it, whether it’s Tommy pushing him in the jogging stroller with me on a run or him getting to meet friends from triathlon at a race,” she said. “The triathlon community has given me a lot, especially after my dad passed away, my appreciation grew tenfold. Now to be able to introduce Kimble to this community means a lot. It just is perfect for our family right now.”

 

“Although if I have two kids, I’m not doing this!” she added with a laugh.

Katie Zaferes smiles and waves after winning the bronze medal during the women's individual triathlon during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

Zaferes’ father, William Hursey, passed away suddenly in April 2021. Kimble is a made-up name to honor him (kind + humble = Kimble), with William as his middle name.

 

Zaferes’ race goals have also changed. She is looking toward the Paris Olympic Games next summer with the goal “just to see what I can do.”

 

She will also now judge her career based on more than medals won.

 

“My heart just feels very full on a day-to-day basis even if often times I feel physically depleted because of training on top of being a mom,” Zaferes wrote in a follow-up email. “There are a lot of mom accomplishments that feel equally rewarding as nailing a training session. It could be traveling with him well, nailing bedtime or something like breastfeeding him for the first time on the go. It’s really challenging, so I really appreciate the moments that have a bit more flow.”

 

 

 

Zaferes has only been a mom for ten months. But she already has insight to pass on to other athletes considering motherhood.

 

“I would say, ‘For sure, go for it,’” started Zaferes. “You don’t have to choose between being a mom and being a high-level athlete.”

 

First, figure out what works for you.

 

“It’s really hard, but it’s just adapting to anything else in life,” she continued. “You don’t have to lose something you love or you’re passionate about because it seems hard. You can find a way, and it doesn’t have to look like anyone else. It just has to work for you and your family.”

 

And if it does not work, that’s OK too.

 

“For me, coming back after Kimble was a, ‘let’s see if this is for us,’” explained Zaferes. “If it didn’t feel right for me and our family, I would/will pivot. I wanted to try it though before dismissing it as a possibility for me and my family.

 

Secondly, be patient.

 

“In sport, it’s always progress, not perfection,” she said. “That’s how I would describe parenting. You’re just trying to do the best you can. Don’t try to be perfect or try to be the best.

 

“Try to be whatever you want to be.”

 

The USOPC Women’s Health Taskforce echoes the important insights shared by Zaferas. This 18-member taskforce – comprised of world-renowned clinicians, medical providers, mental health experts and athletes – was formed last spring to identify the needs and develop the resources and solutions to support the women of Team USA – before, during and after competition. 
“More and more women are participating in a high level of sports during and after pregnancy,” stated Ellen Casey, MD, member of USOPC Women’s Health Task Force. “It’s important to keep in mind that the duration and experience of postpartum return to sport is variable and personal. The changes that occur with pregnancy and delivery can impact physical performance. However, a team-based approach, including a sports medicine physician, physical therapist, and sports dietitian with expertise in pregnancy, can help women develop an individualized plan for gradual progression and successful return to elite sport.”  
In addition to the physical changes, as Zafares highlighted, adjusting and finding a new balance takes time for all new parents.  
“Psychological support can be key to any athlete's success, but balancing the psychological demands of being an Olympic or Paralympic athlete and a new mom is undeniable,” shares Dr. Jessica Bartley, senior director of psychological services at the USOPC and member of the taskforce. “We are here to help athletes understand the resources available to support them at all points in their journey.” 
Athletes can reach out to the USOPC’s psychological services team by visiting TeamUSA.org/psychservices

 

 


An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered seven Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.
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