2016 Summer Olympics

Orange in the Olympics: How triathlete Katie Zaferes qualified for Rio

Courtesy of Tommy Zaferes

Former Syracuse distance runner Katie Zaferes will represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympics.

Katie Zaferes was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life when she got a phone call from Barb Lindquist, a former U.S. triathlete.

Zaferes was looking into graduate schools, but Lindquist, the head of the collegiate recruitment program for the U.S. Triathlon Federation and a former U.S. Olympian, wanted Zaferes to become a professional triathlete.

The recent college graduate’s first instinct was to say no. But after a few months of deliberation, she decided to give it a go.

Zaferes, who graduated from Syracuse in 2012 after running track for the Orange, started her professional triathlon career in 2013. Now she’s headed to her first Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after just narrowly qualifying for the games. At 27 years old, Zaferes is considered an underdog by many, but is doing whatever she can to prove her place.

She’ll be representing the United States in the women’s triathlon on Aug. 20 amongst a field of 54 women at Fort Copacabana in Rio.

“I didn’t fully expect for triathlons to become my living,” Zaferes said.

By the time Zaferes decided to go ahead with becoming a triathlete, she was almost halfway through the Olympic cycle. In need of a mentor to train her for Rio, she called professional coach Joel Filliol and asked him to take her on.

Her first test to qualify automatically for Rio was in 2015. The top two Americans qualified. Zaferes finished sixth overall and third among Americans behind Gwen Jorgensen, who won the race, and Sarah True.

Her next chance at an automatic qualifier was the 2016 International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Yokohama in Japan. This time, she needed a top three finish overall — something she hadn’t done in the five previous events in the Olympic qualifying circuit.

It was one final shot for Zaferes to prove herself.

“Since I didn’t qualify (at the Rio test event), it elongated that whole time period another five months, six months, to whenever Yokohama comes around,” Zaferes said. “That’s the only other chance to qualify. During that time, there’s only one spot left, and there are a lot of good Americans left.”


Courtesy of Tommy Zaferes

Zaferes crossed the finish line in 1:57:35 — just seconds behind elite triathletes Charlotte Mcshane (Australia) and Andrea Hewitt (New Zealand). But again she came in sixth place. And again she missed out on her ticket to Rio.

Luckily for Zaferes, Jorgensen won the race again, meaning there was an unclaimed spot on the U.S. team.

“The American women are phenomenal on the world stage, especially Gwen,” Zaferes said. “But it gave them the chance to pick someone else under discretion.”

According to federation rules, Zaferes could be chosen because she had one of the highest ITU point totals in the world following the six races. So for 10 days, Zaferes waited as the federation decided who to select.

She didn’t know whether the federation would make the popular choice— the best three U.S. women mathematically — or the strategic choice — the two best women and a specialist focused on just one one event.

Ninety-nine percent (of our thinking) was like is, ‘Oh it’s going to be fine.’ But you always have that 1 percent doubt that, ‘What if it’s not fine?’ ... Those 10 days were tough.
Katie Zaferes' husband, Tommy Zaferes

As Zaferes waited in California, Filliol was in Europe, periodically checking in. Filliol said that he had to stress to Zaferes that the decision was out of her control, and she just had to keep her hopes up.

On May 24, the federation finally announced the three U.S. women that would compete in Rio. The first two were obvious: Jorgensen and True. They had both qualified automatically at the first race in the Olympic circuit, and were thus shoo-ins for the selection.

The third selection was Zaferes.

“Katie did an amazing job going on with normal life (during the selection period),” Tommy said. “So much pressure comes down to one specific day. There’s no second chance, that’s it.”

Zaferes said knowing there was only one spot left made it much harder for her to race at Yokohama, but also made it much sweeter in the end to know that from a field of numerous strong Americans, she had been the final one selected.

Jorgensen is currently the world No. 3 in triathlon and the favorite in Rio. True is also heavily favored. After narrowly qualifying at Yokohama, Zaferes was put just outside the top six in most Rio predictions, with experts saying if she puts together a perfect race, she might have a chance at the podium.

“Everyone is kind of in the shadow of Gwen Jorgensen,” Filliol said. “She’s without a doubt the gold medal favorite.”



Courtesy of Tommy Zaferes

The perfect race came to fruition on July 16 in a pre-Olympic event in Hamburg, Germany when Zaferes placed first with a time of 57:03.

It was Zaferes’ first-ever ITU series title, and just the second time that Jorgensen had lost a world series race in her career. In a sport dominated by athletes in their early 30s, the 27 year old came out on top.

“There’s no guarantees in sport, but that’s the beauty of triathlon racing in particular,” Filliol said. “There’s lots of different things that can happen.”

Zaferes’ win vaulted her to the No. 7 ranking in the World Triathlon Series, and the No. 4 ranking on the ITU Olympic Qualification list even though she’s a newcomer to the sport.

Just four years ago, Zaferes never even thought about becoming a professional triathlete. Once she did, she barely qualified for the Olympics. Now, she’s earned her spot as a podium contender on the largest international stage.

“Going to the Olympics, going to that environment, I don’t even know what to expect,” Zaferes said. “But I don’t focus too much on the outcome, because I know things will fall into place. All of the struggles have definitely paid off.”


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