It’s not hot enough in Arizona for Katie Zaferes, the world’s top triathlete, who is training in a heat chamber for what should be the biggest three-week stretch of her career thus far.
Next Thursday at 7:30 a.m. local time, Zaferes dives into Tokyo’s Odaiba Marin Park water to begin the World Olympic Qualification event.
If she finishes in the top eight and is among the top two Americans, Zaferes will qualify for her second Olympics (and, this is key, her first Olympics without relying on discretionary selection; more on that later). If she doesn’t make it, she can still qualify next year in a last-chance international race.
On Aug. 31, Zaferes will likely be in much cooler conditions in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the World Series Grand Final, the season-ending event that determines the world champion. Zaferes clinches her first world title if she finishes 13th or better, thanks to her comfortable lead from four wins and a runner-up over seven regular-season events dating to March.
It’s clear which of the major upcoming races is the focus.
Zaferes has been in Flagstaff, Ariz., since mid-July, mimicking the expected weather in Japan for not only the World Olympic Qualification event but also the Tokyo Olympic triathlon, which is also scheduled for a 7:30 start next July to beat the heat.
Zaferes and British training partner Non Stanford have been doing stationary bike rides — building from 45 minutes up to 90 — in fixed temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees with humidity between 80 and 85 percent. She pools sweat three or four times a week in a homemade tent in a garage with two heaters and a humidifier.
“It’s pretty uncomfortable,” said Zaferes, who has had Tokyo’s weather on her phone app this whole year. “This is kind of like a dry run for the Olympics.”
Zaferes steadily ascended in triathlon since graduating as Syracuse’s school-record holder in the 3000m steeplechase and indoor 5000m in 2012. After nannying for a bit, she pursued triathlon in 2013. Her world ranking went from 16th in 2014 to fifth in 2015, fourth in 2016, third in 2017 and second last year.
Now that Gwen Jorgensen, who in Rio became the U.S.’ first Olympic triathlon champion, has moved onto marathon running, Zaferes has taken the mantle and is now favored to make it back-to-back golds for American women.
But she hasn’t yet succeeded in the most pressure-packed races.
In 2015, Zaferes finished sixth in the Olympic qualification event, which would have put her on the Rio team. But Jorgensen and another American, Sarah True, were first and third to take the two available spots. After the dust settled in spring 2016, one spot was left for USA Triathlon to fill at its own discretion.
Though Zaferes was clearly the third-best U.S. triathlete, the organization could have chosen a less-accomplished woman to act as a domestique for the gold-medal-favorite Jorgensen. It could have asked Zaferes, a medal contender in her own right, to be a domestique.
In the end, nine months after the Olympic qualification event and 10 days after the last selection race, USA Triathlon named Zaferes to the Olympic team without the domestique handcuff.
“That waiting period for them to actually select me, it led to doubts arising, well, am I going to get to go? Do I deserve this?” she said this week. “Now, I have a large drive to qualify automatically after what happened in 2016.”
Though Zaferes was free to race for a medal in Rio, her energy was zapped on the 40km bike leg with 16 tough climbs. She had little left for the 10km run, fading to 18th with the 42nd-best time on her feet of the 48 finishers. Her most positive memory of the Games was the Closing Ceremony.
Zaferes endured. She stuck with coach Joel Filliol and improved each year of this Olympic cycle. At last season’s Grand Final, Zaferes just needed to finish ahead of Brit Vicky Holland to claim the world title. Zaferes passed Holland on the 10km run, but in a rare instance, Holland retook the advantage with less than two miles left and beat Zaferes for the world title by 31 seconds.
“I took another step in the right direction,” Zaferes said that day, “so there is always next year.”
Zaferes stormed out this season by winning the first three events and coming within 11 seconds of winning the first five. It conjured memories of Jorgensen’s 13 straight top-level international victories over a two-year stretch in the last Olympic cycle. Zaferes has carried with her the defeat from the 2018 Grand Final, when she lost focus that she didn’t regain until after Holland had passed and gapped her.
“Now one of my mantras during a race is, ‘Be ready, be ready, be ready,'” Zaferes said.
But even as Zaferes has dominated the circuit, something has been missing. Someone, actually. When Zaferes is asked if she considers herself the best in the world, she says that she’s “one of the best” and brings up the name Flora Duffy.
Duffy, the 2017 World champion from Bermuda, has finished just three World Series races in the last two seasons due to a foot injury. She hasn’t started any this year, but said two weeks ago that she plans to race the Olympic qualification event and the Grand Final.
“I feel more like the most consistent athlete in the world,” Zaferes said. “I guess, for me, I think i want to see how Flora comes back. I want to race Flora.”
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