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Katie Zaferes is U.S. triathlon’s new leader, from baggy shorts to brink of world title

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It’s not often that one’s most memorable experience of an Olympics is the Closing Ceremony.

Triathlete Katie Zaferes arrived in Rio more than halfway through the Games. Her event was on the 15th of 16 days of medal competition. Zaferes, a podium contender in her Olympic debut, finished a disappointing 18th on Copacabana Beach.

She stayed for the Closing Ceremony the next night, the flame extinguished at the Maracanã.

“Leading up to the race I didn’t do anything Olympic oriented,” Zaferes said by phone Wednesday. “Once our race was over, basically the only event left was the marathon. For me, the Closing Ceremony was the only actual Olympic thing I could go to and experience.”

Zaferes left Brazil bent on ensuring the next Olympic experience would be different. It’s looking that way at the halfway point of the Olympic cycle.

The 29-year-old leads this year’s World Triathlon Series standings going into the Grand Final in Gold Coast, Australia, on Sept. 15. The math: whoever finishes higher in the Gold Coast race — Zaferes or Brit Vicky Holland — is crowned world champion.

Zaferes is the extension of the U.S.’ recent surge in Olympic-distance triathlon. It earned one medal (a bronze) from the first four Olympics with triathlon from 2000 through 2012.

Then came Gwen Jorgensen.

USA Triathlon’s development program plucked the former University of Wisconsin runner and swimmer from an Ernst & Young accounting job in 2010. It took Jorgensen four years to become world champion and six to win Olympic gold in Rio.

She left triathlon last year as arguably the most dominant athlete in its short Olympic history, eyeing gold in another sport.

“A lot of what I’ve gotten to experience is kind of because of Gwen,” Zaferes said. “As athletes we’re pretty different, but our pathways pretty similar.”

Zaferes, too, was an NCAA distance runner (at Syracuse) and had youth swimming experience. She even raced four triathlons, a Father’s Day tradition with her dad starting in 2007, just after graduating high school in Hampstead, Md.

There is an image that made the internet of Zaferes, in a baggy shirt and soccer shorts, in her first triathlon. At one point, she walked her bike up a hill.

She finished 11th among women, taking 1 hour, 24 minutes, 8 seconds to cover 400 meters in a pool, 14 miles on the bike and 5km on foot on the Maryland roads and grass. She beat her 46-year-old dad by 28 minutes and trailed the 50-year-old female winner by 11. Zaferes raced it each of the next three years, improving to third in 2008, second in 2009 and the first female finisher in 2010.

While at Syracuse, Zaferes was recruited to triathlon by the same woman who had persuaded Jorgensen, 2004 Olympian Barb Lindquist, who heads USA Triathlon’s collegiate recruitment program.

Zaferes graduated from Syracuse in 2012, nannied for a bit, and then moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in January 2013 to begin a triathlon career.

She finished fourth at the April 2013 national championships, then won a lower-level international World Cup event in July. Zaferes debuted on the top circuit, the World Series, six days later, and finished 35th out of 65, just 13 seconds behind American Sarah True, who had been fourth at the 2012 Olympics.

She was ranked 16th in the world in 2014, racing as Katie Hursey. She married fellow triathlete Tommy Zaferes in January 2015 and, racing with a new name on the front of her suit, truly joined the sport’s top echelon.

Zaferes made her first World Series podium and stayed there, finishing second or third in six of her eight starts. She then got her first win at the last World Series race before the Rio Olympics.

“I felt capable of medaling [in Rio],” Zaferes said Wednesday, looking out a window to the Pacific Ocean in Gold Coast, where she’s spending three weeks training ahead of the Grand Final. “I had been on podiums before. That was the goal.”

She was second out of the 1.5-kilometer swim and with the leading group of 18 off the 40-kilometer bike at the Olympics. But that bike leg, covering two tough climbs on each of the eight laps, zapped Zaferes.

“The bike really freaked me out,” Zaferes said, also noting challenging downhills. “After Rio, we knew that my bike skills had to develop more, but it was also developing the mindset to handle it if something was over my head.”

She followed the bike with the slowest 10km run of that leading group — 38:44, or 4:35 slower than Jorgensen and 42nd out of the 48 finishers.

“People were passing me. I tried to go with them, and I was falling off,” she remembered. “I don’t know if I’d call it the toughest run [of my career], but it was a hard run that I think I could have been better if I had prepared more mentally for it.”

A month earlier, Zaferes had the second-fastest 5km run in her maiden World Series win, 33 seconds slower than Jorgensen, known to be the best runner in Olympic-distance triathlon history.

Zaferes stuck with coach Joel Filliol‘s training group after Rio. She now leans more on a nutritionist and sports psychologist. Her husband isn’t racing full-time anymore but works in triathlon, allowing them to travel and train together.

Zaferes was third in the world last year, her best overall result yet and her first time as the top American. She also placed second in the 2017 Grand Final, ending a string of fading in season-ending events.

This year, Zaferes has five podiums in seven starts. Though she has no wins, that consistency put her slightly ahead of the Olympic bronze medalist Holland going into Gold Coast, even though Holland has three victories this season.

Zaferes said it wouldn’t mean anything less to earn a world title without an individual race win. She believes in delayed gratification. She’s had to wait two years since Rio. There are two more until Tokyo, which could be her final Olympic run with starting a family in consideration.

“If it doesn’t happen now, and this isn’t my moment,” she said of winning in Gold Coast, “it’ll happen in the future.”

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MORE: Gwen Jorgensen sets second marathon

Duffy wins Yokohama in return to ITU World Triathlon Series

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YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — Flora Duffy of Bermuda won Saturday’s ITU World Triathlon Series race, finishing almost two minutes ahead of series leader Katie Zaferes of the United States.

Duffy, the 2016 world champion, clocked 1 hour, 56 minutes, 18 seconds in rainy conditions to win her first event of the season after missing the first two races in Abu Dhabi and Australia due to injury.

Zaferes was second in 1:58:09 while Kirsten Kasper, also of the United States, was third in 1:58:17.

“I didn’t know what I would have in the tank for today,” Duffy said. “I was pretty nervous coming into the race today, I felt like a WTS first-timer, but I had to keep reminding myself that I am the world champ and I need to ride with confidence.”

Yuka Sato of Japan placed 13th for the best finish for the host nation while Andrea Hewitt of the New Zealand, who won the previous race in Australia, was 23rd.

Mario Mola of Spain won the men’s event for his second of the season.

Mola, also a winner in Australia, ended in 1:48:15 to edge compatriot Fernando Alarza, who was second in 1:48.23. Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt was third in 1:48.26.

The series continues on June 10 in Leeds, England, the fourth of nine World Triathlon Series races this year.

MORE: Gwen Jorgensen pregnant, to sit out 2017 triathlon season

Katie Zaferes wins first World Triathlon Series race; Gwen Jorgensen 3rd

Katie Zaferes
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Katie Zaferes re-established herself as an Olympic medal contender, while Gwen Jorgensen suffered just her second defeat in more than two years at the final World Triathlon Series race before Rio in Hamburg on Saturday.

In a sprint race — half the Olympic distance — Zaferes notched her first career World Series win after five runner-up finishes in 2015. It came after Zaferes missed the podium in her previous two World Series starts — 24th at the 2015 Grand Final in Chicago and sixth in Yokohama, Japan, on May 14.

“This beginning of the year wasn’t what I wanted to be, and I wasn’t racing like the Katie I know I am,” Zaferes told the host broadcast after her Hamburg win in 57 minutes, 3 seconds. “[Today] I was the same person I was last year.”

Zaferes prevailed by 11 seconds over the Netherlands’ Rachel Klamer and by 26 seconds over the world champion Jorgensen, who couldn’t erase all of a 1:02 deficit going into the 5km run. Jorgensen made up 44 places in the standings on the run. Full results are here.

“I’m disappointed, a little bit gutted with my race, but to have Katie cross the line first, definitely bittersweet today” Jorgensen said. “It started in the swim, wasn’t the front pack in the swim, just didn’t have it today. I’m not thrilled.”

Jorgensen was 14 seconds behind after the opening 750-meter swim and lost another 48 seconds on the 20-kilometer bike.

“Rio’s a very different race,” Jorgensen said of what lies ahead Aug. 20, when she could become the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion. “It’s Olympic distance, big hill, completely different from this race. But obviously I thought I could have done better today.”

Jorgensen lost for the second time in her last four races.

Brit Helen Jenkins, who came into Saturday as the top threat to Jorgensen, finished 14th in Hamburg in their first head-to-head since Jenkins snapped Jorgensen’s two-year, 12-race World Series winning streak on April 9.

The World Triathlon Series continues after the Olympics, in Edmonton the first weekend of September.

MORE: Men’s triathlon world champion out of Rio