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Olympics

Recalled: Katie Zaferes’ 2016 Olympic Waiting Game

Now the top-ranked athlete in the world, Zaferes will once again go after an Olympic berth in Yokohama.

This weekend, the world’s top triathletes in standard distance draft-legal racing will square off in the much anticipated Yokohama World Triathlon Championship Series. Not only will it mark the return of WTCS racing since the start of the pandemic, but it’s also the final automatic Olympic qualifier for the U.S. For some athletes, Friday’s race may feel like deja vu: Yokohama also served as the sight of an Olympic qualification in May, 2016. One of those athletes? Katie Zaferes, the current world leader who is, by most accounts, primed to seal up her Olympic spot. But that wasn’t quite the case five years ago, when Zaferes left Yokohama with a giant question mark shrouding her Olympian status. Here’s a look back at how it all went down in 2016.

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10 days.

That’s how long American triathlete Katie Zaferes had to wait to find out if she made the 2016 Olympic team. From the time she crossed the finish line of a race in Yokohama, Japan to the time she got a phone call from USA Triathlon, a week-and-a-half had passed. And, for Zaferes, a collegiate runner-turned-triathlete from Hampstead, Maryland, that wait might as well have been an eternity. 

The U.S. Olympic triathlon selection process is at once straightforward and complex. Straight forward in that there are certain test events where the top American finisher can earn an automatic berth on the Olympic squad. Summer Rappaport, for example, placed fifth at the Tokyo ITU World Olympic Qualification Event and locked up her spot back in August of 2019, a race Zaferes crashed out of. (In 2016, Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah True had each nabbed their Olympic spots by placing in the top 8 in an event in Rio the previous summer). 

The selection process is complex in that at the final qualifying race, an automatic spot is given to the top U.S. athlete who places on the podium. If an American fails to place first, second, or third, then the selection is named “via discretion by the USA Triathlon Games Athletes Selection Committee,” according to USAT. (Read more about this year’s selection process here.)

For Zaferes in 2016, placing on the podium at an elite event wasn’t too tall an order for the then-27-year-old—going into the Yokohama race, she was ranked in the top ten in the world. But then again, the 2016 Yokohama field was stacked with the planet’s fastest women in the distance—including the dominant Jorgensen, who had won in Yokohama for three years straight (not to mention the world championship in 2015, among several other titles). With Jorgensen heavily favored for yet another series win, that meant one less podium position for those Americans waiting in the wings with Olympic dreams, including Zaferes, Kirsten Kasper, Renee Tomlin, and Lindsey Jerdonek.

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Yes, landing on the podium was going to be tougher than ever. But Zaferes was up for the challenge. She swam strong and biked well. And while Zaferes ran fast (her 33:46 time over 10K was the third speediest in the field), so did many of her competitors, and she couldn’t reel in the women in front of her who had gapped her slightly on the bike. She finished sixth in 1:57:35, off the podium by just 10 seconds. Zaferes would leave Japan without sealing her spot on Team USA—and with the rest of her season hanging in the balance. 

All Zaferes could hold onto was hope as she waited for the selection committee to convene and decide. She had an excellent body of work and the rankings to back it, but there was a chance the U.S. discretionary committee could opt to go for team tactics and choose a “domestique,” or a swim and bike specialist to help a potential medal contender through the first two legs in Rio. (Great Britain’s Helen Jenkins, for example, relied on domestiques Lucy Hall and Vicky Holland to get her into medal contention in the 2012 London Games, although she ultimately finished fifth.)

So, she returned to her home near Santa Cruz, California with her husband, Tommy, who credited his wife for doing “an amazing job going on with normal life during the selection period.” She continued to train, knowing that there’d be races ahead regardless if one of them would be in Rio or not. But she also second-guessed herself. And stressed. 

“There were plenty of emotions during that week, I would say the first couple days after the race were the worst,” Zaferes admitted. “Just feeling anxious and also disappointed in myself for not really having the race I know I was capable of to automatically claim the last spot and not have to wait at all.”

And finally, around 4:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon, Zaferes’ phone rang. It was Andy Schmitz, the high performance general manager for USA Triathlon. With Zaferes still in her workout gear from an earlier session and clutching a water bottle, she answered as Tommy hit record on his phone. “So I get to go to the Olympics, and on my own accord?” Zaferes is shown asking in the video, which he posted on Instagram and was later picked up by Sports Illustrated. “OK, I just want to be sure that’s what I’m getting.”

Zaferes was indeed getting to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian, but her story was just beginning. While she went on to place 18th in Rio, she soon became a superstar on the WTS circuit, winning the 2019 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final Lausanne. And now, as the world watches yet again, Zaferes is set to have history repeat itself by earning yet another Olympic berth—but hopefully, for her sake, in a more immediate way.