With the racing world mostly on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete is dipping back into the archives and revisit some of the biggest, most inspiring, and somewhat under-the-radar events in triathlon. Today, we’re rewinding back to when American triathlete Katie Zaferes captured the ITU World Championship one year ago this week.
Until Gwen Jorgenson nabbed gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, no American woman had ever won the Olympic triathlon. And, in the five times the sport has been contested in the Games, no country has ever earned back-to-back gold medals.
That may very well have changed in 2020 had the Olympics actually happened, and had Katie Zaferes been able to race in Tokyo this summer as planned. After all, the momentum she had building up to the 2020 season easily positioned her among the top favorites for gold. In fact, it was one year ago this week, Zaferes, 31, earned her very first ITU world championship series title, joining the company of country women like Jorgensen, Karen Smyers, Siri Lindley, and Sheila Taormina (the latter three earning their world titles in the former ITU world championship system, which was revamped in 2009).
Zaferes’ title may have seemed like a natural and obvious progression from 2016 to 2019, when she placed fifth, fourth, third, and second sequentially. But her build-up to the coronation was far from flawless. While she did break the tape in Abu Dhabi, Bermuda, Montreal, and Yokohama (where she led the first-ever All-American ITU podium sweep alongside Summer Rappaport and Taylor Spivey), she also crashed in races prior to the Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland. The first, at the rainy Hamburg ITU race in July, she was unable to avoid a collision when another rider went down on the slick road. After fixing her chain, Zaferes rejoined the race, but finished a disappointing 35th.
Then, at the Olympic test event in Tokyo the following month, Zaferes “made a mistake and looked back and hit a barrier” during the bike, crashing into a concrete barrier. Her mouth and nose took the brunt of it, and she was taken to the hospital from the bike course, stalling her chances of an early Olympic qualification. “I have 23 stitches in my mouth from when my gums separated on impact in my lower mouth, a broken nose and some bumps and bruises but luckily nothing too serious,” she later reported. Still, just two weeks after walking out of the ER, Zaferes was in Lausanne, toeing the line of her biggest race yet.
Later, Zaferes expressed she had some doubt going into the Lausanne final given her injuries and said she took some of the bike corners less aggressively than usual. But once she hit the run–her speciality, as she was a stand-out high school and college track athlete–she showed nothing but steely determination and grit. In the final stretches, she outsprinted Great Britain’s Jessica Learmoth, winning by just four seconds. Zaferes’ finish–and the story behind her nearly unbelievable bounce-back–made headlines around the world.
And she wasn’t done just yet. Zaferes jumped right back into racing, taking on the Super League race series in September, ultimately finishing her season with a win in Malta over a and sealing herself as the one woman to watch going into 2020.
Granted, 2020’s season was severely stunted due to the global pandemic, and, as a result, Zaferes hasn’t competed in nearly a year. But one race remains, and it’s a big one: This Saturday, at the Hamburg Wasser World Triathlon event, competing on a sprint-distance course, Zaferes will finally have the chance to race–and a chance to defend her world title.