North Carroll graduate Katie Zaferes will compete with the U.S. Olympic Triathlon team in the upcoming Tokyo Games in honor of her late father, Bill Hursey, who passed away in April at the age of 60.
“It was really unexpected,” Zaferes said of her father’s passing on Glenn Clark Radio July 6. “The worst fear I ever had was losing my parents. You know you’re going to lose your parents eventually, but not as early. With my dad, he’s so intertwined in my triathlon career and journey.”
The first person with whom Zaferes ever competed in a triathlon — a race consisting of swimming, cycling and running — was Hursey.
Zaferes was training in Europe for an Olympic qualifying event when she received the news of her father’s passing. Shattered from the news, Zaferes headed home and did not prioritize training. However, the 32-year-old soon realized that Hursey would want her to continue her Olympic training and make the family proud.
So Zaferes headed back to Europe.
While she tried to stay strong, Zaferes said her first event following Hursey’s death was a challenge emotionally. Zaferes was devastated, knowing she would have to compete without the pre-race text messages that her father would normally send her. They were always filled with the swimmer, biker, runner and heart emojis. She immediately thought, “All right dad, you need to help me. You need to be here with me.”
“After that race, I was like, ‘You know what, as nice of a thought that is, I’ve never relied on anyone for racing. I always enjoyed bringing people along for the journey, but not depending on them for a specific outcome or for me to do well,'” Zaferes said. “And so moving on, I know that my dad’s watching me but he’s watching me in the same way he always has, and when it comes to triathlon, I know what to do.”
Heading into Tokyo, Zaferes knows her father would want her to do her very best.
“As long as we do [our best], he’s proud of us … so my plan is to race hard and have fun,” Zaferes said.
Zaferes will not just compete in honor of her father at the Games — she also credits him for introducing her to triathlons in the first place.
The Carroll County native entered high school with the intent to play lacrosse and soccer and to swim. After deciding that she no longer wanted to play lacrosse, Zaferes began running in order to stay in shape for soccer. She started focusing solely on running, and with her dad encouraging her, she began to enjoy more success the more she ran. Zaferes was a state champ multiple times in high school.
After high school, Zaferes competed in track and field and cross country at Syracuse University. While running for the Orange, Zaferes broke several school records in the steeplechase event. During this time, Zaferes also competed in her first triathlon with her father.
“I really liked having the three disciplines and after learning how to do the bike, I’m like, ‘It’s my type of sport,’ in the sense that you can’t get bored,” Zaferes said.
Zaferes’ hard work paid off, as she was discovered by the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program for her background as a swimmer and Division I runner.
She began competing in the sport professionally in 2013 and made her first Olympic appearance three years later in Rio. Although she was honored to be there, Zaferes felt disappointed with her performance, as she was still just learning the sport. She finished 18th in the women’s triathlon (1.5 km of swimming, 40 km of cycling and 10 km of running).
“I had just been learning and didn’t really have it nailed with the professionalism of triathlon and learning my sport and now taking ownership of it,” Zaferes said.
And she continued to train, ultimately improving her skills.
In 2017, Zaferes won a silver medal at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final, a bronze medal at the ITU World Triathlon Edmonton and a silver medal at the ITU World Triathlon Yokohama.
In 2018, she won the ITU World Triathlon Series silver medal after finishing third place at the Grand Final. She also earned a bronze medal at the ITU World Triathlon Hamburg, marking her fourth consecutive medal in the ITU World Triathlon Series.
Zaferes then won the overall Super League Triathlon Women’s Championship title at the end of the 2018-2019 series in Spain and won the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final. She continued to shine in 2020, finishing in the top five at the Hamburg World Triathlon Series and secured sixth place at the Arzachena ITU Triathlon World Cup.
This year, Zaferes has secured 22nd place at the World Triathlon Series opener and placed 18th at the AJ Bell World Triathlon Championship Series Leeds.
Today, Zaferes is looking forward to competing in Tokyo and making her family and friends proud, noting that she strongly enjoyed the “community aspect” the 2016 Olympic Games brought, with her family, friends, hometown, Syracuse and training sites all rallying around her.
Zaferes is eagerly awaiting the opening and closing ceremonies, where she will be surrounded by other Team USA athletes, passing the torch and proudly representing their country.
Heading into the games, Zaferes knows she has to perform her best, like her father always encouraged her to.
“I think I really just have to race like me, which is a really nice feeling to know that if I race at my best then my best should be good enough and I don’t have to do anything super crazy,” Zaferes said. “… I’m really looking forward to just using everything I learned since Rio and putting it into place for Tokyo.”
To hear more from Zaferes, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Wagner Araujo/World Triathlon