Aptos’ triathlon super couple: Katie, Tommy Zaferes to tackle Tokyo course together, from different vantages
Katie Zaferes, along with husband Tommy, are living out her Olympic dream in Tokyo at the Summer Games. Katie was preparing for the Olympic Trials this spring when her father suddenly died. The mental strength she’s been working on has helped put her in a strong position nonetheless.
Katie Zaferes was on track to regain her footing as America’s top female triathlete, only weeks away from the Olympic trials, when she got the news: Her father, Bill, the one who had introduced her to the sport, had unexpectedly died.
Fortunately, the 32-year-old Aptos-based veteran of the sport had been spending extra time on her mental training. Because despite completing a subpar race while dealing with her grief, Katie still believed in herself and believed she deserved another Olympic shot.
USA Triathlon, looking at her pedigree (23 World Triathlon Series medals, including six gold medals, a 2016 Olympian and a 2019 world champion), agreed.
“That was a pretty intense period that showed her what it was like emotionally to race without her dad,” says her husband, Tommy Zaferes. “She got that out of the way and showed herself she could do it. And she told the committee, ‘I can do this, I can get to the podium.’”
DOING IT FOR DAD
Katie Zaferes takes bronze in Tokyo
She was third out of the water, the first to finish the bike and head to the run. That’s where Zaferes hung on and refused to let the medal stand slip away. More on her impressive result from USA Today
Her disappointing 18th-place finish at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro had left a bad taste and helped her commitment to making changes to her regimen. So when Katie lines up at 2:30 Monday afternoon (Pacific time) in Tokyo, she will feel fortunate just to get this second chance, but also more confident that she can better handle the emotional rigors of such a moment the second time around.
“She’s more dialed for these Olympics than she has been for any race,” her husband says.
Tommy, an Aptos High graduate, will have his moment on that course Monday, too, but he’ll have his head tucked behind a camera lens, chronicling the action for World Triathlon.
Tommy was going after his own Olympic dreams in 2014 when he pushed too hard and nearly suffered the ultimate consequence. The early summer heat of Texas during the Dallas Pan American Championships took his body past its limits, and he suffered a seizure less than a mile from the finish.
Though he still somehow crossed the finish line, the type of seizure he suffered put him in a coma for 19 hours. His doctors told him they had never seen someone survive that type of condition. He not only recovered, but returned to racing — even winning his hometown event, the Tri Santa Cruz, just four months later.
But Tommy promised his parents, family and friends he would compete in only lower-temperature climates for fun while helping his wife keep her own Olympic dreams going — even if sometimes that promise is hard to keep.
As he trains his lens on the Tokyo course where his wife will be swimming, biking and running toward a medal Monday, Tommy seems content tapping into Katie’s Olympic energy. Being an essential part of Team Zaferes.
We caught up with Tommy via Zoom from Banyoles, Spain, before he and Katie departed for Tokyo. We talked about their brief stints living in a custom-built tiny house on his sister’s property in Corralitos, how he’ll miss surfing Manresa and Moss Landing now that he and Katie have settled into a new life in Cary, North Carolina, and the next chapter in their lives post-Olympics that will have him studying up on diaper-duty procedures here soon.
You guys have been training in Spain. But how is Santa Cruz for training?
Well, there’s two different ways to look at it. I really like Santa Cruz for training, it’s awesome. But the problem is the ocean is very cold, it has sharks, so people are scared of sharks, and then the pool situation is very challenging if you’re trying to train with a group. But when we’re there, just me and Katie, since I grew up there, and I’m by myself and I have the connections and I know the schedule and I have a place to live and I know all the roads and everything — for me it’s awesome.
What are your favorite zones?
Because we live in Aptos, we’re always going south to like Watsonville and Corralitos to bike. If we have a really long ride, then we’ll venture out to Scotts Valley or across Santa Cruz and up to Bonny Doon. But mainly we are riding out on farm roads in Watsonville and up into the mountains. And the Santa Cruz running scene is so awesome — we’re very spoiled. You’re going to like Nisene Marks and just going down to the coast, running along the beach. You have West Cliff to Natural Bridges, you have Wilder Ranch, you have the Pogonip. You have all these different places within such a short span of area.
Talk about how your career took a turn in 2014.
Yeah, I had a heatstroke and seizures and then was in a coma for 19 hours. So that kind of put a stop to my career as like a full-on professional. At that point I wasn’t sure if I was even able to train again. But then I was and I did a couple more races and I was able to actually be competitive. But I decided to take a step back because a lot of the races to qualify for the Olympics were in hot places and hot areas, and I can’t compete in the heat anymore.
Wow, it sounds like you were really lucky to have survived that.
Yeah, I lost my memory for a week and they weren’t sure if it was going to come back or not. So everything I know is just from the stories of what people told me. Basically, I made it through the race, I think I was seventh. Another competitor from Chile guided me to keep me on the course but I had no idea what was going on and the second I stepped across the line I just fell over. I was airlifted to the hospital. Katie was in London at the time. USA Triathlon had my parents fly out from California. And so, Katie knew it was pretty bad. The doctors didn’t think I was going to survive because most people they’ve seen in that state, they need major organ transplants. And if they don’t need major organ transplants, usually they have brain damage. They were flabbergasted.
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Is what happened to you a normal occurrence for triathletes and endurance athletes?
No. I mean, people have had heatstroke before but what I had, the heatstroke plus the seizures, that is very rare. So I basically decided OK, it’s a little bit dangerous if I’m going to compete full-time and try to make the Olympics and have the race in these hot places, so instead I’m just going to start racing for fun and I can pick and choose my races, but then mainly focus my energy on training with Katie as her career was skyrocketing.
How tough was that for you?
I fought it for a while. I did not want to really stop, and I did try to go back to a few races, but it just wasn’t happening. And so the combination of Katie and my parents and others not wanting me to race in the heat anymore and then also my experiences of, oh man, my body is not able to do this anymore, it kind of made it a lot easier because I’m like, ‘All right, I’m not physically able to do this.’ I was accepting of it because I knew that when I looked at the big picture, it’s gonna be impossible for me to actually qualify for the Olympics.
The Olympics are prestigious, but Katie’s 2019 world title is the real deal within the sport of triathlon, right?
There’s nothing else like the Olympics so the importance is extremely high. But within the sport, not all the best people are at the Olympics because there’s only three people allowed per country. So there’s all these athletes who are left out. Katie winning the world title in 2019 is probably more of an accomplishment than winning the Olympics.
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But not doing well in Rio spurred her forward?
Yeah, it was a big turning point for her because she finished 18th, which at that time was not good for her. So after that she kind of turned a leaf and started talking to a sports psychologist, started doing all these little things, started focusing on this instead of that and like changed a bunch of stuff up — and then that’s when her career just started going, and she went from fifth in the world to fourth in the world to third in the world to second in the world and then in 2019 was the world champion, so each year she just progressed and progressed.
So she was right where she wanted to be headed toward Tokyo 2020.
Yeah, she was obviously the gold medal favorite as 2020 came around, and then COVID hit and the season kind of got pushed back, the Olympics got canceled and everything was crazy. So we took a step back, we were living with her parents in Maryland, just because we didn’t know what was gonna happen with the season. We ended up taking some vacations, going with the family to the beach and just doing things that we don’t normally get to do and experiencing stuff that we usually miss because we’re racing.
But now in 2021, she just flipped the switch, she turned it on, she’s 100 percent focused, dialed in. But when we first got over to Europe, to join our training group, her father passed away unexpectedly. So we ended up having to go back home. And we basically did no training for two weeks. It was the hardest emotional thing you can possibly go through, and then she had to get out of that mindset and then go back to Europe. She only had two weeks to train for the Olympic trials, and then of course they did not go as expected. An athlete crashed in front of her, so then she crashed and had to get back up and keep riding and she ended up finishing 22nd.
So USA Triathlon ultimately chose her over a younger rider who had better finishes because of all her experience, right?
Yeah, they had to choose between someone who is performing well right now and somebody who has medal potential because she’s proven it in the past. So that was a pretty intense period that showed her what it was like emotionally to be there without her dad. And now 100 percent she flipped the switch back. She’s dialed in, she’s had like six weeks of full focus, and she’s more dialed for the Olympics than she has been for any race.
You will be there shooting photos but will hardly even be able to see Katie. How much will you be channeling your own Olympic experience through her?
I felt that way even in Rio, even if she had a bad race I was like, it feels like I’m here. It feels like it’s our accomplishment and like, over the last five years, it’s felt even more like that because we train 20 hours a week together, we travel everywhere together, we’re never apart. So it really does feel like anything that she accomplishes, I feel the gratitude and it feels like I was part of it and I feel the satisfaction, too.
Post-Olympic plans talked about yet?
Yeah, we had planned to start a family right after the Olympics in 2020. So that got pushed a year. Right after this season, we’re gonna start trying to have a family.
You guys moved to Cary, North Carolina, in January. How’d you pick that as the destination?
So Katie had actually Googled “Best places to live in the United States” and Cary came up. With us traveling all the time we hadn’t had a chance to check it out, but because of COVID we were living with Katie’s parents in Maryland and Cary is just a five-hour drive south. So we went for a few weeks, got Airbnbs in different areas and thought, “This is so awesome.” Everyone is super nice, super friendly. Everything just fell into place so perfectly, we’re like, this was meant to be like it has to hit this was supposed to happen so it kind of led us to that spot.
So you and Katie were doing the tiny home thing here in Santa Cruz for a while, right?
Yeah, so Katie really liked the tiny house TV shows — she would watch them all the time. And so I kind of jokingly said we should just get on one. Turns out one of our agents worked with the host of “Tiny House Nation.” We talked to them, and they don’t give you the house but you get everything at cost. So it ended up working out extremely well. We got to customize the tiny house for our life, mocking up the exact house that we wanted with all the storage for bikes and area to ride indoors if we needed to. Then Katie wanted a full bathtub; she loves taking a bath and so they actually had to put the bathtub in first and build the whole house around it, and so it was a pretty cool process.
Where to put a tiny house is still the toughest part, right?
Yeah, the most complicated part was making a space for it. My sister and brother-in-law have two and a half acres out in Corralitos. So we made a space for it at their place and ran electrical out there, got all the permits and stuff for that and yeah, we had to spend quite a bit of money getting the property ready to put the tiny house there.
What will you guys miss the most about this place?
Family. And just going to the beach, going surfing with my brother-in-law down at the beaches or Moss, skateparks, hanging out with my nephews. Going for hikes. Also burritos ... missing the burritos and taquerias.