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Syracuse Track Alum Katie Zaferes on Her Road to Rio

The two-time All-American, and five-time All-Big East performer at Syracuse is now a professional triathlete, preparing to represent the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympics

ITU World Triathlon Hamburg - Day 1 Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Many college graduates would welcome the opportunity to have their first job take them around the world. When Syracuse Orange distance standout Katie Zaferes finished her collegiate career, she did just that, but for Zaferes her job isn’t one that benefits from multi-tasking, her job requires it. The two-time All-American, and five-time All-Big East performer at Syracuse is now a professional triathlete, preparing to represent the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Zaferes had a breakthrough season in 2015, but fell short of grabbing the final spot for the US Olympic Team. With two of the three spots locked up, she entered this season chasing that remaining spot, and had to wait even longer to make sure her Olympic dream would become a reality.

Fresh off her first career World Triathlon Series win in Hamburg last weekend, Katie will head to Rio as a medal contender and she was kind enough to take a few minutes during her training to talk about her journey after Syracuse, and what she’s looking forward to next month in Rio.

Coming into this season, there was only one spot remaining on the Olympic team. Did you feel a lot of pressure to grab that spot? What was it like mentally to go through months of training knowing it was down to the final spot?

There definitely was more pressure coming into this season. Last season I had fun chasing after Gwen and Sarah, but once they qualified for the Olympics I felt like then I was being hunted down by all my other fellow American women (not in a bad way, just in a way that everyone is going for that same final spot). Mentally it was more tough, but it definitely made me stronger and also really brought my weaknesses in front of me full fledge. I had to really work mentally and physically during training to make sure that I didn’t give up a spot on the Olympic team that I felt I deserved.

You had to wait a few days to officially get your Olympic invitation, what were the emotions during this time?

There were plenty of emotions during that week, I would say the first couple days after the race were the worse. 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 (If I would have finished on the podium in Yokohama I would have clinched an automatic qualification). However, I have an amazing support network with my family, friends, husband, teammates and the rest of the triathlon community. Also it really helped that USAT was willing to keep me updated on the process as much as I wanted to be updated.

When you finally get the call that you’ve officially made the team, what’s your initial thought?

I felt relieved. I was so happy that everything I had worked for these past three years came together and that my dream of representing the USA at the Olympics was becoming a reality.

You are only in your 4th year as a pro triathlete, and you have 6 podium finishes in your 18 career World Triathlon Series. Does it surprise you to have reached this level so quickly? (Last year Katie finished 5th overall in the WTS rankings)

It does surprise me and it doesn’t. When I first started triathlon after graduating Syracuse in 2012 I would have never thought qualifying for the next Olympics would be realistic. However, I was so lucky to have so much assistance in my development as a triathlete through the collegiate recruitment program. They provided me with all the necessary resources, skills and knowledge to succeed. I was given the opportunity to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, given one on one skills session, all the equipment was provided, and we got lessons from many different experts in the sport. As soon as I graduated from the CRP I was lucky enough to join my current coach, Joel Filliol’s squad. It is such an awesome and experienced group of people; this year we have ten out of fourteen of us going to the Olympics. This pathway really enhanced my chances of qualifying for Rio in that I’ve been lucky enough to always be in the best situation for my development as a triathlete.

You were a successful distance runner at Syracuse, so can you tell us how you first became involved in triathlons? Was it something you were considering, or were you approached by someone else with the idea?

I did my very first triathlon with my dad in 2007 on Father’s Day. It was something I was just doing for fun and had no intent on focusing on seriously at that time. A few years into running at Syracuse University I received a call from Barb Lindquist who is the head of the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program. She informed me about the program which recruits runners/swimmers competing at the division I level with a background in the other. The theory being that the bike can be taught relatively easily. With that phone call came a lot of opportunities. I began to dabble in triathlon at an age group level in 2011/2012 but at the time I was still competing for Syracuse under a scholarship so that was my focus. Upon graduating I really dove into the program and took advantage of all the opportunities that were presented to me.

What does the training schedule look like for you now? How would you describe the difference in training from X-C/Track at Syracuse to training to compete at the elite level in triathlons?

I train 25 hours a week, about 6 hours of swimming, 12 hours of riding, 7 hours of running and then strength work. I would say the biggest different from Syracuse is just my whole life is devoted to triathlon. While I was running in college I was still going to classes and babysitting and such. Now I really do only eat, sleep and train. My running workouts are similar/longer than what I did at Syracuse, but my mileage is not as high due to the fact I now have swimming and biking to add to the schedule.

Is there an area where you still feel you need to improve?

Definitely the bike, mainly on my technical and tactical skills when racing. I also always feel like there is room for my mental game to be enhanced.

Does being married to a fellow elite triathlete make the training easier? Do you find it helpful to have someone who understands the demands of the sport, and the sacrifices needed to stay competitive?

Being married to a fellow elite triathlete definitely makes the training easier. Especially when we are at home in the US and not with our training squad and coach it is so much easier getting motivated to start the workouts of the day knowing that I will have company for each one. It is also helpful to have someone who is understanding of what it takes. Tommy is so awesome with helping me to make the right decisions for me and my training and racing. He understands when all I want to do is take a nap and why we don’t go out very much. To be honest he is actually better with enforcing that for me than myself. Often I like to try and make trips or explore things which sounds good in theory but the extra amount of energy is not always worth it at that time. I love that I can go to him for advice and that I don’t have to worry about explaining to him too much when I am grumpy because I am overly fatigued or had a bad workout.

A lot of the talk about Rio has to do with concerns leading up to the Games. As a 1st-time Olympian, do you worry about conditions there and how it will impact your strategy/preparation?

I do not, having gone to the Rio Test event last year I am acquainted with the area and the Rio de Janeiro experience. Obviously having the games there this year will make things more busy, but the actual conditions are not something that I worry about. We also have a great team of people from both the USOC and USA triathlon who have taken great care of keeping us informed leading up to the event and will be there at the event.

Other than competing, what are you most looking forward to as part of the Olympic experience?

It’s hard to say, because I honestly can’t say that I’ve been to anything like the Olympics. I’m looking forward to being surrounded by great athletes. I’m really looking forward to staying in the Olympic Village after my race and representing the USA in the closing ceremonies. I’m also so excited to be reunited with fellow athletes that I have met along this journey who are also going to be experiencing the Olympic dream, especially my fellow Orange men and women :)

Syracuse fans can follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @kzaferes6, on her Facebook Athlete Page: Katie Zaferes Triathlete, or her website: Thanks to Katie for her time, and to her husband Tommy for the photos to accompany this story. We’ll be following her, and other Orange athletes, in Rio next month.