How the most unlikely couple in triathlon found love
Katie Zaferes laughed when asked if it was love at first sight with her now husband, Tommy Zaferes.
“I honestly don’t remember our first encounter,” she said.
Tommy sure does. They found themselves in an elevator together at a 2013 World Triathlon Series race in San Diego when Tommy tried to introduce himself.
“She didn’t say anything,” he said. “It’s like I wasn’t there.”
Three years later, they are the most prominent couple in the professional triathlon world. They entered a June race together and crossed the finish line holding hands. Tommy, the son of two professional photographers, can often be found taking pictures of Katie during her races.
But their second interaction was not much better than their first.
A group of U.S. triathletes went out to dinner the night before a 2013 race in Tiszaujvaros, Hungary. Tommy thought Katie took too long to make up her mind about what to order. Hungry and annoyed, Tommy passed the time waiting for their food by peppering Katie with personal questions, such as how many kids she wanted.
“I’m not the kind of person who likes to be on the spot too much,” she said. “These were the kind of questions that people always feel concerned about answering in front of other people.”
Just when Katie thought the night could not get any more uncomfortable, it did.
“I think he farted at me as he walked away,” she said, laughing.
Everything changed during their third encounter.
The next night, after Katie won the women’s race and Tommy finished 16th in the men’s race, the U.S. triathletes went to a party together. Tommy was not interested in going, but as fate would have it, he ended up getting dragged by his roommate, Joe Maloy.
When they gathered in the lobby, Tommy, who does not drink, noticed that Katie, who was engaged at the time, was also sober.
They talked on their way to the party, and when they arrived, disappeared to a table in the corner.
“We never ran out of anything to say,” Katie said. “Everything just clicked.”
Maloy smiled as he watched his roommate start to dance with Katie.
“I have never seen anyone click as fast as they did,” Maloy said. “I knew it was something special right away.”
Katie and Tommy decided to leave the party early. On the walk back to the hotel, they discovered an open field and paused to lie down on the wet grass and stare up at the sky.
“We were just like two little kids just in the backyard looking up at the stars,” Katie said.
When Katie looked at her watch, she was startled to discover that hours had passed and it was already 5 a.m. They had been talking for nearly 12 consecutive hours.
They rushed back to the hotel, and Tommy helped Katie pack for her flight.
Their conversation stopped for the first time as Katie’s taxi pulled up to the hotel. Katie did not know how to say goodbye to Tommy. She considered giving him her number, but stopped herself.
“That was a line I didn’t want to cross,” she said. “I knew I was engaged.”
Katie could not sleep on her flight back to the United States, despite having been awake for more than 24 consecutive hours.
“I had never experienced that fairytale feeling where people say, ‘when you know, you know,’ until I met Tommy,” she said. “I didn’t know if Tommy was going to want to date me or even want to hang out with me, but I did know that I wanted that feeling again.”
Tommy was experiencing similar emotions. He could not stop talking about Katie when he went for a long bike ride a couple of days later with fellow U.S. triathlete Sarah True.
“It was obvious that he was instantly head over heels for her,” True said. “He was just bursting with great energy.”
When Katie landed in the United States, she shared her feelings while on a run with fellow U.S. triathlete Chelsea Burns. By the end of the run, it was obvious to Katie, who had already sent her save-the-date notices, that she needed to call off her engagement.
Katie had her parents drive her to her fiancé’s house. Knowing that she would get flustered, Katie scripted what she wanted to say when she returned her engagement ring.
Afterwards, on the ride back to her parents’ house, she asked her father if he knew that she and her ex-fiancé were not meant to be.
“He goes, ‘Well, when your daughter seems happy, you never want to be the one to ruin that,’” Katie said.
Katie was initially hesitant to tell Tommy that she had called off her engagement.
“I didn’t want him to think that I was crazy,” she said.
“From that point on,” he said, “we never stopped talking.”
With Katie living in Colorado and Tommy training in Spain, their interactions were limited to Skype calls for more than a month until they both arrived in Las Vegas for a race. They had their first real date at a pizza restaurant in a Las Vegas mall.
“It wasn’t awkward at all,” Tommy said. “It was like no time had passed.”
When it came time to order, they both said “Hawaiian pizza” at exactly the same time.
They then had their first kiss on Las Vegas Boulevard, and it was Katie who made the first move.
“She was very aggressive,” Tommy said, laughing. “Coming at me like an earthquake.”
Their second date involved simply grabbing burritos during a layover at an airport in Houston on their way to a race in Cozumel, Mexico.
“We don’t go to a lot of fancy dinners,” Katie said. “They cost a lot and you don’t get much food.”
Tommy suffered a heat stroke during a race in June 2014, nine months after he started dating Katie. While in the hospital, he told Katie that he loved her for the first time. But he was experiencing short-term memory loss, so he said it again minutes later.
“She didn't want to tell me that I had already told her, but she said both times I said it were equally as genuine,” Tommy said. “I was actually waiting to say I love you for the first time when I proposed to her, but apparently I couldn't wait that long.”
Three months later, just days before their one-year anniversary, Tommy asked Katie to marry him. While on a run on a trail in Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz, Calif., the couple stopped at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. While Katie scanned the water for dolphins, Tommy reached for his great grandmother’s engagement ring, which he had been hiding under the tongue of his shoe.
“It was perfect,” Katie said. “It was so true to us and what we like to do.”
Another three months later and they were married.
“We planned our wedding from four or five different countries while travelling and racing,” Tommy said.
It is now rare to find the couple apart. They live together in Santa Cruz, Calif. They both train with coach Joel Filliol. They travel to every race together.
“We once said goodbye to each other,” Katie said. “It was really weird.”
Added Tommy, “We can’t be like, ‘Oh, what did you do today?’ Because the answer would be, ‘Well, I did the exact same thing as you.’”
The constant togetherness has occasionally caused tension. Katie describes herself as “calm,” while Tommy says he is more “high energy.” Katie admits that she has stormed off when Tommy annoyed her, or when he acted too “coach-y.” But improved communication has led to less conflicts.
“When we first started our relationship, she would never say that I was bothering her, so I would never know,” Tommy said. “Now she’ll just tell me, ‘Alright, you have way too much energy for me. I don’t have that energy right now.’ So I’ll tone it down.”
Katie will compete in Rio, along with True and Gwen Jorgensen. She is a medal threat after winning the final World Triathlon Series race before the Olympics.
Tommy finished sixth in USA Triathlon’s Objective Rankings System, with the top three earning spots to compete in Rio. But he did not enter several key qualifying races, and said that he “didn’t really try to get closer to qualifying.”
Instead Tommy will be in Rio as a spectator, supporting his wife and posting to his popular social media accounts. He posts what he describes as “dumb triathlon jokes” to his Twitter account, @tzaferes, which has more followers than any of the three U.S. male triathletes who will compete in Rio.
“Tommy is very witty,” Jorgensen said. “He always has a funny joke.”
During the Olympic women’s triathlon race on August 20, Tommy plans on photographing his wife. Afterwards he will treat Katie to her favorite post-race meal: ice cream and a burger, in that order.
“I don’t know how I got so lucky,” Katie said.