A Rhodes Scholar’s sporting life
Written by: Timothy Carlson
Date: Thu Dec 06 2012
After graduating from the University of Stellenbosch in 2009, she won an internationally renowned Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University in England starting in 2010 where she read for her Masters in Applied Statistics and is currently studying for her MBA. During her studies at Oxford, Rabie became discouraged by her injuries and contemplated retirement from elite sports at the beginning of 2012.
Reluctant to abandon her passion, Rabie contacted famed South African running coach Bobby McGee working in Boulder, Colorado and agreed to try a running program carefully crafted to avoid overuse during her summer off from studies. With three months under McGee’s guidance in Boulder and a few weeks of a low mileage run regimen back at Oxford in early Fall, Rabie signed up for the XTERRA World Championship in Maui in late October.
Thanks to her superior swim background, early exposure to mountain biking back home in Stellenbosch and her revamped running in Boulder, Rabie pulled off a shocker in Maui. Starting with a 90 seconds to 3 minutes lead out of the water, only defending champ Lesley Paterson and current ITU star Barbara Riveros-Diaz went by on the bike. Rabie then held off Heather Jackson to take the final spot on the podium.
Rabie’s result was like a new dawn shining a light on her triathlon future. If she can maintain McGee’s careful moderation in run training, Rabie is contemplating a possible return to ITU racing, more long distance triathlon and likely a return to XTERRA racing that will somehow be fit in with her final year of studies at Oxford.
Mari Rabie: I’m in my second year at Oxford now. My first year was in a Master’s program in applied statistics. And this year I am on the one year MBA program at the Oxford Said Business school.
ST: Where do you stand with your triathlon career?
Mari: I changed my coach in June. I spent the summer [off from Oxford] in Boulder working with Bobby McGee. He is from South Africa and he is a fantastic coach. It was great to work with him over the summer and now in Oxford when things are a bit tough time wise.
ST: What have you done this Fall?
Mari: I went back and started Oxford in the middle of September. It's been hard training because my academic course is really intense. It's like having a full time job. So I have been getting up in the early morning when it is cold and rainy and dark. Sleep is a luxury.
ST: What do you see in your future?
Mari: I have one more year at Oxford and then I think I'm done with studying for now. The main thing is meeting qualifications for graduation. Then I want to go pro and move to the States because triathlon is what I love doing. I also want to be an actuary so will take my actuarial exams while training (I have another 8 to go). And I absolutely love Boulder. It is really amazing. The vibe is so positive. It's just such a great environment.
ST: When did you start training for XTERRA Worlds?
Mari: Actually I got my mountain bike for this race on Wednesday. CHUCKLES
ST: So when did you start riding a mountain bike?
Mari: Two days ago. Not much at all. I rode the course. I raced XTERRA first in 2005 and then 2010 and I won both races.
ST: How did you do so well?
Mari: I grew up in Stellenbosch near Conrad Stoltz, where there are many mountain biking trails. I also grew up biking everywhere – to school, swim practice, friends – and so I spent a lot of time racing boys or my sister. And [fellow South African] Dan Hugo is my neighbor. It is brilliant mountain biking there.
ST: So you grew up accustomed to riding off road?
Mari: Yeah I did a bit of it. But I am terrible. Then in Boulder I didn’t do any and obviously I didn’t do any in the UK recently because it is so muddy now.
Mari: I had a really good swim. I was first woman out of the water [in 21:11, 31 seconds ahead of fellow ITU star Barbara Riveros-Diaz and 3 minutes ahead of XTERRA stars like Lesley Paterson]. I lost my goggles at the end of the first lap of the swim. But then Conrad [Stoltz] came past and I trust that he knew where he’s going. Climbing on the bike leg, wee little girls [Barbara Riveros-Diaz and Lesley Paterson] came past me quite quickly. I was upset I didn’t seem to be biking too well and I was waiting for everyone else to come past me – but they just didn’t. Once I got to Mile 8, I was kind of holding my ground. I like descending, so I kind of just let go.
ST: Were you worn out after your good bike?
Mari: The run was tough – lot of hills. But I've been working on my running in Boulder with Bobby McGee and obviously felt strong. I thought I was solidly in 3rd and stupidly cruised a bit. But when I got to the beach [in the last half mile] someone shouted ‘Heather Jackson is right behind you!’ So I had to really dig in and run.
[Rabie had a 3:20 lead on Jackson after the swim, gave back 1:01 on the bike and 2:13 on the run. With slightly better transitions factored in, she topped Jackson by 17 seconds at the finish to take the final spot on the podium. Rabie finished 11 minutes back of Paterson and 7 minutes back of Riveros-Diaz.]
I was happy to hang on to 3rd place. I mean it is so unexpected -- I’m over the moon – doing this while studying at Oxford.
ST: And you got a substantial check!
Mari: That helps. I’m a student.
ST: If your triathlon performance continues on this good streak, what might you do after finishing Oxford?
Mari: Triathlon is what I love doing. If you are at Oxford, people ask you ‘What do you want to do when you are done with your MBA?’ I say, “I want to run around in Lycra.’ Surprisingly, people at Oxford encourage me. Besides, the MBA work can always wait. But I won’t always be able to do this.
ST: Might you try long course events?
Mari: I raced two 70.3s in 2010. I actually ran 1:19 in one of them – just 90 seconds slower than the men’s winner. So I am a good runner and think I have potential for being a solid long course athlete.
ST: Where did that run talent come from?
Mari: I come from a running family I guess. My dad was a 2:16 marathoner. But since the Beijing Olympics I’ve had three stress fractures and two Achilles issues. I’ve been running straight through since June, so this is actually the longest stretch I’ve run injury-free since Beijing. So I am optimistic if I can just hold it without injury.
Mari: In April I was considering giving up the sport. I was training so hard and constantly getting injured. So I contacted Bobby McGee and said ‘I have my summer. Let’s work. And then you tell me at the end of it if you think I can make it or not.’
ST: Why were you getting injured so often?
Mari: I’m a big perfectionist and I also push myself too hard. If something hurt, I would just push through it. So Bobby worked on my mental skills and letting me accept it is OK to back off sometimes.
ST: And he tried to drum it into you that you are not a machine?.
Mari: Yeah, basically.
ST: He must have changed your mindset and told you if you hurt there is a reason for it? That those injuries were not something to ignore?
Mari: Exactly. He just really slowly worked me up. Really slowly and very controlled. I wasn't allowed to run on tar or concrete at all. Very strict.
ST: You used to like to run on the streets?
Mari: Back in the day, yeah. But Boulder has such great trails – amazing – and that’s helped me stay healthy.
ST: Do you have a favorite trail?
Mari: Definitely Mesa. But Bobby says he can’t take me anywhere on anything that's not the easy ones because I have this thing where I have to get to the top of the hill first wherever I go. CHUCKLES. Yeah. I am really excited to work with him. And I definitely want to do some more 70.3s a bit later in life.
ST: You are 26 now, so you certainly have time. You haven’t raced much ITU since Beijing. I see you’ve had three ITU races each in 2011 and 2012.
Mari: Yes. I went to Beijing and I was injured. I haven’t been racing on the major ITU circuits at all since 2010.
ST: You mentioned that you ran one 1:19 half marathon in a 70.3 race. I’d guess you might have in your pocket a 34, maybe 33 minute 10k?
Mari: Yeah. Projecting that Rio will be won at a 33:20 10k, I think I can be within range -- if I stay healthy.
ST: If you focus solely on the run, your history says you will break down before you get there?
Mari: Lucky that with my MBA studies, my time is quite limited so running fits in quite well with all the time I spend at school. Plus Bobby knows exactly what he is doing – I couldn’t be in better hands.
Mari: Yeah! I live right by that track! I actually I changed college [residence halls within Oxford] to Exeter so I could be in the college Roger Bannister went to because he is my sporting hero. I run on the Iffley track most days – even if it is just for strides.
ST: In addition to his work as a scholar and doctor, he is also a fine author.
Mari: Yes! And I met him in person. He is really old now, but so wise. I think he is my hero because he is such a complete person. He says to be a good athlete you don't have to sacrifice everything else in life too. That’s my philosophy.
ST: In fact those other things rescue you from your driven, obsessive, goal-seeking self.
ST: When you step on that track do you have visions of what it must have been like the day he broke the 4 minute mile?
Mari: There is a big sign there. Also he told me he looked at St. George’s flag on a church across the street to judge the wind. The flag is still there, so whenever I look at it I feel a bit inspired.
ST: What is going on in your mind when you walk past it?
Mari: When I pass Roger’s photo and the plaque there, I think that's what I want to be. I want to do something brilliant – whether in sport or life in general. You have to remember -- Roger never medaled at an Olympic Games. [Rabie herself finished a disappointing 43rd with mechanical troubles at Beijing]. But he did this one thing and now everyone knows who he is.
ST: He also won that big sub-4 minute miler showdown with John Landy at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver later that year.
Mari: So I wonder what the equivalent would be in the triathlon world? Maybe winning ITU, XTERRA, 70.3, Hawaii?
ST: Something like what Javier Gomez showed by winning here at XTERRA Worlds to go with his two ITU Olympic distance world titles?
Mari: Yeah. Javier is well on the way. Now I am in a really good space. I’m really happy and I love what I’m doing. Bobby has helped with that.
Mari: I think triathletes about Rhodes. It's actually funny. I think a lot of triathletes don’t actually get it. When I was younger everyone said, ‘You’re crazy! What are you doing all this studying? Just go pro.’ My friends at school are also really supportive about my sporting life, which is great.
ST: Several triathletes have advanced degrees.
Mari: Some do. Some triathletes are very supportive of my studies. [2006 ITU Olympic distance World Champion] Tim Don and his wife Kelly are very supportive when I am in the UK. They always support my studies. And I should say many Rhodes students are very supportive. Oxford is a capital of really talented people. I have an amazing housemate who cooks for me. He is literally a rocket scientist and I've got some other amazing friends in the MBA program who cook for me, get class notes etc. if I am training late or have to miss class. So when I finished this race, there were 20 text messages from friends who stayed up late to watch it – which is awesome!
ST: What do you feel about your home country and its role the last few decades?
Mari: Well I love South Africa. I am studying to be an actuary [someone who calculates insurance risks] and I am aware there has been a lot of turbulence, which is quite sad.
ST: After the brilliant breakthrough in human rights and social progress under Nelson Mandela?
Mari: Yeah. It was a brilliant 20 years we had. It was such a success story. Now it is sad to see this turmoil. It is upsetting.
Mari: Yeah. I am not sure what the future looks like for us. But then also, South Africans in Oxford are so positive about the country. We want to go back and make a difference. I have always been involved in a lot of charity work and working with the disadvantaged and underprivileged kids. I am always working for sports and academic uplift programs. I think the country has so much potential. But life can be dangerous. I've been attacked while running. I've been attacked while riding my bike. It’s not always safe.
ST: What happened?
Mari: When I was running, a guy with a knife came at me. I don't know what he wanted but I outran him. And there are places where riding is full of kids chucking glass bottles at you.
ST: Sticks through your spokes – or worse?
Mari: Stuff like that. I mean it is a big country and there is a lot of poverty. And there is a big difference between the rich and the poor. It doesn’t make it right, but it explains it.
ST: Beauty, squalor; bravery, cowardice; great achievement and desperation – all the extremes?
Mari: Yeah. I just don’t know what is in store for my country. A lot of South Africans leave. And I will definitely move to Boulder for the immediate future. But I have to go back and make a difference at some time in the future. I am a 13th generation South African. South Africa is where I belong.
ST: Where did your family come from?
Mari: My family went to South Africa in 1702 from Germany. We were kind of stuck in the Cape area. So I definitely ultimately want to go back home and make a difference.
Mari: I think my mum Riana tried really hard to raise sophisticated little girls. I was doing art and piano lessons and ballet and violin from the age of 3. But I think she realized I was destined for something else when at the age of 6 or 7, I started gymnastics and swimming. She couldn’t get my sister and me out of the pool. We just loved sports and being outdoors. And my dad, Lood, he raced 60-65 today at Maui and finished 3rd. He used to be a really good runner. He ran a 2:16 marathon while being a med student. Never ran pro.
ST: So he was in the Bannister model. He must remember the era of the international boycott when South African athletes were barred from the Olympics?
Mari: Yeah. He actually qualified for the Olympics but couldn’t go. That is why he is so supportive of me, I think.
ST: So sports became your passion?
Mari: We just grew up very active hiking, playing outside and a spending a lot of time at the ocean. We always said we wished school would start so we could rest a bit because holidays would just be packed with activities all day long. And I like the discipline that goes with sports and the healthy lifestyle. I think sport – I said this in the Rhodes community as well – sports teaches you a lot about life. Being in the Rhodes program, you are with a bunch of extremely successful people who have never failed at anything in life. But in sport, you fail all the time. You get injured and have a bad race, then you pick yourself up.
ST: So there can be a link between sports and academics?
Mari: I don’t think that sports and academic excellence have to be mutually exclusive. You can be good at both. Obviously music lessons and art and dance didn’t last very long. They were just a kind of things that I did.
ST: You mentioned your sister. How good of an athlete is she?
Mari: My sister Annelle was actually a better athlete than I was when I was younger. She is a few years older than me. She was junior triathlon champ and she was on the South African junior cycling squad. She was always someone to chase in triathlon. I think I beat her for the first time when I was about 15. Now she isn’t into competitive sport any more. She is just into things like kite surfing and snowboarding.
ST: And how important was she to your development?
Mari: I think that sibling rivalry can play a part. You have your biggest competitor living in the room next door. You look at the Brownlees and see how important that is to their success. Annelle played a big role in my development.
ST: As a mathematician do you relate things in your life to numbers all the time? Perhaps when you are training and racing?
Mari: Yeah I love numbers.
ST: Most athletes think of numbers simply how far am I ahead or behind? But do you have other patterns of numbers going through your head?
Mari: Yes. Actually I wrote a statistical model for the women’s triathlon at the Olympic Games. My model projected three of the top 5 girls correctly. I got the podium, but the order was mixed up. I had Erin [Densham] but not Lisa [Norden]. I had Helen Jenkins but she apparently was injured and wasn’t running for two months before. So yeah I do have numbers playing around in my head. I love looking at data. I look at the interviews and what they are saying and the previous results and trying to find patterns.
ST: It’s a habit – and a way of looking at the world?
Mari: Definitely – the world in numbers. I love working on numbers. I am a geek, I guess.
ST: Coming off the Olympics, life studying at Oxford this Fall was cold and wet I presume. How was it coming to Maui under hot blue skies and warm water?
Mari: I have been back in the UK studying – and it’s been cold. When I arrived here Wednesday it was 38 degrees Fahrenheit back at Oxford, much like being back home in South Africa or Colorado. I don’t mind the heat here – I like extremes. And it is so much fun here. I love the vibe and the competition. I had a great race and definitely want to come back.
Olympic silver medalist Javier Gomez of Spain won the XTERRA World Championship in his first off road triathlon and Lesley Paterson of Great Britain repeated at Maui with a dominating, mistake-free race. 10.28.12
Alistair Brownlee (GBR) held of defending champion Gregor Buchholz (GER) at the 2008 ITU Triathlon World Championships in Vancouver, BC and took the U23 title. Wearing bib #1 just like Alistair Brownlee did in the men's race, Daniela Ryf (SWI) snagged the U23 women's title. 6.08.08