"What follows is the final part of a 4 part series printed with the publisher's permission from "17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Müller with Timothy Carlson." 17 Hours to Glory celebrates Kona’s Ironman® heroes—from ordinary people to true triathlon legends—with seventeen inspiring stories of unbelievable drive and true strength of character. The book is available in bookstores, tri shops, and online at VeloPress.com."
After 10 years in the United States, Paula Newby-Fraser became a U.S. citizen in July 1996, which, along with her solid relationship with Huddle, seemed to lend some permanence to her idyllic existence in Encinitas. With a few months’ distance from her disaster, Newby-Fraser regained equilibrium and a renewed mastery over the emotional and mental side of her sport as she approached Ironman Hawaii 1996.
By this time Newby-Fraser had adopted Buddhist principles and gained peace of mind by, as she described it, “living in the moment.” Early in the year she withdrew her declaration of retirement from the sport and vowed to make one more charge on Kona. Nevertheless, she vowed, “I have no expectations” about Hawaii. She didn’t want the pressure of being the favorite, and she didn’t want to feed the expectations to lead. Instead, she said, “I just want to mix it up with the girls.” She had won Kona seven times and did not want to put the weight back on her psyche.
During the year Newby-Fraser won Ironmans in Australia in April and Canada in August despite throwing up and staving off a collapse in Penticton. If she had allowed triathlon success to remain an obsession, she might have fretted over her coming clash with two fast-rising rivals, Karen Smyers and Natascha Badmann. Defending Kona champion Smyers was coming off a rare double, as she had wrapped up 1995 with a win at the ITU short-course World Championship and then, in mid-1996, won the ITU long-course World Championship. She had also become faster in all three sports at the Ironman distance.
Badmann, meanwhile, was a late-blooming Swiss star who had won the prestigious Powerman Zofingen long-distance duathlon world championship with a devastating bike. Badmann and her New Age coach and partner Toni Hasler’s philosophy was tied to nature, and their attitude toward her Kona debut mirrored Newby-Fraser’s in its deflation of expectations. “I just want to finish it and enjoy it,” said Badmann.
Newby-Fraser’s attitude adjustment came to the test midway through the 1996 encounter in Kona.
At the start, Smyers’s 54:11 swim led Newby-Fraser by 79 seconds and Badmann by 6:30. On the bike Smyers took the lead from Wendy Ingraham and held off Newby-Fraser until mile 70 and Badmann until mile 90. At that point, Smyers recalled, “Natascha blew by me like a rocket and looked so fresh I was shocked.”
Newby-Fraser beat Badmann (who clocked a stunning 4:53:47 bike) into T2 by only 18 seconds but had to serve a 3-minute drafting penalty. Newby-Fraser didn’t mind. “To be honest, I didn’t want to be leading out on the run,” she said. “I stretched, put my feet up, did an interview.” Newby-Fraser felt even more at ease when she saw Smyers come in fatigued 2.5 minutes later. “I knew Karen had pushed herself and I’d get her on the run.”
At the Hot Corner in downtown Kona, where runners turn right on Palani Road for the steep uphill to the Queen K, Newby-Fraser had regained the lead from the Swiss rookie and was looking relaxed. She was 45 seconds up on Badmann, whom she had passed 15 minutes before at mile 6. And, in the surprise of the day, she was 4 minutes up on Smyers.
Smyers had made up a minute on Badmann in the first 3 miles and said, “I was desperately trying to regain the feeling I had last year, which lasted the entire race.” But after mile 3, when her feet got sluggish and slow, “I knew it wasn’t my day.”
While Smyers came unraveled for good by mile 4 of the run, Badmann’s race was full of surprises, which the newly calm Newby-Fraser handled with equanimity. “I passed Natascha at mile 6 of the run, but coming up on mile 13 she blazed by me going maybe 6:30 pace, some 30 seconds per mile faster,” Newby-Fraser later recalled. “I was surprised because I didn’t know she was closing. I just let her go. I didn’t panic. I didn’t say, ‘I need to go with her.’ It was a big rookie mistake, and I knew it wouldn’t last.”
Sure enough, on the Energy Lab Road the gap slowly shrank. Newby-Fraser caught Badmann in the first mile past the Energy Lab and then played cat-and-mouse with her in a duel. “I pulled in by her side, but she didn’t like that, so she tucked in behind me because it was a bit of a headwind. So I swerved to the middle of the highway, and she swerved with me. That gave me the sense that she was trying to hang on to my energy. So I thought, Let’s see how bad it is. I knocked off and started to run an extremely comfortable pace. She still didn’t come up and run with me. She allowed me to lead.”
By then the aid stations started to play a role. “I led through the aid stations and it was difficult for her because by that time most volunteers are looking the other way, and after the first runner goes through it is difficult to get enough water,” said Newby-Fraser. “She wasn’t getting the water she needed. We ran like that for a good two or three miles with all the motorcycles around us.”
As they approached the hill at mile 24, made famous as the spot where Mark Allen broke away from Dave Scott in their epic 1989 race-long duel, Newby-Fraser stepped up the pace and steadily pulled away to the finish. Her time of 9:06:49 was the sixth-fastest for women on the course. Badmann, obviously suffering from lack of water at the aid stations, struggled in 4.5 minutes behind Newby-Fraser despite having been virtually tied with 2 miles to go. Newby-Fraser’s 3:09:45 marathon had closed the deal.
That 1996 race marked the end of Newby-Fraser’s Hawaii wins and presaged the beginning, two years later, of Badmann’s reign as Kona’s queen. It also marked the true winding-down of one of the most impressive records in sports history.
In 1997 Newby-Fraser started the race but, feeling cooked in some of the toughest conditions in memory, dropped out 16 miles into the run. “I was going backward, and after what happened to me in 1995, I knew what lay ahead,” she said. “It would be a death march; I would be entering a place where I would be subjecting myself to serious injury.” Most impressively, Newby-Fraser admitted, “I was finally free of the ego or the fears that people would say I was a quitter. I was quite comfortable retiring out on the Queen K because that was the place where I had left so many pieces of myself in the past. I didn’t need that again.”
Now, more than a decade after her long good-bye from a fully dedicated professional triathlon career, Newby-Fraser’s accomplishments loom over the sport like a comet whose bright aura cannot be dimmed even by the arrival of the sensational Chrissie Wellington. In a professional career that extended from 1986 to 2004, she won 24 Ironman races; the next closest, her friend Heather Fuhr, won 15. Newby-Fraser took the crown jewel at Ironman Hawaii eight times; the next best—Mark Allen, Dave Scott, and Natascha Badmann—have won six each. In 1988 Newby-Fraser’s 11th overall finish against the men was labeled “the greatest performance in endurance sports history” by the Los Angeles Times.
On the way she was named “Greatest All Around Female Endurance Athlete in the World” by ABC Sports and the Los Angeles Times and named as one of the top five professional female athletes in the world from 1972 to 1997 by the United States Sports Academy. Sports Illustrated listed her as number 60 among the greatest female athletes of the twentieth century. Until Wellington broke her course record at Kona in 2008, Newby-Fraser held the top six times in the history of Ironman Hawaii. By 1999 she had won 21 of the 26 Ironman races she entered around the globe.
And yet if you simply look at the numbers and the résumé and accepted her apparent invincibility without seeing the human heart and soul behind it, you would be missing the essence of her greatness.
In 1998, when Newby-Fraser crossed the Kona line in 11th place in a humbling 10:03:44, she was bathed in loving applause. “I realized today that people cared about me for who I am and did not care where I finished, only that I was OK and happy,” she said.
And just to remind the sport of her prodigious talent, Newby-Fraser had one more impressive result to log at Kona: a 4th-place finish in 2001.
Not all Paula Newby-Fraser images featured on slowtwitch will be found in the book.