When Paula Newby-Fraser was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame this month, her unmatched numbers were brought out like magical totems, pyramids of success that signaled her unparalleled dominance of the most important event in the sport. Eight Ironman Hawaii wins. Twenty four Ironman victories around the world. Left unmentioned was her pioneering role as a woman garnering sponsorships every bit the equal of the greatest men in the sport. Well recognized in Bob Babbitt’s introduction was her graciousness and her contributions to charity during and after her competitive career.
Perhaps less well known is how Newby-Fraser coped with the tough moments in her career and what lay behind the illusion that her victories came without struggle and doubt. And sadly, Newby-Fraser recounts the mysterious gulf of bad feelings that separated Newby-Fraser and the supremely talented woman who might have been her greatest rival on the Big Island.
A Bitter Rivalry
Slowtwitch: Were you thinking about Erin Baker when you were competing? I looked back on the record and I didn’t find much that you said about her; but she had some sharp criticisms of you. Most of her on-the-record jabs dealt with her perception that you derived unfair advantage by swimming with talented male friends at Ironman Hawaii – completely legal - and her suspicion that you got drafting advantage by riding with them. But there seemed to be something else behind it - a hatred of the apartheid regime in your home country of South Africa.
Paula Newby-Fraser: I paid attention to her for sure. Absolutely. To a large degree. I was incredibly aware of all she accomplished. In my mind she was one of the most gifted athletes in this sport or any other. To this day I know she is amazing and I was very aware of her opinions. I read every single thing she said. She certainly did not keep them to herself and I ended on the butt end of many snarky comments. When I went to Boulder, she would lash out at me periodically. I would not say I took the high road. I would just say I took the low road and moved on along. I just said to myself: ‘OK. Let's see who cashes the check in Kona this year.’
ST: Did she influence you?
Paula: She influenced my commitment to be a gracious competitor, because I thought she was tremendously ungracious. And she also influenced my commitment to sticking with my own training plan and not hers nor anyone else’s. She certainly trained a lot harder and a lot more volume. But I believed in the success I ultimately had with my workouts. But for the first couple of years I went along with whatever.
ST: What do you think now of the criticism you got from Erin? I imagine some of it must have arisen from her political principles. She demonstrated against the South African rugby tour of New Zealand during the era of apartheid. Perhaps she also resented your racing under a Zimbabwe passport at a time when South African athletes were banned from international competition -- was just a way to escape the apartheid boycott? Perhaps she didn’t know you were actually born and lived in Rhodesia – which became Zimbabwe soon thereafter.
Paula: Erin had a very sharp edge. She had a very raw and exposed edge to her to the point of a chip on her shoulder. I feel in many ways most of the years we raced together she dehumanized me. There was really no humanity in her perception of me. To her, I just represented the South African government. She knew I grew up in South Africa and thus I took the brunt of all her political stance against the government. I became the scapegoat and a convenient point for her to unload on someone.
ST: Erin Baker was barred by the U.S. from competing here for years because of her arrest following an anti-apartheid demonstration against the South African rugby team’s tour of New Zealand. Baker, who denied the charge, was convicted in 1981 of throwing an explosive devices, a firecracker I believe, during the protest. Did she do more than make critical remarks against you?
Paula: As I was told, she tried to stop me from competing in one prominent race in the Bahamas – she tried to influence the race director to un-invite me. And she put pressure on Ironman to deny me entry -- which they didn’t do, thankfully. But it was her idea, her stand against apartheid, that led her to consider my presence in triathlon was an endorsement of apartheid. She never asked what my politics were. She had no idea about me personally, my family circumstances, what my family and I stood for.
The greatest insight I got into her attitude to me was the moment I realized just how far she had dehumanized me. One year I beat her in Hawaii –maybe it was 1988. My father had come to watch me race in Kona. I remember Erin was standing somewhere nearby and I said to her “This is my father” and introduced her. She said “I never really thought of you having a family.” All personal feelings she has for her family and her life as an individual human soul, she had no notion of that with me. She was surprised to find me with loving parents.
ST: What was your family’s position on South African apartheid?
Paula: The fact is my mother came from an extraordinarily liberal family. She was an academic and she was a lecturer in sociology and psychology at an all black college and worked in trade unions. She represented an insurgent committee of women for peaceful change in South Africa. We were brought up to look at apartheid as something that was not good at all. I was not at all proud of that aspect of South Africa and we did our part within the country’s politics to show opposition to that in many ways.
But Erin never came and asked me how I felt about these issues. She just operated on the assumption that I was an apartheid supporter. When I grew up in South Africa I was 10 years old and what could I do? By that logic, anyone born in Russia is a communist and should be hated. Her position was: I don't like you and I refuse to humanize you. It was very weird and very uncomfortable and I spent a lot of years in the sport and never had a real conversation with her. I had a few talks with her after she retired, but they were very superficial.
ST: Before you met for the last time at Kona in 1993, you were 2-2 against her on triathlon’s biggest stage. This was the rubber match and a signature moment in your Hawaii career. Did that inspire you to dig a little deeper?
Paula: When the 1993 showdown came down, I was a little ambivalent. I had an injury to my ankle I think came from pushing so hard [and winning three Ironman-distance races in five weeks] in the summer of 1992. After I suffered that ankle injury early in 1993, I had to decide what I could and could not do in training. So I focused on swimming and on improving aerodynamics on the bike because my running was so limited. The turning point going into that event was that I started to run again and knew I was fit. But I read a comment she had made that summer about me. We were both training in Boulder and she knew and could see I was not running much and I was water running. When asked her opinion about that year’s Ironman, she said that I had no chance and would not even finish -- much less finish second.
ST: Bulletin board material eh? But while you were fighting injuries, Erin came into that race about six months after the birth of her first son Miguel and was hit hard on the head during the swim and came out five minutes behind you. She posted her best-ever time at Kona (9:08:04) but finished with her worst-ever run.
Paula: I was certainly surprised that she ran as poorly as she did [Newby-Fraser ran 3:16:24 to break 9 hours and win by 10 minutes; Baker ran 3:19:12 – 15 minutes off her 1990 course record marathon]. She had a shot that year because there was nothing stellar about the way I was running. I just remembered I had a total of 5 weeks of running since May.
ST: You said in one interview that you left pieces of your heart and souls out on the Queen K that year. Perhaps motivated by the person chasing you?
Paula: The run was tough on me. I just remember it was a slow, painful process. So when it was 5 miles to go, I told myself I just had one more 5 mile run to go, one more time around trail around the golf course at home. That race was one of those things I really had to dig. Every Ironman is hard and difficult physically. But this was different to the point where mentally I had to try hard to stay focused. It was rugged.
The meltdown of 1995
ST: In your mind, you said you were acting a little resentful subconsciously in 1995 because everyone took your seven wins for granted?
Paula: It was pretty much exactly that. Inside I felt a little tired and I got a little bratty about the overwhelming media attention which took my winning effort for granted. Friends said ‘I don’t even need to wish you good luck. This will be a no brainer.’ Or ‘Oh it won’t be any trouble for you to go and win.’ But the problem going into that race was that I had a streak of wins four years in a row -- from 1991 to 1994 – during which I hadn’t lost an Ironman race anywhere. With that comes high expectation of another routine win. People presumed this was going to be the same old same old. They said ‘You got it. It is easy for you.’
It is NOT easy! Every year I come back I was not satisfied to do things exactly the same again – even though what I was doing was working. .It is human nature to try to do it a little better, to refine it every now and again. Looking back, this was one of those things where you realize what it’s taken and how committed I have been to produce this. But I guess I heard it one too many times from media, parents, sponsors -- this was going to be routine. Somewhere inside I felt ‘Ahh it’s NOT that easy!’ I still was not only incredibly nervous, I had performance anxiety. I do not go out like the cyborg they perceived me to be. I was coming back from injury and when everyone presumed I would win easily again I think I felt it was subconsciously aggravating
ST: So you said ‘Let’s give some of the Mark Allen training volume a go?’ You told Inside Triathlon you upped your run mileage and went on 150-mile bike rides with Allen. That was quite a change from your usual less-is-more philosophy you took from Dr. Timothy Noakes.
Paula: To this day I wish could give an answer why I did it. It’s an old flaw in human nature, We are all inherently flawed in this way: If you have success you want more. And so you think more is better instead of looking back at what had worked for me. I had a style I know what works for me. But all around me everyone was doing something else. I was spending more time in Boulder exposed to the mentality which pretty much meant a lot more volume to training. That less-is-more philosophy gave me my longevity and lack of injury. Except for the 1993 season when I had a chronic injury. In the 1995 season I thought if I was running 60 miles a week and that was good, 100 miles would be better. If riding 200-250 miles a week gave you an undefeated season, more would be even better. That new philosophy for 1995 paid off on the bike. But then it bit me at the end when I collapsed. .
ST: The breakdown you suffered came when you declared this would be your last race at Kona.
Paula: But at a core level, the beginning of 1993 was the beginning of the end for me. To be honest, when I look back, where did it all start unraveling? I managed to pull it all together in 1993 and 1994. But really for me 1993 was the beginning of the end., …
ST: Mark Allen of course did not encourage anyone to follow his training regimen. But I assume you were welcome to come along.
Paula: Mark was not invested into anyone else’s training. That was the beauty of it. In some sense he was an energetic vampire who could maximize his own energy and suck energy from others around him. But he made it clear he was under no obligation to provide energy for others. He was under no obligation to say ‘You really don’t need to be doing this. I do it and I have done it but it probably won’t work for you.’
ST: Perhaps your husband-to-be Paul Huddle, who was Mark Allen’s long-time training partner, could have told you this was a mistake?
Paula: Paul and Mark had a lot of synergy together, but at times Paul slipped over the edge in his circumstances there too. Mark simply did not give away much.
ST: That is the nature of someone committed to dominating the sport. But that wasn’t your mindset?
Paula: I never got that grandiose. One thing I learned early and well is that you are only as good as your last result. People have very short memories and to keep sponsors coming and to secure a living, you need to always be on your game and produce. If you fall down, you need to get up and get going again. Unlike baseball, you cannot get a long term contract where you can live off your accolades. You realize that it is a relatively small niche sport and survival of the fittest requires performances which come due every time out.
ST: You mentioned that you were driven by insecurity and even though you had a core belief in yourself. You spent a long time – almost all your career -- to shore up your insecurities.
Paula: Parents and schooling turned me into a total archetypal overachiever – I didn’t think I was good enough. I always felt like I could not live up to my parental influence. I came from totally different culture. Back home in South African schools, every flaw very exposed. You were held to such a high standard. My mother was a very accomplished person and I was always filled with insecurity. If I did well, I thought ‘Shoot, I have to do it again.’ I do not think my success was a fluke. I was not a one off. But a little voice kept insisting that maybe I was. I was afraid, so I stayed focused. It is weird, but I always had this feeling, this little bit of insecurity.
ST: Are you over that fear now?
Paula: Even to this day when I am thrown a big project – I am coming up on a year working for Ironman where I have been thrown all these Foundation 501(c)s and charity organizations and told to guide them to success, When I take over a charity project, it scares me. Then the only thing to do is just come down to the moment and start chipping away.
ST: How did you protect your ego from the extravagant praise that was showered on you?
Paula: When I look back it was probably a lack of self esteem, The way I looked at it, I believed in myself because I believed in myself. But you grow up in a certain way. People saw me as confident. But usually confidence is a shield
ST: After 1995, did you manage to put your bratty subconscious back on the leash?
Paula: After the 1995 Ironman, I sort of walked away from triathlon. I felt so broken by 1995 I didn’t want do the sport any more. On my original journey to the USA in 1985, I spent a year living in London. So in 1995 I turned around and went back to London and I spent a month or so there. I left my life in triathlon alone, packed up and visited friends and immersed myself in the wider world. London is very cosmopolitan city filled with ideas and culture. I spent lot of time at the theater and I got back to my roots and enjoyed the ballet. Every day I got on the subway to go to do this or that. I was a civilian in a place where nobody knew me, no one was interested in triathlon. I went back to being a day in day out civilian of the world for a few months.
ST: What spurred you to return to triathlon?
Paula: Finally I came to the conclusion how lucky I was to be a triathlete. I realized that people paid me to do my sport and that put it all in perspective. I decided I will go back and focus on my sport and I will not lose perspective. I will not turn into a competitive prima donna brat who needs people to pump her up. I knew I needed to integrate triathlon into a complete life and that was the reason I stepped off the grid and became a civilian.
ST: What do you think when you witness the remarkably swift rise and sheer dominance of Chrissie Wellington?
Paula: First of all, I think Chrissie Wellington is probably the most gifted endurance athlete I've seen. She reminds me in many ways of Erin Baker – physically and mentally strong. She has the gift. Natascha Badmann had a gift, especially on the bike. But Chrissie all around is just amazingly gifted. And it is great she has found an event [the Ironman] at which she can excel. She is probably more physically talented than anyone in her sport.
ST: You saw the results. But what do you think just looking at her?
Paula: But it wasn’t until I saw her in person and really took a look at her legs – she has a weight to strength ratio with incredible numbers—did I fully understand. She has so much power -- and has mental ability as well.
ST: What about her competitive personality?
Paula: But I don’t really know her. She seems a little more high strung than myself and Erin and Natascha. I think she resonates on a higher level. I don't know what happens on a day in and day out basis.
ST: Do you think she made the right decision to coach herself?
Paula: Taking charge of your own coaching can be very empowering. No doubt there is a certain challenge to it. But I think it will only make her better now. She will no longer rely on someone to tell her how good she is. And when you don’t rely on others to prop yourself up and take responsibility for yourself, you can honestly begin to make better choices. If you use your intuition you can make good choices. When I allowed outside influences to take over near the end of my career, things went badly. When I got things back together in 1996 I took charge and took responsibility for myself and I did extraordinarily well. Her challenge now is to avoid the great human flaw: Do not be greedy. Use your talents wisely. You work very hard and get a 10 percent return and so you tend to think: Great! Why not 20 percent? If I can go 8:30 why can’t I got 8:20 and push for that? But if you push for that, you can break yourself. So be intuitive and sky’s the limit.
ST: What did you feel about losing the course records at Roth and Kona?
Paula: People have no ownership of records. I had no ownership of them. Those were times I posted on those particular days. Back then, Hawaii was a really different bike course and run course. It’s all a little different now. The swim is the only leg of the course that is the same. In some respects, parts of it are tougher. But the revelation I had was watching how hard she worked for it the record last year. I saw it on IronmanLive. And it was clear she was going to the well. And I am certain she had to leave a little bit of herself out there to get it done. She didn’t take a moment to enjoy until she crossed the line.
Part of me was gratified by that. I know what she had to do to get it and I hope she realize it’s not that easy. I know it wasn’t that easy for her. A race like that takes a piece of herself out there. As long as she stays connected with that and does not give into thinking it would be easy to get from 8:54 to 8:44 at Kona. That is where it starts going away for you.