According to German triathlete magazine tri-mag.de, Nina Kraft died earlier this week at age 51. The cause of death was not specified.
“As was reported by those around her,” wrote the German website, “she suffered from depression.”
Kraft will always be known for finishing first at the 2004 Ironman World Championship, but was disqualified when her drug test came back positive and admitted to using EPO. Following the disqualification, Kraft also received a two-year ban from the sport.
“I never really rejoiced over the victory in Hawaii,” Kraft told Hesse state radio at the time. “I was ashamed the entire time, especially in front of my family. I cheated.”
In a 14-year pro career, Kraft won five Ironman titles before her 2004 Ironman Hawaii disgrace and five Ironman titles in a comeback after she served her ban. Kraft’s final Ironman victory came in 2014 in her third win at Ironman Louisville. That win made her the oldest woman to win an IRONMAN branded 140.6 race, eclipsing record held by Natasha Badmann. It was Badmann who was crowned the 2004 IRONMAN World Champion following Kraft's disqualification.
Kraft turned professional after a second-place in a time of 9:29 at Ironman Roth in 1999. She continued to rise in the sport with a 16th at Ironman Hawaii in 2000, and in 2001 she won Ironman South Africa and placed third at Hawaii.
After 2001, said Kraft, “a lot changed.” Before that moment, she said, “No one expected anything. But next year, people are expecting me to be winning. I have not been in school for 15 years, and I know little English, but now I go to press conference and I must speak English. Things happen fast and I feel pressure, pressure, pressure.”
In 2002, Kraft took second to Badmann at Kona. In 2003, Kraft was leading Hawaii when Bowden swept past her on the run and Badmann won an ensuing duel for second by just eight seconds. In both races, Kraft incurred crucial drafting penalties. “I worked so hard and worked with my heart,” said Kraft, who felt sorry for herself. “Always, I was riding all alone in the winds. And when I got a penalty, it broke my heart.”
Following Kraft's disqualification and subsequent disgrace, she fell into a deep depression. “It was the hardest part of my life I ever have,” said Kraft later. Unable to say the words to describe her suicidal thoughts, she added in halting English, “I wanted to feel alone. So, I went to New Zealand. You lose all your friends. You lose all things.”
Kraft said she was spending days “lying on my back in bed and crying.” One day she picked up a newspaper and read about disgraced cycling champion Marco Pantani’s sad death of a cocaine overdose in a lonely hotel room. “I read how the people push Pantani so much after they know the bad things about him. He was sitting alone in the hotel at the end. He wanted help from the outside and nobody helped him. All the people were fighting him. And then after he died, so many people go to his grave and give him love.”
Reading the sad story, Kraft was able to begin her recovery. “I changed my mind very fast after the article,” she said. “It was something cleaning (for) me. I know I took the wrong way. I know some people are sad and they don’t know what they are doing. So, I wanted to show for them and all the people who make a bad mistake that they must go on.”
After 2004, Kraft moved to Clermont, Florida. There she found a great deal of forgiveness from friends she made. Doug Guthrie wrote on Facebook: “She was a loyal and generous friend. She was a free spirit and a fierce competitor. She showed me and anyone else who trained with her what it took to be great. On tough days she would remind me that “We are not training for a walk in the flower garden” She helped to achieve a goal I had been chasing for over 8 years and then helped me to do it again. I am thankful for every minute. I am forever changed for the better because of her. Rest easy sister.”
Kraft won Ironman Brazil and Ironman Florida in 2007, and won Ironman Louisville in 2009, 2011 and 2014 before retiring from professional competition. In the past few years, Kraft operated a coaching business.