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It Was a Triumph of Iron Will : Triathlete Paula Newby-Fraser Lost the Race but Gained a Greater Victory

November 06, 1995|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As defining moments go, the sport of triathlon might have hoped for something more grandly heroic, something a little less pathetic than this. Barely visible on the horizon in 1982, the Ironman Triathlon existed as little more than a wacky segment of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," a televised Swimsuit Issue: an excuse for the network to air pictures of scantily clad young men and women exercising in balmy Hawaii in the dead of winter.

It was the year the triathlon ceased being a video postcard and became an emblem of envelope-pushing endurance: A 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike race, capped by a marathon, 26.2 miles. It was the year that Julie Moss was winning then stumbled and collapsed on the brink of the finish line. Driven by instinct and void of her senses, Moss crawled across the finish line. The undeniably dramatic moment was beamed to a worldwide television audience.

In a manner that only television affords, the Ironman Triathlon moved into public consciousness, ushered by the insensate and wobbly steps taken by Moss. Paula Newby-Fraser well remembers her thoughts of 13 years ago, seeing Moss cross the line on her hands and knees and saying to herself, "I will never crawl across a finish line.

Newby-Fraser, a native of Zimbabwe and resident of Encinitas, has never needed to. In her career, she has never done anything less than rush triumphantly across the finish line of the Ironman, a race she has won seven times. This year's race, held at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 7, was to be Newby-Fraser's last competitive Ironman. At age 33, Newby-Fraser wanted to scale back and let other competitors guide the sport she helped build into a new era.

Odd the way things work. Newby-Fraser's farewell performance was strangely similar to Moss' infamous race. While she held the strongest of leads, Newby-Fraser's body shut down only 500 feet from the finish line. She went into convulsions. An ambulance was called. She sat by the side of the road for 20 minutes with her body retching and rebelling in every possible way. Then she tentatively got to her feet and walked across the finish line.

*

Newby-Fraser had something so golden, so close to a sure thing that even now no one is quite sure how she lost it.

Newby-Fraser and Karen Smyers came out of the water together. It was the last time Smyers saw Newby-Fraser for several hours. Newby-Fraser had a 12-minute lead after the transition from the bike to the run. It was nearly an impossible gap to make up. Or lose.

Newby-Fraser's lead was built the way it always is, in the middle, on the bike, cranking out mile after mile at an unrelenting pace. It appeared the race was headed for a predictable end and Newby-Fraser would finish her Ironman career just as she had hoped.

On the course and at the finish line, experts smiled to themselves and thought, "It's going to be just like it always is: She demoralizes them on the bike and builds a lead that can't be eroded during the run."

Television color commentator Paul Huddle, who happens to be Newby-Fraser's fiance, assessed the race to that point and proclaimed on air, "It's over." Meanwhile, at the finish line, race announcer Mike Reilly advised the 20,000 gathered fans that they should at any moment expect to see Newby-Fraser appear on the crest of Alli Drive, half a mile from the finish line.

These were not reckless comments or groundless speculation from unqualified pundits. This was a reasonable projection based on a decade of performance. With Newby-Fraser in a race, her winning is a foregone conclusion. Smyers, 34, for some time hailed as Newby-Fraser's heir to dominance in the sport, was candid about her rival's invincibility: "In all honesty, you just sit there and try to figure out how many minutes behind her you'll end up and who you might beat."

Again, not false modesty but undeniable fact. The last time Newby-Fraser lost a race at the Ironman distance was 1991.

Yet the day of the race was cruel to Newby-Fraser and the rest of the competitors. The middle of the race, the bike segment, offered particular agony. One hundred twelve miles over a blisteringly hot tar road with a deceptively lyrical name--Queen Kaahumanu Highway--superheated by the day's 90-degree temperature. The course headed north, across dry lava beds and a slightly undulating and endlessly bleak terrain.

Riders bent low over their lightweight bikes, striving to make themselves a smaller target for the Mumuku headwinds slashing off the Kona coast. Riders were buffeted by sustained winds of 30 m.p.h. and frequent gusts of 45 m.p.h. One competitor was literally blown off her bike.

The racers pedaled this way for 50 miles, human sails into a fierce wind, before the course turned back on itself and snaked once again across the lava beds. This time the wind shifted--not a tailwind, but a crosswind.

"The conditions were brutal, the worst I've experienced," Smyers said. "It really took a mental toll just to keep going."

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