Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On the brink...the Paula Newby Fraser collapse of 1995.

The Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii is one of the toughest Ironman courses there are. The relentless heat and humidity combined with the incredible beauty of the island makes it a perfect choice for the world championship. The lava has sucked the life out of many a competitor. Even the professionals walk a tightrope of hydration vs. pacing. Sometimes it works-sometimes it doesn't. This is about when things go terribly wrong...

It was 1995 and all was going well for multiple Ironman World Championship Winner and course record holder Paula Newby-Fraser. Paula had amassed a sizable lead against Karen Smyers on the bike and her run was going well.

Around mile 20, she got word that Karen was gaining 30 seconds/mile on her and it is possible that Karen could catch her. Paula panicked and decided to abandon her hydration and nutrition plan and simply put the pedal to the metal. It looked like her plan would work- except for one thing she didn't expect. She was overheating and quickly becoming dehydrated.

I was on the motorcycle covering the race and the last time I saw Paula- about mile 15, she looked fine. That is why I headed to the finishline to get into position to capture yet another win for Paula. We could hear Mike Reilly say "She's on Alii Drive!" and we all waited, but no Paula! The next thing I know, Karen Smyers makes her way to the finish tape- winning her first and only Ironman World Championship.

"Where's Paula?" you could here rumbling through the crowd. Karen looked concerned and pointed up the street. Someone whispered in my ear that Paula had collapsed up the street. I bolted up Alii with all my gear banging around and my fanny pack slipping down. About 300 yards up the street was a crowd surrounding Paula. She had collapsed and was disoriented. All she could say was "Don't touch me. I don't want to be disqualified.". Her boyfriend Paul Huddle was there and he was trying to call an ambulance. Paula looked like she was dying. She was white as a sheet.

People kept telling me to get out of the way, but I stood my ground and said "This is my job. I know her and I am not in the way.". I stood off to the side and did not interfere with the situation at all. It was determined that Paula was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion. When Paula skipped her water and energy drink, she took a risk and came so close to winning, not today. Now she is laying on the ground and she is literally cooking on the inside. They give her some water, but it's not enough. Her body temperature is too high and she needs to cool off NOW! She could suffer irreparable damage to her brain or other parts of the body.

A smart thinking course referee ran to a local restaurant and filled a giant mayonnaise bucket with cold water. Here is the picture. He poured the bucket over her head and it was like he was pouring liquid life back into Paula. It was amazing! Her color began to come back and she began to speak coherently. After another 5 or 10 minutes she was on her feet and to the delight of the crowd, she walked barefoot to the finish line- remarkably in 4th place!

Paula would later remark that she made a mistake by not sticking to her plan. It was like skipping that last gas station when your car is running on empty. Unfortunately, she ran out of gas just shy of the finish. It wasn't easy to see the Ironman champ sitting there on the ground, but I am glad she was okay and I was able to capture this incredible moment in sports history.

Paula came back in 1996 to regain her crown- lesson learned.

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