Outside magazine, October 1997
The Record Holders
Pity the ones who will follow them
By Brad Wetzler
Joe DiMaggio's 56 consecutive games with a base hit. Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in a single Olympics. Cool Hand Luke's 50 eggs. These are but a few historical landmarks with legs sturdy enough to withstand the current climate of manic record-setting and breaking. You should add climber Lynn Hill's and triathlete Paula Newby-Fraser's memorable work to the list. The two are seminal, and not only in the realm of women's sports. In fact, they've both managed to transcend the whole tiresome discussion of gender and the "undeniable" differences between men and women. They've outdone the guys, and the guys still haven't caught up.
The 36-year-old Hill, who first made a name for herself as the top rock climber of the 1980s and the first woman ever to climb a 5.14-rated pitch, is still the only person ù male or female ù to free-climb the classic, 3,000-foot Nose route on Yosemite's El Capitan in a single day. As climbing routes go, the Nose is about as epic and aesthetically pleasing as they come, and fellow big-wall jocks had been trying to free it for 15 years when Hill first topped it in September 1993, in a climb that took three and a half days. She then returned a year later and freed the route in an astonishing 23 hours. "People can achieve whatever they want if they have vision and desire, no matter what sort of body type they have," says the five-foot-two, 103-pound Hill. "I wasn't interested in distinctions; I wanted to be the best rock climber, period."
Likewise, Newby-Fraser's legacy is her unmatched dominance of her sport, as symbolized by her unprecedented eight victories in the Hawaii Ironman. That's two more than both of triathlon's male legends, Dave Scott and Mark Allen ù and they have already retired from competition, while Newby-Fraser, at age 35, is still hard at it. Similarly impressive, of course, is the John Wooden-like span of 12 years during which Newby-Fraser has reigned. Her first Ironman victory was in 1986; her most recent, last year. Not surprisingly, she's also a favorite in the 1997 race, to be held on the 18th of this month. But like many of the world's best athletes, Newby-Fraser has at least one significant failing: a complete inability to articulate just what it is that makes her so special. "I think it's probably because I've been very consistent, and the experience that I've accumulated over the years has kept me in the thick of things," she says. "But I really can't explain it."