Multisport: Paula in the Rearview Mirror

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Outside magazine, April 1996

Multisport: Paula in the Rearview Mirror

Karen Smyers’s Newby-Fraser-free dreams of ruling the triathlon world
By Tish Hamilton

Karen Smyers wants to make one thing perfectly clear: her toppling of Paula Newby-Fraser in last year’s Hawaii Ironman was not a win with an asterisk. “I get perturbed when people say that Paula gave up and that’s why I won,” argues the normally easygoing Bostonian. “She was hurting, but
she didn’t sit down until after I passed her. She gave up because she wasn’t going to win.”

Regardless of whether you buy Smyers’s interpretation, the dramatic finish was without doubt a grittier-than-usual display of determination. Trailing Newby-Fraser by nearly 12 minutes at the bike-run transition, the five-foot-seven, 128-pound Smyers ticked off one seven-minute mile after another. With Newby-Fraser beginning to stagger in exhaustion with a mile to go, Smyers
scampered past, finishing the marathon stage in 3:05–the second fastest in race history.

Still, as the 1996 triathlon season gets under way this month in St. Petersburg, Florida, a question lingers. Smyers, after a decade in the sport, is finally at the top of the triathlon heap, but can she stay there long enough to fill the shoes of the woman she thundered past on the hot Kona pavement? Newby-Fraser, after all, won seven Hawaii Ironmans.

The jury is out–and could be for another six years–but Smyers won’t be holding her breath. “Being the next Paula isn’t really a concern of mine,” she says. “Putting that kind of pressure on myself almost always has negative results for me. Besides, who cares?”

Experts are already saying that Smyers is the more versatile of the two, even if she hasn’t yet withstood the test of time. In what many consider to be the equivalent of hitting 40 home runs and stealing 40 bases in a baseball season, Smyers flew to Cancún, Mexico, five weeks after Hawaii and won the ITU World Championships, the premier event in short-course triathlon.
The feat had been accomplished only once before, by six-time Ironman champion Mark Allen.

“There are very few men, and she’s the only woman, who succeed at both events,” says Allen. “She’s got the upper body of a swimmer and the lower body of a runner. She’s made to do triathlon.”

Interestingly, Smyers’s success probably has something to do with her Allenesque approach to training. “She trains exactly the way her body tells her to,” says Allen. “She’s not a slave to a training plan.” But unlike Allen, Smyers is well known for her fondness of Chips Ahoy and Budweiser. “If you think that a beer or two will hurt your performance, then it probably will,”
says Smyers. “But I don’t want to resent training.”

Smyers entered her first triathlon in 1984 on a borrowed bike–and won. Six years and dozens of short-course events later, she turned professional and promptly took the nationals and the world championships. In 1994 she took second in Hawaii, and early last year, despite being slowed by giardia, she won the Pan Am Games and the national duathlon championship.

What’s next for Smyers? “The Boston Marathon,” she says, “only I’m not running.” Instead, you’ll find her on the 15th of this month at The Eliot Lounge–the renowned post-race watering hole now owned by her husband, Michael King–cheering on her friends. “I’m dying to do this race,” she says. “It’s the first thing I’m going to do when I retire–if I retire.”

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