That “girl next door” archetype implies someone who’s cute, unassuming and honest. In the comic world, Betty was the girl next door, Veronica was the stop-archie-in-his-tracks vamp. While that intern would argue she was a blonde version of Veronica, Heather Fuhr has always been seen as “Betty-like” because of the other facets of her character. Sure there were the magazine covers and Saucony posters that accentuated her looks, but those never defined Fuhr. It’s that “unassuming” component that has always stuck, and that word doesn’t begin to describe Fuhr’s quiet nature. Ask anyone who has interviewed her – getting her to talk about her successes over the years is about as easy as running a two-hour marathon. (Actually, any odds maker who has met Fuhr would say there’s more likelihood of the latter than the former. A few years ago she told me she hadn’t really been doing any training and was in horrible shape … and then I found out she had just set a new course record in the Catalina 50 Miler.)
Even though she hasn’t lived in Canada for almost 20 years now, the bottom line is that Fuhr is just so, well, Canadian.
Polite to the extreme, Fuhr was always available for interviews, always appeared at press conferences and had lots of positive things to say and was a sponsor’s dream. As she ran by her competition on the way to one of her 15 Ironman titles, she’d always provide a polite tap on the back, offering up a bit of encouragement. To this day I’ve yet to meet a single one of her competitors who has a negative thing to say about Fuhr. In 1997, as she passed her mentor, friend and training partner Paula Newby-fraser at mile 12 of the Ironman World Championship, the tap was there again. Even the most successful women’s triathlete of all time couldn’t muster up any animosity at getting passed by Fuhr on the sport’s biggest stage. Newby-fraser was genuinely thrilled that Fuhr was beating her. She’s so likeable that even though she’s tasked with taking care of over 1,000 registered professionals for Ironman, and routinely has to tell them they’re not going to get what they want, they all still love her.
So do I have anything to say that might imply there’s a hidden Veronica in this girl next door that is Heather Fuhr? There’s so much more to her story than simply triathlon’s most successful “girl next door.”
eather Fuhr grew up just outside of Edmonton, playing “every sport imaginable” at her elementary school in Duffield (about 65 km west of Edmonton) and then focusing more on running in junior high and high school. It was at high school in Stony Plain that she met Roch Frey, a competitive swimmer. Both competed for the University of Alberta – he in the pool and her in cross country and track. The two have remained a couple ever since they met.
Frey had done his first triathlon in 1983 but, since she couldn’t swim, Fuhr had never followed him to the multisport world. In 1988, though, as she saw her running performances plateau, she decided to see what she was missing in this new sport. She signed up for a stroke improvement class and, like all good athletes do, quickly improved. Within a few months she had gone from barely completing 25 m to swimming 1,500 m without stopping. Her first triathlon was the Turkey Trot in Calgary, where she swam 1,000 m in a 25 m pool, biked 20 km on a stationary bike and ran 5 km on an indoor, 200-m track. Supplementing her running with swim and bike training seemed to help – she finished fifth at the 1989 Canadian Indoor Track Championships in the 1,500.
Despite the running success Fuhr had become a self-proclaimed “tri-geek” and was following Frey around to various triathlon events around the country. While he had visions of turning pro, Fuhr was in the process of following up her commerce degree and becoming a chartered accountant, articling at Deloitte and Touche in Edmonton. In 1990, when he finished his physical education degree, Frey wanted to pursue triathlon more seriously, and wanted to move somewhere with a more hospitable triathlon training climate. Fuhr decided she was in, too, and took a leave of absence to “get this triathlon thing out of her system.”
The two ended up in San Diego, Calif., then the haven of the sport’s top professionals. For four years they would spend their winters in San Diego and the summers back in Canada. In 1990 Fuhr competed in Kona as an age grouper, then raced in New Zealand the following year. By this point she was having enough success that she decided to turn pro. She never quite made it back to Deloitte and Touche: “I ran away from that [being an accountant] and just kept running – literally,” she says.
Ironically it was Fuhr who ended up enjoying the long-term professional career. Frey enjoyed a journeyman’s time in the sport before gravitating to the coaching ranks and becoming one of the sport’s premier coaches. In 1995 he took on a position as a swim coach at the University of California, San Diego, at which point California went from a winter haven to full-time residence and solidified their position as two of the mainstays in the San Diego triathlon scene. They became friends with another famous San Diego couple of the time, Paul Huddle and Paula NewbyFraser, eventually setting up a coaching company called Multisports.com that quickly became the most recognizable coaching group in the sport. Huddle, like Frey, was a decent triathlete but arguably a much better coach and the two quickly made their marks in that part of the sport while their partners continued to excel on the race course.
While Frey’s resume includes other champions like Peter Reid, it would be hard to argue that his biggest coaching success has been his wife. While they managed to make it look easy, balancing a marriage and a coach/athlete relationship was, at times, challenging.
“It was tough at times,” Frey remembers. “During the 1997 season I stepped away almost 100 per cent when she and Newby [Paula Newby-fraser] trained together. It was good for us and then allowed me a new perspective when I was back coaching her for the next 10 years. It was hardest to see her hurt during training and racing and wanting to back things off, but knowing that was part of what it takes to be a champion and reach goals. We learned to shut off the coaching relationship at times and only be husband and wife, but it took some time to figure out.”
“He was a great coach,” Fuhr says. “He knew me better than I knew me, and I had confidence in that. He was an integral part of everything we did.”
Fuhr also credits her relationship with Newby-fraser as a critical component to her success.