Hi­lary Brown


Triathlon Magazine Canada - - FEATURES - BY DAN DAKIN

She was the first Cana­dian woman to com­pete at the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship and one of the coun­try’s triathlon pioneers back in the early 1980s. Meet Iron­man trail­blazer Hi­lary Brown.

Read­ers of a cer­tain vin­tage likely have the in­tro­duc­tory theme to ABC’s Wide World of Sports seared in their mem­ory.

For 56-year-old Hi­lary Brown, that clas­sic mu­sic brings back mem­o­ries of 1981, when a broad­cast fea­tur­ing the new sport of triathlon was the cat­a­lyst to a sixyear ca­reer com­pet­ing at the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship in Hawaii. It was high­lighted by Brown be­com­ing the first Cana­dian woman to com­plete the race in 1982.

Born and raised in Toronto, Brown grew up near a pub­lic pool in North York with a well-es­tab­lished com­pet­i­tive aquatic pro­gram. She was al­ways at the pool, train­ing through­out the week and com­pet­ing on the week­ends, of­ten rac­ing a cat­e­gory above be­cause of her ath­letic abil­i­ties. She swam in high school, but also com­peted in cross-coun­try run­ning, vol­ley­ball, bas­ket­ball and ten­nis.

She en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Toronto in 1980 and was on both the var­sity swim­ming and run­ning teams in 1981 when a friend sug­gested she might find it in­ter­est­ing to watch a Wide World of Sports broad­cast about the new sport of triathlon.

“I came out of the room and told my mother, ‘I want to do the Iron­man,’” said Brown. “I thought it was go­ing to be a fad and I never thought it would end up be­ing an Olympic sport.”

Re­gard­less of what she thought of triathlon’s long-term po­ten­tial, she threw her­self at the sport just like she had with many other sports grow­ing up.

She bought a bike over the win­ter and joined Toronto’s Queen’s City Bike Club in the spring – train­ing hard with the group of hard-nosed male cy­clists from May un­til the race.

“They were so dis­ci­plined. That’s what I loved about it,” she said.

One of only two fe­male cy­clists in the club, Brown said she was given the cold shoul­der un­til club mem­ber Ge­orge Ste­wart helped ar­range a cen­tury ride for her to train on and she eas­ily com­pleted it while leav­ing most of the men be­hind.

As for the other two sports, “There were no brick work­outs, no books to learn from. There was noth­ing,” she said. “I was work­ing on three sep­a­rate sports and put­ting them to­gether.”

But Brown worked hard that sum­mer and ar­rived in Kona in Oc­to­ber, 1982 ready to go. What she didn’t see com­ing was that the once-tiny Iron­man race, that had jumped to 300 par­tic­i­pants in 1981 af­ter a Sports Il­lus­trated ar­ti­cle, had bal­looned to more than 1,100 in 1982, likely a re­sult of the Wide World of Sports broad­cast.

She was ner­vous (“I cried at the start won­der­ing what I was get­ting my­self into”), but ev­ery­thing fell into place. Out of the 150 women in the field, Brown fin­ished a re­mark­able 12th and be­came the first Cana­dian woman to fin­ish an Iron­man race.

“I never felt as aw­ful at an event as I did af­ter that one,” she said. “When I fin­ished, my body seized. I couldn’t walk and the next day I couldn’t bend.”

But she was hooked.

“Ev­ery­thing was so well-or­ga­nized and

I re­mem­ber on the run there were all these peo­ple on the streets call­ing out your name,” she said.

It was also on the run that Brown briefly stopped to en­cour­age a male Ger­man ath­lete who had slowed to a halt and didn’t want to go on.

“I en­cour­aged him to fin­ish and then, the next year, I was hit­ting the wall and was strug­gling to fin­ish and the same guy found me and said ‘Let’s go.’ That’s pretty much the rea­son I fin­ished in 1983.”

“What I re­mem­ber the most was the ca­ma­raderie of the peo­ple. They came from all over the world and it was like they had no idea there were other peo­ple also do­ing this sport,” she said.

Brown went on to com­pete in Kona for six years, rac­ing her fi­nal Iron­man in 1987.

She also briefly fo­cused on bike rac­ing, high­lighted by com­pet­ing in the first-ever Women’s Tour de France in 1984.

Brown com­peted in the 1984 Cana­dian Olympic Cy­cling Tri­als held over eight days in the Ni­a­gara re­gion. The top four fin­ish­ers made the Olympic team, while the next six made up Team Canada for that in­au­gu­ral Women’s Tour.

‘When I fin­ished, my body seized. I couldn’t walk and the next day I couldn’t bend.’ But she was hooked.

“The best went to the Olympics, so we were the

B riders. We weren’t the best in the world, but they treated us like roy­alty,” she said.

The course fol­lowed the same route as the men’s Tour that year, only with shorter dis­tances and fewer race days. But each stage ended in the same cities, in­clud­ing the fi­nal stage when Brown and the Cana­dian team rolled across the fin­ish line on the Champs-Élysées.

Sud­denly she was a star on the Queen’s City club.

“I was revered af­ter that be­cause I had gone to the Tour de France and they were all these old Euro­pean riders,” Brown laughed.

She also won a sil­ver medal in the 1984 Cana­dian road rac­ing cham­pi­onships, but cy­cling wasn’t a sport she par­tic­u­larly en­joyed, so she stuck to triathlon rac­ing un­til 1987, when she stopped com­pet­ing al­to­gether.

“When I was swim­ming as a kid, it got to the point where it wasn’t fun any­more, and I think that’s what hap­pened,” she said. “I ac­com­plished what I set out to do and I wasn’t headed for a pro­fes­sional ca­reer. It just kind of ran its course for me.”

De­spite the im­por­tant role she played in Canada’s Iron­man his­tory, Brown says be­ing an ath­lete is some­thing she did – it doesn’t de­fine who she is.

“I’m 56. I com­peted for six years, but that’s 50 years of my life that I’ve done other things,” she said.

It has, how­ever, helped her keep fo­cused dur­ing a three-decades long teach­ing ca­reer, that has in­cluded coach­ing just about ev­ery sport of­fered in el­e­men­tary school while teach­ing in On­tario.

“I fell in love with teach­ing and mo­ti­vat­ing young peo­ple,” she said. “I wanted every­one to feel what it’s like to ex­cel.”

Since 2008, Brown has been teach­ing fu­ture teach­ers. She’s a pro­fes­sor in the Fac­ulty of Ed­u­ca­tion at Brock Univer­sity, where she won the Fac­ulty’s Ex­cel­lence in Teach­ing Award and de­liv­ered the Con­vo­ca­tion ad­dress dur­ing Brock’s 2018 spring grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony.

As for the sport of triathlon to­day, Brown said she’s en­cour­aged to see how far the sport has come for women.

“There’s more of an ac­cep­tance now for women in sport. There are still some is­sues, but when I see the avail­abil­ity for nutri­tion, train­ing and ev­ery­thing, it’s dif­fer­ent. I think peo­ple can re­ally ex­cel in their sport and they’re given the op­por­tu­nity to do so,” she said. “I live in Grimsby and we have a women’s-only triathlon where there are 600 women of all dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes tak­ing part. It’s just so cool.”

RIGHT 1983 was Hi­lary Brown’s sec­ond Iron­man in Kona. She re­mem­bers suf­fer­ing in the winds be­fore fi­nally fin­ish­ing.

Cour­tesy Hi­lary Brown, Dan Dakin

Brown at Brock Univer­sity

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