A distinguished athelete with nine years of competitive experience, Paula Newby-Fraser is known among a growing circle of fans as a "Zen triathlete." Often called “the ironman competition” because of its great demands on physical endurance, a triathlon is a long-distance race which combines swimming, bicycling and running. Triathlon will be formally recognized as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Born in Zimbabwe in [TK], Newby-Frazier’s childhood in Durban, South Africa included years of classical ballet training. Her interest in Buddhism began when her mother, enamoured of Asian and African religious culture, took her to a lecture by a Tibetan lama. Newby-Frazier, who describes herself as a "total dabbling yuppie buddhist beginner," practices with a Tibetan lama and is an avid reader of Buddhist books. Presently she lives in Encinitas, California, where she owns and operates athletic training camps which emphasize "practicing right regimen".
This interview took place in Encinitas and was conducted for“Tricycle”by Allan Hunt Badiner.
Are you an Olympic hopeful? Not at all. My days of doing sport for God and country are long gone. I am a triathlete because it is how I make a living and because I enjoy the sport. In any event, I'll be retired by the next Olympics. That's something for the younger athletes.
I understand that there is something special about the Ironman competition in Hawaii. What is it? It's the most challenging international competition and it's in a spectacular setting. There's an active volcano and a fascinating spiritual history of the island and it's people connecting the energy of the volcano to a spirit called Pele. Several of us have noticed that people who do not connect with this legend, and are not respectful of this tradition do not do well in the race. I've seen the best athletes fall apart there time and time again. You need to connect with what is going on there, and it is a whole different energy. You have to go there with a respectful manner. It really has moved me toward a more spiritual life.
Was it transformation and salvation that motivated that movement, or was it another technology for winning the race? I'm not sure. When I first went there it was winning the race. But continuing to win requires more. Every year it is different and more challenging.
How big an influence was your early exposurethrough your mother to Buddhism and Indian festivals in Durban? It opened my horizons a bit, but I always thought it was peculiar. We would go somewhere and my mother would be wearing a sari. Then she became more focused on Buddhism and used to disappear some weekends to a Buddhist retreat center. My brother wrote his thesis on Buddhism and Psychotherapy and then disappeared into a Buddhist monastery in Scotland.
So you grew up with family members disappearing into retreats. Do you think that your growing interest in Buddhist practice will in any way threaten your ability to compete or lessen your desire to win? No. Because I'm really not all that consumed with winning. When I go to those long races, it's not about winning. It's more about giving up on myself.
Giving up on yourself? There is a certain feeling that you strive for... effortlessness. You are cruising along and it's effortless. That's what I go after. I don't need to be concerned about where someone else is. If I can get to the point of effortlessness, both physically and mentally, then I'm probably going to have a great race.
Now that you are on a break for a couple of months, do you continue to work out? I don't have to train right now, but I do continue to run. I like to get up in the morning and go for a run. Running is the thing I like best.
It's beyond enjoyment isn't it? Aren't you hooked on runners high? Oh yes! But it's not just that. Running is really a grounding experience. I love that you can just put on your running shoes and walk out your door and start. With biking, you have to worry about equipment and traffic; with swimming, you have drive and find a pool, and then you get wet and sometimes cold.
Do you have a daily practice? Not sitting meditation, although I go for occasional weekend retreats, and meet with the visiting lamas. But I do daily moving meditation. Being in my body completely as I run is a deep practice for me. I read the book about the monks of Mt. Hei in Japan and I know what is is to run twenty-five miles in a day. My practice of Buddhism is to keep a balance in my life. I also like to develop my concentration and ground myself by working in the garden. I spend a lot of time in the garden. I have a Buddha image there.
Do you find sitting mediation difficult? Very difficult. I will explore this further one day. I'm sure the space will come soon because I will be retiring from competition and I'll have the time and motivation to break thru. But I still have a hard time sitting for an hour. I'm learning about the little tricks, the different cushions that keep you supported. But a lot of the problem is the inactivity of it.
Because you are such an active person? When I'm alone and running, for like two and a half hours, I feel it is a meditation. Some of the races I do take me nine hours. I have nine hours with myself. Sure there is stuff going on, but there are stretches out there where you are...