When Hines Ward stepped across the finish line at the Seal Sprint III Triathlon on Coronado Island on March 17, he breathlessly remarked, "It's a long way from the football field, I'll tell you that."
The former wide receiver, who retired in 2011, was wearing his NFL number, 86, on his triathlon bib. He had just completed a 500-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride and a 6K run, the first major milestone in his road to the 2013 Ironman World Championship as part of the Become One program. The program entails Ward and three other amateur athletes racing on the biggest stage in triathlon, the Hawaii Ironman, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride and 26.2-mile run.
To get Ward and the three other athletes (Eric McElvenny, Chrisann Dalton and Josh Kalb) across the finish line, Become One enlisted the coaching services of Paula Newby-Fraser, who has won the Ironman World Championship a record eight times, earning her the nickname "Queen of Kona." Her main goals are to get Ward to the Ironman start line this October uninjured and fit enough to finish the race before the 17-hour cutoff. But just three months ago, she was starting to have some doubts.
"Up until January, he wasn't really applying himself, mainly because he had so much on his plate," she says. Ward was traveling four days a week for work during the football season, and when Newby-Fraser would send him a week's worth of training, he'd pick and choose the workouts he wanted to do. "When he was traveling, I'd say, 'There's a fitness room in your hotel. Get the hell out of bed and go down there and just get on the elliptical for 30 minutes,'" she recalls. "And he didn't do that. There was no sense of urgency for him."
Now, based on his performance at his first race and his dedication to training the seven weeks prior, his coach has no qualms about him racing an Ironman this fall. "My goal was to turn him into what I call 'an addict.' In other words, I wanted him to wake up every day and want to work out and make the effort," she says. "And I'll tell you what -- in the last seven weeks, we have a full-fledged addict. ... The pendulum has swung so far the other way."
Obviously, Ward has a long way to go before he's ready to tackle 140.6 miles in the grueling lava fields of Hawaii's Big Island, but his first race was a good indicator for his coach. After setting a time goal of 1:30, Ward crossed the line in a time of 1:27:47. He was probably most proud of his run. He had built up only to run-walking in training, but he didn't walk a step during the 6K run. "To go 3.8 miles for a guy who's never run over a mile, I was happy," he says. In training, he had averaged 18.5 mph on rides; in the race he rode almost 21 mph. He averaged a little over 9 minutes per mile in run training; he averaged 8:30s in the race, a result that Newby-Fraser called "exceptional."
Their coach-athlete relationship is a valuable one in that Newby-Fraser not only knows the lava fields of Hawaii as well as anyone, but she also knows the training and sacrifice it takes to get across the finish line on Ali'i Drive. Because of that, she won't ever let Ward off easy. "One minute he's telling me about how he never wore sleeves when he played -- and he played in a conference in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, where he played outdoors -- and in the worst weather conditions he never wore sleeves because mentally that was his way of showing that the cold meant nothing," she says. "And then the next moment he's asking me what happens if it's cold and foggy the morning of the race. I'm like, 'Seriously?! Oh what a shame. I didn't realize that the Steelers were that sweet and delicate. Do you go sit on your heated benches indoors?' ... I have to keep bringing him back to how tough he allegedly is, but he's the same as everybody else behind the scenes."
But the aspect most needing improvement is his open-water swimming. "Open water was a huge, huge obstacle for him," Newby-Fraser says. "He's taken vacations to the beach, and he wouldn't go in further than his knees. ... His swimming is completely competent in the pool, so it's just taking the fitness that he has in his pool swimming and being able to take that into the open water."
Over the past two months, during his more focused triathlon training, Ward dropped from 228 pounds in January to 210 by his first race. He'll be racing the St. Anthony's Triathlon, an Olympic-distance race (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run) in April, and he plans to be close to 200 pounds by then. By his half-Ironman, Ironman 70.3 Kansas, in June, Newby-Fraser would like him to be around 195 pounds to help him be prepared for the pounding of the half-marathon. "By the time Kona comes around, I will be in probably the best shape of my life in 14 years of playing football, so I'm excited about that," Ward says.
Prior to being approached about the Become One program, Ward had considered running a marathon. "That was something that I really wanted to do -- to find a different way to stay in shape," he says. "But I really knew nothing about the endurance world. ... I love challenges, and this is by far the hardest challenge for me that I've ever been a part of."
The journey so far has been a humbling one. Ward has excelled in every challenge he's been given, whether it's been winning a Super Bowl (he was the MVP of Super Bowl XL) or winning a dance competition (he won Season 12 of the show "Dancing With the Stars"), but triathlon is a different story. "I have the mentality as a football player that I want to win every time, but you got to put things in reality when you come out here," he says.
Newby-Fraser has seen Ward's competitive edge come out in training. "He gets irritated when people pass him," she says. "We were riding down the [Pacific] Coast Highway [in San Diego], and when somebody passes on the bike, he always turns around and says, 'I hate this s---. I hate it when people pass me.' I go, 'Well, you need to do something about that then.' ... Hines doesn't like to lose."
The mental game will be a tough one for Hines, as up to 17 hours of individual racing in Hawaii is a far cry from a team effort in a Super Bowl. "When I was tired, fatigued, there were plenty of opportunities where I was like, 'Why the hell did I sign up for this?' where I could have quit and walked away," he says. "It was a lot of self-check, the don't quit mentality, to keep going and keep pushing through, to keep grinding through the pain. ... Paula can teach me everything that I know, but at the end of the day, I have to go out there and do it myself."
Throughout this journey, not only will Ward reap the rewards of his effort, but so will the sport of triathlon. Billed as one of the toughest sports on earth, it still hasn't seen even a fraction of the sponsorship and advertising dollars that go into major sports like football and basketball. But Ward brings new eyes to triathlon. "I think he is good for the sport because of his broad appeal and his broad reach," Newby-Fraser says. "What he's bringing is a fan base of people that I think didn't know what triathlon was in the first place, never mind knew what an Ironman was. ... So they're looking at Hines and seeing him struggle through it, and then they'll see like [reigning Ironman world champion] Pete Jacobs, and then they'll start to understand how good the professional triathletes are."
While Ward has a long road ahead of him in getting to Kona, he and his coach are keeping things light. Newby-Fraser has been a longtime San Diego resident and thus a die-hard San Diego Chargers fan, something she uses to her advantage. They have a bet going for Kona, where they'll set a goal for Ward's race. "I told him, 'You don't meet it, you walk around in a Chargers jersey of my choice for a week,'" she says. "We always threaten him with the powder blue."