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The ironwoman who just wanted a hug

After years of pain and anguish, Teresa Adam still can't believe she is New Zealand's latest Ironman star. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

As Teresa Adam crossed the finish line of the Ironman in Cairns, she was overwhelmed by successive waves of emotion – first relief, then disbelief, joy and finally, loneliness.

She lay on her back on the red carpet, the weekend before last, and sobbed. She’d just won the Asia-Pacific Ironman championship, in only her second attempt at an Ironman.

She’d stripped almost five minutes off the course record, and to her amazement, held off one of the legends of the sport, three-time world champion Mirinda Carfrae. The win gave Adam automatic entry into one of the most exalted and gruelling events in sport – the Kona Ironman in Hawaii.

The victory had not come without years of pain. Four years earlier, Adam – who had represented New Zealand in both water polo and triathlon - wondered if she would ever run again, after a series of terrible injuries had left her “broken”.

Yet here she was, at 28, a champion in the latest discipline of her up-and-down sporting career. But she was sad that, as she crossed the line in Cairns, there was no one to share the euphoria with her.

“I’m here by myself,” Adam told the race announcer, as she sat up, her voice cracking. “None of my family could come over. But I know they’re watching at home.”

She was so new to the world of iron men and women, there were few who knew her well enough to bundle her up in a hug.

“It’s been a massive journey,” she told the crowd.

Adam is essentially her own coach. She and her partner, Dan Furminger – a bike fitter by trade and a talented road cyclist – work as a team to prepare her for the challenges of Ironman, the toughest one-day endurance race on the planet. 

They live together in the west Auckland suburb of Swanson, where Adam grew up and is still surrounded by family. Although Adam and Furminger both went to Massey High School (where her grandad, Jack Adam, was the founding principal), they didn’t meet each other until 2015.

It was at a triathlon, where Furminger and his twin brother, Steve, needed a third team member to do the swim leg. Adam put her hand up. “We were best friends from 'minute one',” she says.

Furminger helped to turn her life around. Had she not met Dan, she says, she would never have crossed that finish-line first.

Although they couldn’t afford for him to join her in Cairns, he will be by her side in October for the Ironman world championships in Kona.

Back in Swanson, taking a week off to rest, Adam curls up on a sofa and talks through the trials of the last decade.

“Everything I went through was horrific. But I’m still grateful for it,” she says. “I got to meet Dan. I came back to my family and reconnected with old friends. I went to university, and I got a job. I’ve still come out the other side as a professional athlete.

“Maybe if I hadn’t been through it all, I wouldn’t have been able to win an Ironman.”

Adam now realises she was always cut out for endurance. She began playing water polo at Swanson Intermediate, quickly rising to the New Zealand women’s team while she was still at high school. “I was the kid who could play entire games of water polo, and wouldn’t miss a minute at a tournament,” she says.

She was offered scholarships to US colleges, but wasn’t ready to leave her home and her horses. She played in an Olympic qualifying tournament, but when New Zealand didn’t make it through to the 2008 Beijing games, she needed another challenge.

Friends suggested she try swim-run events. Because of her swimming strength, she’d be out of the water first, but get swamped on the run. It took her a while to become a runner.

At 18, she bought a bike and tried triathlons “for fun”. Within a year, she was representing New Zealand – competing at the 2009 Youth Olympics in Australia, where she finished sixth. She achieved the same placing the next year at the world under-23 championships.

“The longer I go, the stronger I get."

- Teresa Adam

When she stepped up to the full triathlon distances on the ITU world series, she felt stronger. But at the same time, she started to get injured.

“I discovered that you can’t fast-track any sport,” Adam says. In only her second year in triathlon, she was in the New Zealand high performance squad, living and training in Colorado and Germany.

“My personality is to go hard, all the time. So I was trying to keep up with the seasoned professionals. But I didn’t have the background in cycling or running, or the time to develop it. That’s how I got the injuries,” she says.

In 2011, Adam underwent surgery on both legs for compartment syndrome – where pressure builds up in muscles from bleeding or swelling after an injury, and can stop blood flow.

“I tried to come back and race after that, but my legs were just stuffed,” she says. Still in the high performance squad, she struggled to find the right advice, but continued racing.

Adam was one of five women shortlisted to compete for New Zealand at the 2012 London Olympics. “I didn’t make the team, which was fine, because I was already in a lot of pain,” she says.

“I felt so confused. I was competing at a really high level in the swim and on the bike, but I couldn’t run.

“I look back now and see it was a big mismanagement. It was a lot going on for a young person, who’d come from a water background. Because I had the fitness, I could go faster. But in fact, my body was breaking down."

Then she developed a bulging disc in her spine, and was at her wits end. Team-mate and Olympian Debbie Tanner suggested she see George Duncan, the All Blacks’ muscle therapist. “I called him and started crying. ‘I don’t know you, but I’m broken’,” Adams says.

Duncan examined her legs and told her to stop running and training at once. So began her exhausting years of rehabilitation.

She worked with Gilbert Enoka, the All Blacks' mental skills coach, sports doctor Lynne Coleman, sports chiropractor Iain Wood, and yoga teacher Jennifer Duncan.

Adam also decided to learn more about her how her body worked, studying at AUT to become a personal trainer, certified in sports massage. She also studied coaching through Triathlon NZ and Bike NZ.

She has now her own business, Teresa Adam Coaching, with Furminger adding his expertise helping fit bikes to athletes. She coaches triathletes “to help them so they won’t go through what I’d been through”.

But she still couldn’t let go of her own dream to compete at an Olympics. When she first met Furminger, she was trying to get back into triathlon, but lacked fitness.

“We’d go out riding together, but she was knackered,” Furminger says. “She still wanted to be a professional but she wasn’t doing the miles.”

He came up with a training plan. “He was a genius. He taught me how to get fit properly - what’s real and what’s fluff,” Adam says. “I don’t need to do anything fancy. Just a lot of miles, and a lot of hard work.”

Returning to sprint triathlons only made her anxious and stressed. So she tried longer distances over the half Ironman in Rotorua. “I was so happy. I realised triathlons and speed weren’t for me.”

At the beginning of this year, Adam had to choose her goal: the triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics or the 2020 Kona Ironman. It wasn’t a difficult decision.

“The longer I go, the stronger I get,” she says.

Ada held off three-time world champion Mirinda Carfrae on the run leg in Cairns. Photo: Ironman.com

In March, on her 28th birthday, she lined up for Ironman New Zealand, in Taupo. A 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride, and 42.2km run. “I’d never run a marathon before, never rode for 180km. In fact, I’d never trained for more than six hours,” she says.

Yet she finished second in 9h 5m, overtaking last year’s winner, American Jocelyn McCauley, on the run. “It was such a happy day. All along the course, people were calling out ‘happy birthday!’” she laughs.

For last weekend’s Cairns Ironman, which doubled as the Asia-Pacific championships, Adam’s strategy was to stick to what she knew she could do in training. As tempted as she was to chase American Lauren Brandon in the swim at Palm Cove, she “swam my own swim”, and was second out of the water, two minutes behind.

She caught Brandon and took the lead 120km into the cycle from Port Douglas to Cairns - not by looking at the rider on the horizon, but watching the wattage on her bike’s power metre, and sticking to what she knew she could sustain.

Then her closest rival became Ironman star Carfrae, returning to the sport after the birth of her daughter. “She’s the best runner in the sport, maybe ever, and she was chasing me down,” Adam says. “She looks beautiful when she runs; I felt like an elephant. But I thought if she caught me, I’d still be proud of myself.”

But Carfrae ran out of steam, and Adam kept running at her same steady pace, using sheer willpower to keep her legs going.

Carfrae was more than impressed by the virtually unknown athlete who beat her. “I didn’t really know anything about her. Well, the girl can swim, the girl can ride and the girl can run, so it was a phenomenal day for her,” the Australian said after finishing second. “She will be one to watch in the future.”

Adam set a new race record of 8h 53m, “because of how fast I went on the bike. That’s Dan’s bike knowledge coming to the fore.” She broke the benchmark set last year by Australian Sarah Crowley - who went on to finish third at Kona, despite crashing her bike mid-race.

The US$30,000 (NZ$42,700) prize purse means Adam and Furminger will be able to train in the United States before attacking Kona, racing against the top 34 Ironwomen in the world.

“I totally get that it’s going to be another level up. But if I’ve done the preparation, I’ll know I’ll be doing my best. I’ll stick to my numbers,” she says.

“Regardless of what happens, I’ll be more than happy with my first year. I’ve learned I can still be a high performance athlete, but be a normal person too.”

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