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Remembering triathlete Nina Kraft

Friends of the German triathlete wrestle with her death

Photo by: Frank Wechsel/ Spomedis

“The sun sank before evening.”

Those were the words that appeared at the top of the obituary for Nina Kraft. She was 51 when she passed away in her hometown of Braunschweig, Germany, on August 16, 2020.

“The world has lost a dear friend, an amazingly talented athlete, a fighter, a champion, a free spirit with a golden heart,” her close friend Renate Gaisser wrote on Facebook.

That was the person and incredible athlete I knew, too. I’d been on hand when she took second at the Ironman World Championship in 2002 and her two third-place finishes in 2000 and 2003. In that 2003 race she’d received a penalty for the second year in a row … while she was leading the race. Just days before I’d been part of a conversation in which Kraft had been speaking with race officials after the pro meeting. In her broken English, she was desperately trying to understand the “stagger” rule that required pros to ride in alternate positions down the road – one to the right, next to the left. While Kraft was in the lead, she wasn’t “staggered” from the male pro riding hundreds of metres ahead of her. Her frustration was obvious on camera as she tried to figure out what on earth she’d done wrong.

When Lori Bowden passed her on the run later in the race, she gallantly tried to hold off the sport’s fastest female runner, but would eventually fade and finish third.

A year later my wife and I were in Frankfurt, Germany, when Kraft took her second Ironman European Championship. After the awards ceremony, as we walked by an Italian restaurant close to our hotel, Kraft came out onto the sidewalk and invited us to join the group of friends celebrating her big win by drinking the huge bottle of champagne she’d received. (Ever since that night my wife has always referred to Belinda Granger as “the wild one.”)

So I felt comfortable after the awards ceremony at the 2004 Ironman World Championship, where Kraft had become the first German woman to win, walking over to give her a hug and congratulate her on her speech. She’d always say before an interview that her English wasn’t very good, so I knew that getting through the speech had been a challenge.

I described that hug in a column a few weeks later. She was so stiff it felt like I was hugging a piece of wood.

A few weeks later I would find out why she was so uncomfortable that night. Her post-race test came back positive for Erythropoietin (EPO). When officials reached out to her to ask if she wanted to have her “B” sample tested, she declined and immediately admitted to having taken the drug.

“Why did you dope,” Kraft was asked in an interview with Germany’s Triathlon Magazine two years later.

“I was under extreme pressure in 2004,” she said. “I wanted to win the Ironman in Hawaii. I wanted that more than anything, but I had the feeling that there, of all places, I wouldn’t get the same opportunities as others. I was almost paranoid. For two years in a row I was given time penalties for alleged drafting while I was in the lead. Nobody understood that at the time. I was so angry – it couldn’t be a coincidence!”

Many in the German triathlon community have said that paranoia was fueled by her boyfriend and coach at the time, Martin Malleirer. When I interviewed her before her comeback Ironman race in Malaysia in February, 2007, I asked where Malleirer was. He was out of her life, she said.

In her post-race interview with the German magazine after that Malaysia race, we learned just how difficult it had been for her after her positive drug test in 2004.

“I barricaded myself in my apartment, just cried and tried again and again to numb my feelings,” she said. “At some point I happened to read a newspaper article about the tour winner Marco Pantani, who was suspected of doping and died in a hotel in 2004 from a cocaine overdose. This article saved my life. It said how, after the doping suspicion became known, everyone attacked him and his fans beat him up. Now, after his drug death, they make a pilgrimage to the grave on the day he died. When I read that, it clicked on me and I said to myself: “I won’t break myself anymore, I’ll live on.” Because triathlon is not life, there are other things too. I’ve learned that by now.”

Kraft always said she had been able to forgive herself.

“When you screw up, you have to be aware that you can get caught,” she said. “In spite of everything, it was a good thing that I at least confessed to my doping offense and didn’t go the way that so many convicted dopers do. I was honest – and I give myself credit for that.”

“Nina was so much deeper and loving than most anyone knew. Maybe because she had such a tough exterior, was so stereotypical German, had won numerous Ironman races around the world, and the public saw her as so other-worldly, so much so that she was at times referred to as ‘Nina die Maschina.’ Most people never knew the real Nina because they refused to see the human, fragile, loving Nina …Her depression ate her alive — it is a feeling so many endurance athletes go through.”

Hammy Handwerker

Kraft would serve her ban, then returned to racing. Her immense talent saw her take another five Ironman titles. At one of those, in 2014, at the age of 45, she won Ironman Louisville, becoming the oldest woman to win an Ironman race. Her resume also includes wins at the Tallahassee and Gasparilla marathons in 2009.

Photo: Hammy Handwerker

Moving on

She might have forgiven herself, as had many of her friends, but others in the triathlon community never forgot the 2004 offence. I had dinner with a pro after one of Kraft’s three Ironman Louisville wins who told me she’d spat on the German when she passed her on the run course.

“Ask any one of those age groupers and pros who pounded her into the ground, even after she admitted her wrongdoing after her positive test … if they’ve ever cheated on their spouse, cheated in a race even the very slightest way like cutting a corner on the inside of cones, cheated on their taxes, or stolen just a tiny bit from their job … those people would not be able to look in the mirror,” said her close friend for almost 20 years, Hammy Handwerker. “Time after time, I told Nina to just stop giving a crap about what other people thought of her. I know it’s not easy and it takes time, but if you know in your heart that you’ve done right, or fixed your wrong, or whatever you want to say, then you’re good with God or whoever you report to. The people who loved Nina most we’re the ones who were honest with themselves, people newer to the sport without the direct memory of what happened, and people mature enough to realize that we all make mistakes in life.”

“And remember, Nina did the right thing and owned up to her mistake immediately,” Handwerker continued. “That type of character is exactly how my parents raised me: the more quickly we own up to our mistakes, the less severe the punishment, the better we feel about ourselves, and, hopefully, the less damage we do to our relationships with others. Think about the laundry list of professional triathletes who tested positive and denied, denied and denied, or, simply hung up their goggles, bikes and shoes, and walked away from the sport with the money they made. Nina was an athlete who truly loved our sport, and had the good sense to do what is right, and wanted to get back to winning and contributing when she could no longer race at the level she aspired to. I know Nina forgave herself, because we talked about it, but she just kept worrying about other people’s opinions.”

Kraft eventually moved to Clermont, Florida and found herself amongst an understanding community.

“When I first went there, I wondered what the Americans would think of me. But they approached me openly and said: ‘It’s great that you’re back, and it’s good that you told the truth. Everyone deserves a second chance,’” she said in that Triathlon Magazine interview.

“She was very much welcomed and accepted in the Clermont community,” says Kimberly Grogan, a friend and training partner whose entire family (her husband Kevin and their two children) cherished their time with Kraft. “There were so many shiny parts to her story – she was so giving. Everybody around her loved her. So many people have stories and remember what she said to them.”

“She was a loyal and generous friend,” Doug Guthrie wrote on Kraft’s Facebook page. “She was a free spirit and a fierce competitor. She showed me and anyone else who trained with her what it took to be great. On tough days she would remind me that ‘We are not training for a walk in the flower garden.’ She helped to achieve a goal I had been chasing for over eight years and then helped me to do it again. I am thankful for every minute. I am forever changed for the better because of her.”

“Nina, my only hope is that you are remembered for all the beautiful things you were in this world, not your one mistake. Not everyone got to see your determination, grit, toughness, mental fortitude, and not everyone got to see that you were also soft, and kind, and caring.”

Kerry Librada Girona

According to friends and acquaintances, Kraft struggled after she retired from elite racing.

“If she wasn’t training, she’d be really depressed,” her friend and training partner Kerry Librada Girona said.

“She had a hard time with that,” said another former friend and training partner, Kimberly Grogan. “She didn’t know what she’d do after she retired from triathlon.”

After she broke up with her partner, Tim Johnson, Kraft moved to Leesburg, a small town not far from Clermont, but far enough that she wasn’t as close to the supportive community that she’d come to cherish. Librada Girona started to worry about her friend when she learned that she’d given up her two dogs – “that was a really bad sign,” she said. In the fall of 2019 she returned to Germany, a tip that got extended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moving on … for the rest of us

I’ve always wondered why, when it comes to the world of sports, fans seem ready to forgive some athletes who test positive, and not others. I am not the only person who was quite sure that, as she said, the only time Kraft ever took a banned substance was during that lead up to Kona in 2004. Her close friend Renate Gaisser was equally as convinced.

“This was one and done,” Gaisser said in a phone interview from her home in Orlando, Fl. “This wasn’t a situation like Lance Armstrong with a team of doctors and a sophisticated doping plan.”

Gaisser looks at pictures of her win in Kona and recognizes that Kraft was obviously uncomfortable even as she was winning the race – looking down as opposed to the victory salute she displayed at the win in Frankfurt earlier that year.

“If she had known how much heartache she would have caused with her family and herself, she would never have taken that step,” Gaisser continued. “I know it in my heart she would never have done it again.

It is important to acknowledge, though, that Kraft only admitted to the offence after her test came back positive.

I have wrestled with the anti-doping system for years because, as much as I am opposed to illegal drug use and would love to see offenders banned for ever, Nina Kraft’s story forces me to rethink the process. If we don’t have a system where people can pay for their mistakes and move on, we’ll continue to reward those who play the “deny” game and continue to abuse the system. Can we have a system that is severe enough, but still allows those who want to clean up their act to continue with their career?

This is the quandary I grapple with: Nina Kraft did cheat leading into that day in Kona. She did own up to it, but only after she got caught. But after that she seemed genuinely remorseful to me and others. Is a lifetime ban from sport the appropriate response for her offense?

According to Gaisser, one f the reasons Kraft continued to race after her positive test and worked so hard was because “she wanted to show people that it was a one-time thing … to prove to the world what an outstanding athlete she was.”

I keep wracking my brain to come up with a time that Nina Kraft let me do another interview with her at a race after I spoke with her in Malaysia in 2007. I don’t think she ever did – she gave up on trying to talk to the press after that. What I do remember is the way I convinced her to come and speak to a group of children I was coaching at a training camp in Clermont one year.

She tried to say she couldn’t because of her English, then tried to say they wouldn’t be interested in hearing from her. When I said it would mean a lot to them, she agreed. She was a hit with the group that night, as she was with so many who remember her as Renate Gaisser does: a woman who “never judged anyone, treated everyone the same, was an adventurous free spirit with a great sense of humour who was fun to be around.”

This story originally appeared in the November, 2020 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada