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Graham Fraser: Triathlon pioneer leads the pack

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Graham Fraser is where he likes to be, on his Cervélo S5 racing bike, out in Collingwood, Ont., for a morning ride. He pulls over to take a call on his cellphone from a reporter.

"I'm not on the street. I've stopped. I'm good," he says, before recounting his story. As one of Canada's main innovators in sports marketing and events, Mr. Fraser is part of the force that made fitness a lifestyle over the past 30 years.

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He is best known for starting what is now the Subaru Triathlon Series and for the growth of the Ironman brand in continental North America. In other words, he's the guy responsible for so many people's obsession with lap times, aero positions and running mileage. Now semi-retired, yet still just 53, Mr. Fraser started his first triathlon in Grimsby, Ont., in 1986. That event eventually led to the Subaru series and then to putting on longer, even more gruelling Ironman events.

"My objective is to get people riding, to get people fit, to get people in the lifestyle. We realized you have to create a brand. Ironman was a brand. That's what made it so successful for triathlon," he says in rapid fire, maybe a little out of breath from his ride. He speaks so quickly, it's as if someone is clocking his words.

Ironman and triathlon existed before Mr. Fraser became involved. The first Ironman competition was held in Hawaii in 1978. But Mr. Fraser helped build the brand when he purchased Ironman Canada, held in Penticton, B.C., which had been losing money, he said. He brought in new sponsors and turned the event around.

"And then I realized there was a demand for this in North America. So, I went to the Hawaii guys. I got the rights for all of North America from them, which was probably the smartest thing I ever did," Mr. Fraser said.

He went on to introduce an Ironman in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1999, "and then the thing just exploded." Ironman events sprang up throughout the continent, as they did globally. Basically, Mr. Fraser paid a licensing fee for the use of the name and put on the North American events.

He was eventually bought out in 2009 by U.S. investment firm Providence Equity, which had purchased the trademark and therefore had assumed control over the licence.

"I didn't want to sell. I wasn't out there searching for a buyer," Mr. Fraser said. "It was actually a hard thing for me to live through, because I was emotionally attached to it. I spent my life in it … and then you're told you're out. It was highly successful, and they wanted it."

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Around that time, the number of participants had grown in the United States alone by 11 per cent from 2008 to 2009, and 50 per cent the year before. It had also become more corporate, during Mr. Fraser's tenure in the sport.

"The sponsorship world has changed," he said. In the early days, "you'd put up some banners, and they'd be happy. Now it comes down to how many media hits, the TV package. How much direct sales do they get? It's all measured. So, it's much more sophisticated than it was back in those days."

Now Mr. Fraser is involved in charities and organizing, through his Centurion Cycling company, mass-participation cycling rides (known by the Italian gran fondo or French cyclosportive, and becoming increasingly popular in North America). But triathlon and Ironman events are still his career pinnacle.

"It was an everyman's Everest. Not everyone can climb Mount Everest, but you can [attain] an Ironman. If you really set your mind to it and work on it, you can do it. It really gives you that Everest feeling. People get the Ironman tattoo. It becomes a source of identity," Mr. Fraser said.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More


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