Frederick Ferraro has been saying he’ll race “one more year” for so long that no one believes him. “My friends just look at me and shake their heads and laugh,” he tells me. “But my body’s had enough. I’d like to move to Florida and start a harem.”
|2014 National Championships|
Both of us are on speakerphone, and I pause a beat, thinking maybe I’ve misheard, but no, Freddie’s just got a sense of humor. And maybe a fair bit of confidence.
“If you’re going to race at this level, you’re a single guy,” he explains. “You don’t have much of a life outside of triathlon. So I thought, lots of single women over in Florida.”
Everyone in the triathlon community calls this dapper 65 year old “Fast Freddie.” Retired from a career in advertising, Freddie has devoted most of his time and energy the last 12 years to triathlon. He currently lives in Southwest Austin (though he’ll be moving to Dallas in a few weeks) with his two cats Thomas and Grayson, who have offered companionship without complaint throughout what he refers to as the “triathlon era.”
On August 9, Freddie won the USAT 64-69 age group Olympic distance national championship in Milwaukee with a time of 2:16:57. Previous years at nationals he’d placed second, fifth, eighth, and ninth, but had never crossed the line first; this win, the culmination of years of hard work, came on the heels of many frustrations and disappointments.
Freddie suffers from Atrial Fibrillation (often referred to as AF or AFib), an irregular heartbeat that can lead to other complications, including stroke and heart failure. The condition is fairly common among veteran male endurance athletes, and some studies point to a causal link. Freddie has been involved in athletic competition for most of his life. He swam on a scholarship at the University of Texas in Arlington, and in 1985, he won a national championship in Hobie Catamaran racing. Over the years he also qualified for nationals in swimming and judo.
In all the sports he competed in, however, Freddie says triathlon was where he showed the most natural talent. In 2002, at 52 years old, he fell headlong into the sport, focusing on sprint and Olympic distances. He quickly hired a coach; for the last nine years, he’s worked with cogniTRI’s Stephan Schwarze. In 2005, Freddie had his first experience with AFib at the world championships in Hawaii, but he thought he might just be feeling the effects of dehydration. When it happened again at nationals the following year, he went to the doctor and found out about his heart condition.
The irony is, of course, that the habits of the life-long athlete—which likely led to the condition in the first place—don’t die any easier when the diagnosis is made. Freddie continued racing, though he says in recent years he starting going by “Not-So-Fast Freddie.” The condition and prescribed medications significantly hampered his ability to compete.
In 2007, he had an ablation, a type of surgery that destroys or isolates the structures responsible for triggering abnormal electrical signals in the heart. Unfortunately, as is common with this type of procedure, the arrhythmia reoccurred about a year and a half later, and he was back to square one. Afterward, he raced for two more years taking pills designed to keep his heart from going into AFib, but knew they were affecting his performance. He also felt that his heart was being pulled dangerously in two different directions during race efforts—the pills slowing it down while his body was trying to push it to its limits. In September 2013, he had a second ablation, and this time the treatment worked. On the same course and under roughly the same conditions, he was able to finish five minutes faster at nationals in 2014 than he had the previous year when he was still taking the pills.
Often the venue for nationals changes each year, but 2015 will be the third year in a row that Milwaukee will host the event. Freddie says of all the nationals he’s been to over the past 11 years, this is his favorite venue. Though the swim often becomes congested as competitors pass beneath a narrow bridge, the hilly bike course suits him, and Freddie says the city “rolls out the red carpet” for race participants. He plans to return to nationals again next year. One more time, he says.
Last year was supposed to be the finale, but his good result at nationals was tempered with an equally bad experience at the August 27 world championships in Edmonton, Canada. He came out of the water first in the swim, but then his body locked up in the cold temperatures, which hovered somewhere between 41 and 45 degrees. Cold and miserable, he didn’t finish the race. He decided he couldn’t go out on that note.
Freddie moved from Oregon to Austin in 2002 for the training opportunities and the warmer weather. He’s been a customer and friend of ATC shop owners Don and Missy Ruthven for more than a decade. “He trains like a pro,” Missy says. “Whatever he tackles, he tackles in full force.”
A common descriptor used for athletes—triathletes in particular—is “intense.” I used to worry when meeting someone for the first time who had been described in this way. I would imagine a recovering drug addict with the shakes, or one of those perpetually angry people who can’t drive a quarter mile without a road rage incident. When used for a triathlete, however, “intense” seems to describe a unique and admirable brand of overboard, a characteristic that’s essentially a prerequisite if an athlete plans to pursue the sport at an elite level. To be successful, you have to obsess about aero details and training plans; your day and your workouts must be fanatically regimented. For Freddie, triathlon has long been a full-time job.
What’s interesting about Freddie, maybe even a little refreshing, is that he doesn’t wax on about how wonderful the sport is. I think anyone who takes any type of activity to the highest possible level, whether it’s cake-making or multisport training, and can still love it day in and day out...well, good on them, but my guess is that they’re not pursuing it to the degree they could be, or they’re just plain crazy.
“It’s nothing but pain and train,” Freddie says of triathlon. “I can’t say I’m going to miss anything about this sport except the friends I’ve made and the people who’ve supported me through the years.”
I don’t know Freddie well, but I’m not sure I believe him. It’s true that at a certain point there’s more labor than love in competition, but when you devote years to a sport, it’s impossible to separate yourself from it without a little nostalgia. It’s a part of who you were, and in many ways, who you always will be.
Of course, with Freddie, the first question is whether he’ll even stop competing. If I was one of those lovely Florida ladies in contention, I think I’d jump the gun and meet him at the finish line in Milwaukee.