Triple threat: Shawn Fredricks swims, bikes, runs into hall of fame
JANESVILLE—Perhaps the best word to describe the start of Shawn Fredricks' athletic career—one that culminates in a Janesville Sports Hall of Fame induction May 10 at the Janesville Country Club—would be inauspicious.
A 1974 graduate of Jefferson High, she was still in school when Title IX went into effect in 1972. One of the first sports offered to girls in Jefferson was swimming. Fredricks, a self-described “pool rat” in those days, decided to give it a try.
It didn't take long—a day, a week; she couldn't remember exactly—before she quit the team. It turns out workouts consisting of aptly named lung-busters—drills in which swimmers swim the length of the pool in one breath—can chase off even the best of athletes.
When track season rolled around, it happened again. After one day of practice, Fredricks called it quits.
“I was much better at cheering the boys on while they were running cross country, and looking back, it's like, man, I should've been out there,” Fredricks said.
It wasn't until she joined the swim team at UW-La Crosse, where she earned her bachelor's degree in physical education in 1978, that she learned an important lesson about team sports.
“You don't have to be the fastest to be part of the team or to make a difference,” Fredricks said.
Even after that revelation, it took her a while to find her running legs. Once she did, trying to stop her—or beat her—became an exercise in futility.
In 1982, the same year Fredricks finished her master's degree at UW-Whitewater, she discovered a sport that melded her newfound running talent with her swimming background: triathlon. She just needed to learn how to race on a bike. Guided by a fiery competitive spirit and the support and encouragement of her husband, Dan, Fredricks found her way quickly.
Fredricks was one of the first female triathletes from southern Wisconsin, and she grew into one of the best in the country.
She broke onto the national triathlon scene in the mid-1980s, shortly after having her only child, Tucker, who has hall-of-fame credentials of his own as a three-time Winter Olympics veteran.
Her first attempt to qualify for the national team sent her and her family to Detroit to compete in a regional event. Shawn remembers the feeling of intimidation and inadequacy when she looked around and saw the competition's elaborate gear, but the feeling melted away when she crossed the finish line as a national qualifier.
She repeated the feat in Chicago soon after to prove it wasn't a fluke. It was the first of seven U.S. World Championship teams for which she would qualify.
At one of those world championship events in Manchester, England, she and her family arrived early and made quick friends out of members of the hotel staff. The Fredrickses still exchange Christmas cards with some of them. Tucker raced in Manchester, too, in a children's triathlon after their new friends helped them track down a bike he could use. Known these days for his speedskating exploits, he actually won his first medal in an international competition as a young boy when he took third place in his age group.
Tucker said in an email his time traveling with his parents and seeing Shawn “focus and perform at a top level” helped him in his growth as an athlete.
“I truly believe that helped me in being comfortable competing against the world, as well, and also to take the time and enjoy the moment,” Tucker said. “She has earned something she truly deserves, being selected into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame, and I am very proud of her.”
In addition to her world championship racing, Fredricks took on three daunting Ironman races between 1987 and 1991. Ironman races, some of the most grueling endurance events in the world, consist of a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride, topped off with a full 26.2-mile marathon.
Fredricks never worried about putting too much mileage on herself. Just a week before finishing ninth in her age group in one of her Hawaii Ironman races, she took sixth at the Triathlon World Championships in Australia.
The distance disparity—the course in Australia was much shorter than the seemingly neverending Ironman course—presented as big a challenge as the raw mileage itself.
As Shawn climbed the ranks in the American triathlon hierarchy, she built a fruitful career as a health/physical education teacher and track/cross country coach in the Beloit School District.
Hired out of college in 1978, Fredricks won a handful of honors for her work in the classroom and community, including being named a Woman of Distinction in sports and education by the Janesville and Stateline YWCAs in 1989, winning PTO Teacher of the Year in 1991 and a School District of Beloit All-Star Award in 1998.
She no longer works in the classroom but has co-authored and administered grants for the school district.
All told, the number of events in which Fredricks won or placed reaches into the triple digits—including Janesville Half-Marathon titles in 1988, 1990 and 1996, but she is quick to credit the people around her.
“The people I trained with definitely made it a very special part of my life,” she said.
Jessica Lawton, a friend and Ironman training partner who also coaches cross country at Janesville Craig, is one of those people Shawn Fredricks lured into the world of triathlon when Lawton was in high school in the mid-1990s.
Fredricks' contagious passion for physical fitness and competition made her an influential figure in the area's endurance sports community, especially for other women.
“She was running races before it was popular, and she was good at it,” Lawton said. “She was embedded in the community as a top female athlete.”
Fredricks wound down her competitive triathlon career in 1997 as Tucker began pursuing his international speedskating career.
People asked her during her semi-retirement why she wasn't signed up for this race or that race, but supporting Tucker filled her with plenty of pride and excitement.
“I was having too much fun following Tucker around and supporting his effort to do what he wanted,” Fredricks said. “When you're watching your own child do things, you're engaged with it.”
So it didn't seem like she was giving anything up when it came to her career, she said.
Tucker eventually reached a point where he didn't need his parents to take him to every practice or competition. Shawn filled the free time the only way she knew how.
She entered the first-ever Madison Ironman on Sept. 15, 2002, a racing experience she names among the best of her career.
“It was such a treat to be able to race 'at home,'” Fredricks said. “My family was there; my friends came up; my son was back (from his training) and at the finish line.”
Most recently, she ran the Madison Ironman for the third time in 2011 and won the 55-59 age group in a time of 12:39:51—1:05:06 for the swim, 6:19:30 for the bike ride and 4:59:34 for the marathon.
Even when she isn't racing herself, it isn't uncommon to find her along race courses, cheering on the competitors, Lawton said.
As for her future, Fredricks thought the 2011 finish might be her last in an Ironman, “but then I saw what people were doing at 60, and I thought, 'I can do that,'” she said.
She calls her Hall of Fame induction—she joins a 2014 class that includes Joe Kaster, Eric Burdette, George Lynch and Joe Dye—humbling. It's likely that one day, she'll be joined in the hall by a familiar face.
“I'm excited because I'm hopeful that Tucker will also be inducted someday, and that would be pretty sweet.”