Nathan Fa’avae conquered the world of adventure racing. By Michael Jacques
It was an unlikely start to an international sporting career: the back of a bus on a youth-at-risk day trip.
The bus was grinding gears over Takaka Hill and a tutor mentioned a race, the Kahurangi Challenge, which finished with a bike ride over this super-steep hill. From the back of the bus, a 17-year-old announced he could do that, to which the tutor asked: “What’s stopping you?”
And the rest is history. Last November, Nelson’s Nathan Fa’avae, now 43, returned from Brazil with his fourth adventure racing world title and called time on an extraordinary 26-year career.
We first noticed him at the 1991 Coast to Coast – the 17-year-old rookie with a mile-wide grin leading across the mountain run before climbing into a home-made kayak to eventually finish 12th. He popped up next on a mountain bike, representing New Zealand and racing professionally on the American circuit for five years.
In 1998, he returned to the Coast to Coast, finished third and then second the following year, both times behind nine-time winner Steve Gurney. He then joined Gurney’s adventure racing team, which won the prestigious Southern Traverse in 1999 and 2000, and thus began an international AR career second to none.
Nelsonians, who essentially enabled his early career, had always seen something special in this big, bold Samoan boy. Alongside his size, obvious physical power and competitiveness, there is a mana that gives others the confidence to follow. In 2001, Nathan formed his own adventure racing team. Finding sponsorship from IT giant Seagate, he picked the people he wanted to race with and which races they would do. They raced; he led, they followed. And more often than not, they won.
Seagate is the only team in history, and Nathan the only athlete in history, to have won every major adventure race in the world, many of them several times. But he has always been just as keen to turn out locally, winning races as varied as the Hutt City Crazyman to the veterans category at last year’s Coast to Coast, to all four Godzone races and local sea kayak races at home in Nelson.
It hasn’t all been roses. Sponsorship was often fickle and he has a heart condition – atrial fibrillation – that causes the heart to race at more than 250 beats a minute and for which he’s had three operations.
But it hasn’t all been for nothing. In between, he and wife Jodie developed and sold a successful kayak touring business, built a house overlooking his beloved Tasman Bay, and raised three kids on a diet of weekend adventures and overseas escapades. As well as sponsorship and winnings on the world circuit, he has a partnership in freeze-dried food company, Absolute Wilderness, and finds time to organise his own events, including the Spring Challenge women’s adventure race.
He’s also an in-demand public speaker and in 2015 published an autobiography, Nathan Fa’avae – Adventurer at Heart.
He’s tried to quit before, in 2005, after his team won its first adventure racing world title. But within a year he was back on the podium. So now, after 26 years, even if the international racing does stop, you’ll still see Nathan heading out for weekend adventures. Since aged 17 he’s known nothing else. It’s not what he does, it’s what he is… an adventurer at heart.
– Michael Jacques is an event organiser, former sports journalist and endurance athlete.