Never afraid to speak out, our most successful road runner Anne Audain has a cautionary tale she wants Kiwis to learn from.
During the golden era of running, Anne Audain became one of New Zealand’s most recognisable athletes.
Among her many achievements, she ran a world record 5000m time in 1982, won a Commonwealth Games gold medal in the 3000m later that year, competed at three Olympics, had a lucrative professional career on the American road racing circuit, and became the first woman to sign a deal with Nike.
As a result, her trailblazing story has been well told – not just by journalists and filmmakers – but by Audain herself.
“If you’ve got a story to tell and you can use that story to teach life lessons, it’s very important,” 66-year-old Audain says from her home in Evansville, Indiana.
Typically, it’s young people she shares her story with, in the many classrooms she’s been invited to speak in across the United States. Then there’s the countless women she’s inspired to become fitter and healthier – through the large Idaho women’s fitness celebration event she founded.
In these days of the pandemic, though, she has a cautionary tale to tell and it ends with a plea – to get vaccinated.
“The way life has been here in the United States and the stuff we are putting up with – New Zealand does not want to go down this road,” she says. “It doesn’t have to get this nasty.”
Audain is talking about the highly-politicised anti-vaccination movement and ‘infodemic’ she is living amongst.
“Indiana is a Trump state, a hard red state,” she explains. Only 47 percent of people in the state are fully vaccinated, despite wide vaccine availability. “Half the people refuse to wear masks.
“Here in our town, we’ve got overload. All the ICU beds are full. So the hospitals are stopping all other elective surgery. God help you if you have a heart attack or a car accident, because they can’t take you.
“Just about every state’s ICUs are full and they are having to open up other wards and turn them into ICUs and Covid units, taking away other procedures.”
But there are people still refusing to get vaccinated, she says, despite hospitals putting out clear data that shows the overwhelming majority of Covid-related hospitalisation and death is occurring among the non-vaccinated.
Audain has close links to the St Luke’s Health System, which runs the annual Idaho women’s fitness event she founded in 1993, and has been closely following their “preventable tragedy”.
Keen to spread the word, Audain recently shared a video on social media of the chief executive of St Luke’s Hospital reporting they are being “overwhelmed” with record patient volumes, and “absolutely crushed by Covid”, with ICUs overflowing with patients. Tellingly, he says 98 percent of them are unvaccinated.
“Getting vaccinated is not just about protecting your health,” Audain says. “It also protects those around you who you care about and may be more vulnerable.”
Audain is also mortified by what is occurring within the communities around her.
“Some people want their [so-called] ‘freedom’ – ‘my body, my choice’,” she says. “It’s got so extreme that when local school board members discuss mask mandates, there are parents spitting venom at them, threatening them, and turning up at their front doors with guns.”
Fully vaccinated herself, when Audain sees her neighbours out and about during her daily “walk-runs”, she treads carefully.
“I know the ones who are sane and I know the ones who are not. And it has got to the point where you don’t bring up any topic whatsoever … you just say hello to their dog.”
Audain has lived in the United States for the past 40 years. After retiring from road racing, she married American Chuck Whobrey, becoming stepmother to his daughter and now a proud grandparent, too.
But in the current climate, she says she definitely doesn’t identify as American.
“I tell my friends I’d move back to New Zealand tomorrow. The reason I’m here is due to circumstances. Although if I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have achieved what I did. I would have stayed in New Zealand and still been a schoolteacher, though there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Audain was a 20-year-old teacher at Yendarra School in Ōtara when she went to her first Olympics, in Montreal 1976.
“I’ve got pictures of me at the school with all my kiddos running behind me on the grounds. It was pretty cool. They all wrote postcards and letters,” she says.
She went on to teach at Auckland’s Papatoetoe Central School and Remuera Intermediate – experience that proved useful when later speaking to American school children.
“I don’t talk about my running accomplishments as such. I just take my story and use it as social experiences … explaining how I managed to get through, what I was up against – perseverance, bullying, all sorts of things,” Audain says.
She even includes positive messaging about adoption, something she knows about firsthand having been adopted out as a baby. She explains to kids: “it doesn’t really matter as long as you are loved.”
While Audain is now more than happy to share her adoption story, she understandably kept it under wraps when she was still an athlete, searching for her birth family when a new law paved the way.
“I was always fine with being adopted. My only thought was to tell someone she’d made the right decision and what a great life I’d had. To be able to say, ‘You did a tough thing, but look who I am.’ I just found a great deal more,” she says.
Imagining she’d only find her birth mother, Audain was amazed to discover that her birth parents had married each other one year after her birth and gone on to have six children.
Audain’s birth mother, Margaret Oosthoek, had already unsuccessfully tried to make contact with her. Having only been told her daughter’s name was Anne Frances, she mistakenly thought Frances (Audain’s middle name) was her surname.
So when Oosthoek unexpectedly received a call from Audain in 1987, she was gob-smacked to learn the baby she’d had 32 years earlier had become the Kiwi running sensation she’d seen on television.
It was in a motel in Hamilton where Audain first met her birth parents, a meeting she says went well. “They are a great family and we’ve had a lot of fun over the years.”
On her regular visits to New Zealand, Audain always visited her birth parents (her Dutch birth father, Johann Oosthoek, had immigrated to New Zealand after the Korean War), until they passed away in recent years.
“My adoption is a very positive story,” she says. “Because out of their own mouths, they said I would not be who I was if I’d stayed with them. They were a farming family in the Waikato and none of my siblings took part in sport. So I was meant to be adopted. It’s a classic example of nature and nurture.”
According to Audain, the schoolteacher in her has always remained. So what would she like to impart to today’s athletes, given the current challenges around athlete welfare and wellbeing?
“Stay off social media!” she says emphatically. “Or just create your own little family and friends page.”
She recommends athletes keep themselves focused and private.
“You’ve only got a short amount of time as a public sportsperson. It’s a career that ends early,” she says. “So you have to do your utmost to make it the very best you can, and if it means sacrificing the social side of your life for a few years, you won’t regret it. But you will regret it if you burn yourself out.”
Audain acknowledges she has always been “an honest and outspoken person.”
“That’s what I was known for. I can’t imagine what I’d be dealing with today – with social media,” she says.
In speaking out, Audain has never been afraid to call it how she sees it. In her autobiography, Uncommon Heart, she wrote candidly about overcoming debilitating foot problems as a child growing up in Ōtāhuhu, before discovering she loved to run. Following successful reconstructive foot surgery, she ultimately went on to be recognised as the ‘winningest’ female road runner in history.
Fast-forward to today and it is health, and vaccination, she cares deeply about. As always, she hopes her personal story will “help to educate”.
In the meantime, Audain dreams of the day she can easily return to New Zealand and envisages spending several months of each year here with her husband once they retire.