Sharon Prutton lives by a motto coined by a friend: ‘Keep the old woman out’.
“I mix with like-minded people, and we all try to keep the old women out,” says Prutton, who takes an almost daily dip at dawn in the nippy waters around Christchurch. “I need to keep moving, keep doing things.”
Prutton, who’s 71, is just back home from the Middle East where she holidayed in Oman. That’s nothing unusual for a woman her age, except the vacation came straight after she’d won two world titles at the world age-group triathlon championships in Abu Dhabi.
It was the first time Prutton has a world champion in traditional triathlon – but not her first time as a world champ.
Prutton is an outstanding age-group athlete, who’s been able to turn her hand to several different sports and become the best in the world at them. Starting in her 40s, and continuing through to her 70s.
Back in 2009, she won her 55-59 age group at the XTERRA world championships (that’s a cross triathlon of swimming, mountain biking and trail running), and returned to Maui three years later to follow that up with victory in the 60-64 age group.
Then in her 60s, Prutton decided to try out road cycling. Under the coaching of one of her four children, she won another three world titles – this time, two in the time trial and one in the road race.
Always on the look-out for something different, she decided to learn how to swim. Six years later, she’s a world triathlon champion in the 70-74 year old women, in both the standard Olympic distance and the super sprint. And she won both titles convincingly.
But wait, there’s more. Before all of that, Prutton won her age group in the Coast to Coast ‘Longest Day’ event six times – five years in a row in the 40-49 age group. And that gut-busting event, from Kumara to Prutton’s home suburb of Sumner, has also been dubbed the world multisport championship.
So adding those, that would total 13 world titles.
Prutton, though, is one of the most humble world champions you’ll meet. She’d like to think her children are proud of her achievements but knows her six grandchildren love her cache of medals.
“One of the reasons I do it is that I need to have competition,” she says.
“I like competition. It’s just fun. And I always feel if I could do it anyone could.”
Every decade it seems, Prutton has looked to do something different in her life.
She was a squash player for 10 years early in her adult life, and started running with a group of other young mums to keep up her squash fitness.
“It’s always been important to me to take time for yourself. When I started running with a group of girls at Sumner, we’d take our children to the creche twice a week and go for a run. It really helped,” she says.
She joined the Sumner Running Club, which focuses on adventure running. “That’s how I got into Coast to Coast. I did 10 of them in my 40s,” Prutton says.
Sharon Prutton with silver from her first UCI world road cycling championships in 2014.
That’s essentially what got her into bike riding. Alongside her stash of world championship medals (there are almost as many silvers), Prutton owns three prized UCI rainbow jerseys.
She’s the sole Kiwi cyclist in the UCI Gran Fondo (or masters) world championships’ hall of fame for winning three world titles, in 2015 and 2016.
And she gives a lot of credit for that to her son, Marc Prutton – one of New Zealand’s leading endurance cycling coaches.
He’s the national junior men’s road cycling coach, one of the few New Zealand coaches to hold a UCI Level 3 coaching diploma, and also has a high-performance training company, Prutton Training Systems.
“He gives me programmes for all my events. He’s a very good coach, but I’m biased,” his proud mum says.
“Back in my younger days, when I did Coast to Coast, no one had coaches then. Marc keeps me from overtraining, which is very easy to do if you love it. That’s one of the things I’ve learned – quality over quantity.”
Leading up to the world triathlon age group championships last month, Prutton’s training schedule involved two or three runs a week, cycling on her time trial bike three times (one ride on the rugged hill ridges behind Sumner), and two swimming sessions in the pool over winter.
“I can start swimming in the ocean at Corsair Bay with a wetsuit on, now it’s heading into summer,” she says. The sea temperature was a mild 16 degrees Celsius last week.
But Prutton isn’t afraid of a little cold water. She also belongs to the Scarborough Dippers, a club of mostly women who dip into the ocean, lakes or rivers almost every morning of the year.
The hardy dippers – who include new New Zealand Cricket president, Lesley Murdoch – were at Christchurch Airport to welcome their multiple world champion home.
“We’re mostly women, and a few men – we can get up to 60 dippers some mornings,” Prutton says. “A couple of them are in their eighties.”
The water temperature in Abu Dhabi was considerably more balmy, 28 degrees Celsius, when Prutton dived into the water – amidst thousands of blasé jellyfish – for the 1500m swim in the standard distance tri.
“The water was lovely, and the jellyfish just kept to themselves,” she says. She’s been learning to swim competitively in a group of four women through Christchurch open water coaching squad Fit and Abel.
Although American Mary Hager, who’s 73, led Prutton out of the water, the Kiwi was able to overtake her on the 39km bike ride – her strength. And by the end of the 8.7km swim, Prutton won by 15 minutes.
(She won the super sprint title two days earlier, beating another American, Ruth King, by five minutes).
Of all the disciplines she excels at, Prutton loves mountain biking the most. Although she hasn’t contested a world championship in that code, she’s raced the ‘granddaddy of all endurance mountain bike races’, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB. That’s over 100 miles through the Colorado Rockies.
She’s had my fair share of injuries, more from running than anything else, she reckons. “But I can usually get through them. I’ve always said if you can get to the startline, you’re halfway there,” she says.
She feels she needs to start doing more yoga to keep supple, but at the same time, she gets plenty of exercise spending time with her grandkids and in her large garden.
“I like doing something every day, but it’s not always easy,” she says. “Your enthusiasm wanes as you get older, and if you take a break, it’s hard getting back into it.
“You have to accept the times you do as you get older. You can’t get hung up on times you used to do – just be happy with what you can do now.”
But Prutton isn’t content to retire yet. She’s seriously considering her first half Ironman in Kona next year. “And maybe returning to XTERRA, and more road cycling. The 2024 world championships are in Melbourne, and I could visit my other grandkids while I’m there,” she says.
“I’ll keep doing tris over the summer [she raced in the Pak N Save triathlon festival at Lake Rua on Sunday] and whatever else pops up.”
She’s determined to keep the old woman out.