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2006 has been year of triumph, agony for triathlete
by: Jeff Gross, Mark Fretta’s triathlon career has had its ups and downs, never more so than this year. He earned a No. 1 world ranking, then had his season cut short because of a fall.

Mark Fretta tumbled off his bike three weeks ago, taking his dream season with him.

The 1995 Jesuit High grad cracked his collarbone in a triathlon accident in Richards Bay, South Africa, just two months after reaching the pinnacle of his sport. Now his season is over, and his career, which was just starting to peak, is in jeopardy.

The days after his June 11 injury were a blur. The 46-hour trip home. Two and a half hours in surgery. Eleven screws, two titanium plates, an incision 5 1/2 inches long. And, after the surgical anesthesia wore off, four hours of 'the worst pain my life.'

Fretta, 28, became just the second American to garner a No. 1 world ranking in the International Triathlon Union World Cup when he placed sixth in an April 16 race in Aqaba, Japan.

His bad luck began at the next event in Mazatlán, Mexico, where he got sick and had to drop out. Then, June 4 in Madrid, Spain, his bicycle chain snapped in a race where he probably was headed to a top-five finish.

Then came the life-altering South Africa race.

World Cup triathlon consists of a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40k bike ride and then a 10k run. Fretta was in the lead pack in South Africa after the swim and through most of the bike portion. With about two kilometers to go, he found himself in a group of about 18 riders, packed elbow to elbow, front tire to back tire.

Suddenly, two wheels touched. An accident was imminent.

'I knew somebody was going down. I just didn't know who,' he says from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he lives at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. 'It's completely outside of your control. All you can do is hold your breath and hope it is not you.'

It was him.

'Next thing I knew I was flying through the air,' he says. 'I hit the ground, and I heard something snap. I thought it was my bike. When I got up my handlebars were pointing left and my front wheel was pointing right. I got up and on the bike as fast as I could.'

His brake was rubbing against the wheel, and when he reached down with his left hand to fix it, his right arm nearly gave out. He reached up to his shoulder and felt broken bones sticking out of the skin.

He rode the last kilometer of the race that way.

Already, Fretta is itching to get back. Within days of the surgery, his trainers caught him running stairs, a big no-no because one of the screws holding together his collarbone could break, forcing him to undergo another surgery.

He can't run or bike. Because he has that incision and infection is a concern, he can't do anything that will cause him to break a sweat. To keep from going crazy, he goes on long walks.

'Right now,' he says, 'besides my rehab, I don't have anything to do but wander around Colorado Springs.'

The other day, he wandered 17 miles.

Water, land speeds impress

Fretta grew up in Northwest Portland, idolizing Clyde Drexler and the Rip City Trail Blazers of the early 1990s. He'd listen to games on the radio and watch them on TV, missing maybe three in five years. He kept a log of Drexler's statistics. Even today, he lists Drexler as his favorite athlete of all time.

But his sport to compete in was swimming. He began taking lessons at age 3 at Multnomah Athletic Club and swam competitively under MAC coach Skip Runkle.

Fretta became a runner at Jesuit when he caught the attention of track and cross country coach Tom Rothenberger by breaking the school 12-minute run record as a freshman in gym class.

He chose to attend College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., for the opportunity to compete in both sports. He broke five school records in swimming as a freshman but eventually decided to stick to running.

Fretta didn't so much find triathlon as it found him. Planning to be a lawyer, he'd been accepted to Marquette University Law School and was working 100-hour weeks as an intern in the Portland office of Bullivant Houser Bailey PC.

Needing a break from the long hours of the law firm, Fretta borrowed a bike and shoes from Runkle, his old swim coach, and entered the Hagg Lake Triathlon, near Forest Grove. He surprised everyone, including himself, by finishing second to a local pro triathlete named Lee O'Connor.

Pretty soon he was entering local races, winning everything in sight. A racing magazine proclaimed him the top triathlete in the Northwest.

'I was like, 'Are you kidding? I don't even know how to train correctly,' ' he says.

But it led him to get serious about the sport, hiring former Sunset High track coach Ken Bell on the advice of Rothenberger.

Fretta began entering races all over the country. He won the amateur division at the U.S. Sprint Triathlon in Corona del Mar, Calif., in 2000, beating most of the pros along the way. At some point in the race, he remembers, he was passed by an Australian pro named Chris McCormack.

As McCormack, the 1997 World Cup Series champion, pulled away, Fretta pointed at him and blurted out, 'Someday, I'm going to beat you.'

Triathlons were in his blood. He's raced - and beaten McCormack - several times since.

Americans start moving up

Not long after the Corona del Mar race, Fretta was invited to live and train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Still planning to be a lawyer, his inclination was to decline. Bell saw big things in his protégé, once telling him 'that will be you someday' as they watched the 2000 Olympic triathlon on television. Bell persuaded Fretta to move to the training center, promising him big results if he did.

Fretta moved in March 3, 2001. The first person he met was Hunter Kemper, a U.S. triathlete from Longwood, Fla., who had already made a name for himself in the sport, competing in the first Olympic triathlon in 2000.

They became best friends, training together and rooming together on the road. Kemper was the face of U.S. triathlon, having become the first American to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

American triathletes historically have never been dominant in on the World Cup circuit, which includes athletes from about 30 countries each year, but they have become the best in the world, depthwise. Kemper (2), Fretta (6) and Andy Potts (10) are all ranked in the top 10.

Fretta fully expected to make the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. He was well on his way to qualifying when a flat tire at the Trials stopped him in his tracks.

Missing the Olympics gave Fretta new perspective on what makes a successful athlete.

'I came to realize the best athletes in the world aren't always the ones at the Olympics,' he says.

Strong start bodes well

As the 2006 World Cup season began, Fretta felt like he was ready to break out. In a sport that is becoming more competitive each year, his finishes were getting better and better. He was in Kemper's league now, rivaling him as the top dog of American triathletes.

Fretta became known as 'Houdini' on the circuit for his ability to make a late escape on the bike.

'I really felt that I was ready and had done everything I needed to do to get to that highest level,' he says. 'It takes a while because you are absolutely juggling three sports. But I felt by the middle to end of last year that I really was where I needed to be to realize my potential.

'I knew I was going to start off the season well. It was just a matter of how good it would be.'

Fretta finished second in the first race, at Doha, Qatar, in March. He followed that with solid finishes at races in Jordan and Australia. His sixth-place finish in Japan made him the points leader on the circuit, earning him his No. 1 ranking.

'You learn to savor a good race,' he says, 'because things can change so quickly in this sport.'

'My goal is to win'

Fretta isn't throwing in the towel on his career. Still, he knows that if his shoulder doesn't come back strong, he may never again be an elite swimmer.

If he can't be an elite swimmer … well, one-third of a triathlon is swimming. You do the math.

'One of the possibilities, and I know this, is that I won't be able to do this again,' he says. 'My goal is not just to participate. My goal is to win. If I am not one of the 10 best athletes in the world at my sport, then I have other things I want to do with my life.'

That probably means law school. Back in 2004, after his Olympic bid ended, Fretta planned to retire from the sport and enroll at Willamette University College of Law. Instead he kept entering races, putting off the decision to quit until he was sure he was done chasing his dream.

He's not sure now. He still burns to make the 2008 Olympics, to take back his No. 1 ranking, to make sure he doesn't walk away before he's reached his full potential.

Fretta can walk around anonymously in Portland, but he gets recognized in Africa. He's raced in 19 countries and on every continent except Antarctica.

Because of triathlon, he's had lunch with the crown prince of Jordan, been driven around in $1 million cars, and been taken on camel rides and African safaris.

But he knows he has to be prepared for anything.

'If this is the end of my career, then so be it,' he says. 'I've had a great career, and I don't have any regrets. There's three ways to go out in my sport. The Olympics, as world champ or ranked No. 1.

'I was ranked No. 1 in the world, and no one can take that away from me.'

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