IRONMAN NZ
* Tomorrow, 6.45am, Taupo

Gina Crawford, a violinist in the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, is in tune and ready to shake up the Ironman world in 2010.

Crawford had hoped that her breakthrough victory at Bonita Ironman New Zealand last year would lead on to a big year. Instead of rolling on to bigger and better things, Crawford was stopped in her tracks after discovery that she has a genetic heart abnormality and her return was thwarted by a troublesome ankle injury.

The end to her 2009 year was not all filled with frustrations. In the past few months she has married long-time partner Brett and the fully fit and healthy Cantabrian claimed victory at Ironman Western Australia in December and she started 2010 by beating former Ironman Australia champion Rebekah Keat at Wanaka in January.

"I really wanted to get back and into things. So it was really pleasing to win at Western Australia," said Crawford, who became the first woman to win back-to-back at Busselton.

"I was short on endurance there, though, especially on the bike. Since then I've been training really well again and I'm loving it. It's the best I have felt."

Crawford has put in some of her biggest training weeks ever - up to 35 hours a week - and is raring to go in Taupo.

She and husband Brett have moved into Christchurch city from their previous base in Oxford, North Canterbury, which has cut two hours of travel time out of her busy day.

Her 2009 year was turned upside down in tests following her withdrawal in Roth after feeling ill during the race - later analysed as too much caffeine. Doctors also found an issue with her heart - diagnosed as a bicuspid aortic valve which means her aortic valve is divided into two sections and not the normal three, a genetic defect.

While she has not had to stop racing, Crawford now listens a lot more closely to her body and at times has had to take her foot off the pedal in training.

"There's nothing I can do about it. I was born like that. There's been very little research done on super-fit athletes in this respect but I am better to be out doing exercise than sitting around.

"If I am sick with a cold or flu I will not be able to train or race and I will have to be much more flexible with my race schedule."

Following this news, Crawford's return to the sport was hampered by an ankle injury and while she started at the world championships, it was more out of hope than reality.

A benefit from her roller-coaster 2009 is that Crawford is less rigid in her thinking. "I have had to change my thinking a bit and be more relaxed and flexible. I am a real control freak but now I realise I can't control everything. So I have tried some different things."

One of those was to rid herself of her orthotics that she was given after a foot injury early in her Ironman career nearly five years ago.

"I had an issue with my foot right at the start of doing endurance training. But I've figured out that it was not because of the foot itself, but rather because I was new to the rigours of long hours of training.

"It was back in 2005 and I was just venturing into big mileage. I always felt that I got the injury from wearing high heels.

"It took an adjustment after I took them out because the muscles in my feet have been dormant all that time but it feels so much better ... It feels a bit strange still but Wanaka was my first race without them and it is making so much difference."

The defence of her Ironman New Zealand title is her major goal for the year. "I have already qualified for Hawaii so this is my big focus. Last year had some low points for me but I always got through it.

"I don't think people have seen the best of me. I still have a lot to learn and a lot that I need to improve on."

GINA CRAWFORD
Born: 20/11/1980
Lives: Christchurch
Tertiary: BA psychology, BMus performance violin, grad dip of teaching
Ironman wins: Ironman Wisconsin (2007, new course record), Ironman Western Australia (2008, new course record 8:59, 2009); Ironman New Zealand (2009)
IMNZ Record: 5th (2008), 1st (2009)