Ironman going the distance

Aaron Fleming, MNZM. PHOTO: PHILIP CHANDLER
Aaron Fleming, MNZM. PHOTO: PHILIP CHANDLER
Having only moved here in 2017, many locals probably didn’t know Aaron Fleming was a Queenstowner till they saw he’d made the latest New Year honours list.

He talks to Philip Chandler about how he got into Ironmans, the community contributions he’s proudest of and how he ended up here.

He'd be one of the most inspirational and motivated people you could meet - and it all started when he was only 16.

Meet Aaron Fleming, the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) Queenstown-based southern South Island boss, who’s just been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the community and sport.

At 16, Fleming’s right lung suddenly collapsed, and collapsed three more times over six months due to a rare condition similar to cystic fibrosis.

He had to take the best part of a year off school and had two lots of surgery.

Though a promising gymnast, Taupo-raised Fleming was told by his surgeon he wouldn’t be able to exert himself physically again.

He continued suffering a lot of pain but, determined to prove his surgeon wrong, spent a year training for a gruelling full Ironman - comprising a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and a marathon.

He’d been inspired by Kiwi Tracey Richardson, who’d used Ironman as a fundraising vehicle for Cystic Foundation NZ, to do the same.

Fleming says his prolonged health woes also changed his values and the way he saw the world - "it’s a big reason probably why I did the studies I did around environmental science, public policy".

After that year of training he successfully completed his first Ironman in Taupo in 2007.

He admits he’d only planned to do one, but it became "a bit of an addiction".

Fleming completing his 16th Ironman in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), South Africa, last...
Fleming completing his 16th Ironman in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), South Africa, last year. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
At 40, he’s now completed 16, and is doing his next at Taupo again in three weeks.

He’s now completed one in every continent except South America, which he’ll knock out in Brazil next year.

Fleming, whose fastest time is just under 14 hours, stresses he’s "a proud back-of-the-pack athlete".

However, he’s always knackered at the end and has finished up in an ambulance after two of them.

He’s now just been allocated a ‘legacy slot’ in the toughest Ironman of all - the world champs in Kona, Hawaii, in October ’26.

Fleming says Ironman’s aided his mental as well as physical health - "this has made me the most resilient, strong person because there’s many a tough day out there training".

After just three Ironmans he self-published Purpose in 2008 - through book proceeds and other fundraising he’s now raised about $40,000 for CF.

He’s also become a popular motivational speaker - just last week he again addressed a Rotary youth leadership programme in Queenstown.

"One of the things that energises me is helping people to realise their potential.

"There’s many people who have read my book or listened to me who have gone on to achieve some pretty cool stuff, and that’s what I love."

Fleming also got engaged with the Proud to Play charity which promotes inclusivity in sport, after coming out as gay in his early 20s.

"It wasn’t an easy thing to do, one, to discover who I was and then, two, to be able to work that through with my family.

"It can be a challenging time, and I just want to reach out and help people through that challenging time."

While living in Hamilton for 10 years, Fleming also got involved in several community initiatives.

He’s proudest of working with a trust that launched a food rescue service, Kaivolution.

In almost nine years to last June, it had diverted 2370 tonnes of food - or 6,779,537 meals - that was otherwise going to landfill "into the bellies of people who needed it".

In ‘the Tron’ he mostly worked for the city council as its planning leader then spent two years as a director for the National Library.

One role was looking after valuable documents such as the Treaty of Waitangi and the women’s suffrage petition.

In 2017, Fleming was appointed DoC’s southern South Island operations director, overseeing Otago, Southland, Stewart Island and the Subantarctic islands.

"I studied environmental science so this is my natural habitat - it was like finding my home in obviously the best part of NZ.

"I pinch myself to be living in such a beautiful place."

It’s also, he agrees, not a bad Ironman training ground, while he’s also taking some fitness classes at Alpine Health & Fitness.

You get the feeling he’s still got plenty more to give.

 

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