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Hutchings ate three peeled beetroot a day as medication when he suffered from a debilitating bout of hepatitis A through water contamination at Manly, Sydney, in 1994.
He spent time in hospital and had four months off training as he gradually regained his strength and fitness.
"I can't pinpoint it to anything else apart from that," said Hutchings, who was in Dunedin yesterday in his role as a Sparc ambassador.
Hutchings (37), who lives in Gisborne, went on a beetroot diet and his liver function improved back to normal over a three-month period.
"In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he said during a talk to secondary school pupils.
"I was told by a doctor I probably wouldn't race again and that inspired me. My best result at the worlds before my illness was 15th. Once I realised it could all be over, it made me really determined to get back into it.
"It was kind of a funny remedy but it worked for me. That is the key. Don't accept negative opinions from other people. Find things that work for you and stick to it. Grab on to something positive and go for it."
Hutchings won the world title at three consecutive championships to equal the record set by Australian Trevor Hendy.
He retired from the professional circuit in 2003. He was born in Gisborne and his father, Ben, was coach of the New Zealand canoeing team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when the men's team of Ian Ferguson, Paul MacDonald, Alan Thompson and Grant Bramwell won gold medals in four events.
"When I was 12 years old, I had guys like Ferguson and MacDonald hanging around who had won Olympic gold medals," he said. "My destiny was chosen."
This was the inspiration for his gold medals.
"When you are at that age you're influenced by guys like that, who win Olympic gold medals," Hutchings said. "It is not just about being the best in your school any more. It's about being the best kid in the world.
Hutchings said New Zealand lost the culture of winning for a few years but was getting it back.
"I tell the kids that this class is not about participation. It's about winning and achieving. They say 'yeah, yeah'. For our elite kids it's a bit bigger than just participation," he said.
"We talk to them about the importance of winning and what it takes to win. It's a bit of a different message because New Zealand has been through a heavy participation stage.
Hutchings does not think there is anything complicated in becoming a world champion.
"It is just hard work. There is no substitution for hard work," he said.
"It is not just natural talent. I've raced hundreds of guys who have just as much natural talent as me.
"It's a total dedication to your sport and putting in the time and believing in yourself.
"You are going to get hard knocks along the way and people who say you can't do it and you are going to have some bad results. It is important to believe in yourself and back yourself."
Occupation: Sparc ambassador
Family: Angela (wife), children Korbin (11), Skye (9), Luke (7) and Zac (2 weeks)
Sport: Surf ironman
Record: World champion 1998 , 2000, 2002; NZ champion 1991, 1993-2002