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This professor could be a Michigan Sports Hall of Famer


YPSILANTI, Michigan – There were no distractions for young Derek Fries. There was no television, even the old-fashioned “rabbit-eared” kind, to distract him from the waters of Lake Watkins.

That means time sailing, swimming and water skiing outside his parents’ home in Waterford Township. He said he grew up in the early 1960s and his entire upbringing was on the water.

In his early twenties, Fries was a world champion at sea. Now, in the midst of a five-decade career as an educator, his swimming prowess has helped him win two national triathlon titles in his 60s.

How does an Eastern Michigan University professor, now in his 70s, win national titles in his spare time? A lifelong passion for physical activity.

“My religion is to exercise,” he said.

Fries is on the ballot as a candidate for Michigan Sports Hall of Fame As a coach alongside the likes of Michigan football player Jim Harbaugh. Public voting for the Hall of Fame ballot will close on April 30.

After Fries’s success in international competitions as a sailor, he became a head sailing coach in the United States for 21 years.

“He is a tremendous competitor in the sport of sailing,” said Tom LaBelle, the four-time national sailing champion who nominated Fries, adding that Fries has contributed greatly as a sailor and teacher.

Fries first sailed to this honor as a teenager at the local Watkins Lake Yacht Club, working on his father Glenn’s boat. As a teenager, Fries was already better than the locals at “skippering,” or driving sailing ships, in competitions. This led to his debut at the age of 16, when he finished 21st against adults.

Fries placed 11th the following year at nationals, and qualified for the 1972 World Sailing Championships in Bermuda. He finished fourth, saying that sailing on the open ocean might be easier than sailing Michigan’s lakes.

“I’ve done regattas on Lake Michigan, which can get pretty choppy,” Fries said. “So I didn’t have a lot of transition issues.”

The biggest transition was adjusting to life at Michigan State University, where he balanced kinesiology courses and education with his sailing. He won the national collegiate sailing title in 1973, but it also took him more than four years to finish his degree with all the weekends he had to leave for competitions.

“During my four-and-a-half years at MSU, I was probably only on campus 10 weekends,” he said.

Fries won his first world title in 1975 in Miami, then his second in 1978 in Puerto Rico. Part of Fries’ success, regardless of the age of his competitors, is his “unparalleled” self-motivation, LaBelle said.

LaBelle added that determination and physical fitness make it difficult to beat Fries.

“He’s fast,” LaBelle said. “It’s like you’re the fastest guy on the basketball court and the best shooter at the same time.”

While earning the titles, Fries was simultaneously editing a career in education, starting with a physical education job at the Pontiac School District.

After stints at Lake St. Clair and Birmingham, he began his 31-year career at Avondale Schools in Auburn Hills. During that time, he recorded two more World Sailing Championship results, a second place in 1982 in California and a seventh place in 1991 in Curacao.

Balancing physical fitness and a career in education, Fries was a finalist for NASA’s Space Teacher Program in 1986.

After earning a master’s degree in special education from Oakland University, Fries earned a doctorate in education administration from the University of Michigan in 1993. Not only would this serve him well as superintendent of Avondale schools, but US Sailing sought him out as its own teacher. .

“They just started all this training, and they were like, ‘Well, Fries has won all these world championships,’” Fries said. “Plus, he’s a teacher.”

During all of this, Fries found time to write sailing textbooks, such as Start Sailing Right. Being a great sailor requires great strength, endurance and handling ever-changing winds and situations, he said.

“It’s a hypersensory sport,” he said. “The wind never blows in a straight line.”

Fries left Avondale schools and became a professor at EMU in 2006, specializing in special education and communication sciences and disorders. At the same time, he began experimenting with his triathlon skills because of his “overachieving mentality,” he said.

He entered the speed section, or swimming for 750 meters, cycling for 20 kilometers, and running for 5 kilometers. Those childhood days on the water served him well, he said.

“The big problem for a lot of people is swimming,” Fries said. “That ended up becoming one of my strengths.”

During the summer of 2013, he won his first US triathlon national title in Cleveland. He won again in 2015 in St. Paul, Minnesota, setting a new American course record in the 60-64 age group.

Fries lives by the motto “Always keep moving.” He’s committed to that to this day, competing in 16 sporting events in 2023, from triathlons to boat races to running races.

To do this at age 70 requires a lot of luck, Fries said. His shoulders and knees are working well, he said with a laugh, although some parts of his body don’t work the same way they did when he was young.

“Obviously I can’t run that fast,” he said. “I’m getting older, but I’m able to go out there and do it. I’m going to keep doing it until something happens.”

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