36 Years in Triathlon

author : Scott Tinley
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by Scott Tinley
  
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

          Last week I was inducted to the USAT Hall of Fame along with Mark Allen, Scott Molina, Sally Edwards, Bob Babbitt, and Ethel Autorino. It was a somewhat heady re-union and a really fun celebration. And while there are other “halls of fame” in the sport (Triathlete Magazine, Ironman, Xterra, Tug’s Tavern), this particular iteration has gained the most traction and appears to have emerged as the final resting place of old dogs gone to pasture.

          In previous induction ceremonies, I had not taken it seriously enough; had not allowed the counsel of the years to mold and mellow my thoughts and approaches to being honored. This time, much of the youthful baggage traded for a healthy respect of our place in history, I was ready. Sort of.

          The key element of any hall of fame induction ceremony is always the acceptance speech; a kind of right of passage where one accepts their newfound place firmly in the past. Hall of fame induction speeches can be iconic episodes in and of themselves; the athlete regaling times and faces and events that shaped their history and their sport. On the evening of our induction each of us in the Class of 2012 offered an unscripted version of what our time in triathlon had meant to us. But then you sit down and wish that you had thanked someone else or told one more story about this race or that flight. It’s never perfect and shouldn’t be.

          I won’t have that opportunity again but in an effort to make sense of what I said or didn’t say, and what my memories of those three and one half decades meant, the following is my speech written in arrears.

          This is indeed a great honor being paid to us tonight and I’d like to thank the USAT Board of Directors and the HOF nominating committee. Certainly there are many, many people who contributed to our success that should to be shown gratitude. But I would also suggest that this honor is being paid to an era and an ideal--an era that had few rules and an ideal grounded in asking: Why not? For many of us who experienced the sport during that first unkempt decade, that was our mantra and our map: Why not?
          So, for me, this award represents the historical beauty of questioning the status quo.

          It started like this: In the third week of August 1976, three things happened that altered my life forever. And they all took place within a mile of where we sit tonight. The first is that I followed my uh…slightly older sister, Lorie, to San Diego State University. Largely because she worked in the Financial Aid department there and had convinced me to file my own tax return at 15 years old, the magnanimous State of California saw fit that I should receive $2K per year in financial aid. So, I moved to an apartment 200 yards from the edge of Mission Bay. From our roof we could see Fiesta Island, the birthplace of the sport. But who knew? At 19 YO you don’t worry about history, even if you’re about to create it.

          The second thing that happened was that as part of my aid I was given a work study position at the university. The problem was that I didn’t want to spend more time than was necessary east of I-5 and the only job available at the beach was at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center—a 2 wood and a 6 iron from here. The job was for “janitorial services” but the place was a Disneyland of marine recreation. There was no better student work to be found on the planet. The other thing about being 19 is that if it gets you laid, you’ll pretty much do anything. So, I marched into the MBAC ready to scrub toilets and meet girls and the first person I see working behind the front desk is this women here. The future Mrs. Virginia Lynn Tinley. Suddenly, I’m in love with a woman who is way out of my league and all I can think about is getting promoted to boat scrubber or dock master or assistant sailing instructor so that she might notice me.

          But why not? I thought; be creative, be original, do something hard but meaningful. Maybe she’ll notice. It only took me two years but I finally asked her out and on our first date when we snuck into a local hotel’s Jacuzzi…maybe a 3 wood and a 5 iron from here. I think she wanted to take me home that night but I was a good Catholic boy with a long term plan.

          The final thing that happened in that 3rd week of August 1976 was that I saw my first triathlon. I was attempting to circumnavigate Mission Bay on my cruiser bike. It was 12.5 miles and would take the better part of an afternoon. When I rounded the peninsular spit of Fiesta Island, that boggy piece of reclaimed earth from the bottom of what was known as False Bay, I saw a bunch of tanned and fit bodies leaving the water. Some got on bikes others just ran along the shore. I asked someone if this was some sort of Baptist revival and he said “naw, it’s a triathlon.”

“Cool. When’s the next one?”

“Probably next summer.”

“Okay, I’ll be ready.”

And that was 36 San Diego summers ago.

          What first attracted me to the sport is that I didn’t suck at it. The second were the people. But even as I say that--something I’ve said a thousand times before—I still don’t know what it means. And I’ve been chasing some shared ideal of communitarianism for all these years. And sometimes the threads to the past are frightening.

          The winner of the first modern triathlon on September 25, 1974 was a 40 YO exercise physiologist from SDSU, a man whose office was just next door to the one I occupy at the university now. Sometime in the late 70s I asked Dr. Phillips what it was about this new sport. He said that for him…”it was hard, but meaningful. Something powerful and emerging.”

          The people in this sport that mattered to me were not just fellow competitors but everyone who was infected by the ideal of “why not be original? Why not be creative?”

          In 1980 I was living in Pacific Beach, a 1 wood and a 3 iron from here, with VT and my brother Jeff. I’d taken a job as a paramedic, poking needles into bodies at night and running on the beach during the day. Good work, as they say, if you can get it. It was hard and meaningful but unsustainable. What I remember most about those years was Jeff and I our childhood friend, Steve Perez, riding our bikes up the Coast Hwy, trying to fold some idea of a present physical culture into an unknown future.

“Wanna go do that thing in Hawaii?” someone asked. “Why not?”

          And then in 1981, back at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center as an Instructional Coordinator, I landed on that cusp where you’re forced to fish or cut bait. “Just one more time in Kona” I told my boss asking for a week off. “Then it will be out of my system.”

“I’ll grow up and get serious.” But we both knew better.

          That’s when I met Mark, Dave, and Scott. The stories of the Big Four have been bantered around for decades but for me it comes down to a few episodes.

          1983, I caught Scott Molina at mile 80 in the bike and I’m only 2 minutes behind Dave. Mark has had some mechanical issues. Scott says, “you know what? You could win this race.”

          1984 Ironman, Mark is having a lot of trouble on the run. Dave is hours in the lead. I pass Mark into 2nd place and he says to me, “get as close as you can. It matters.” The thing about Mark is that he didn’t say a lot back then. But he when did, it meant something. One time down in Pucon, Chile, Carol Montgomery and I climbed a three story fire escape and snuck into Mark’s room at two in the morning. I had this plan to secretly lower his bike seat and then convince him the next day that the sport was making him shrink really fast. Fumbling in the dark I heard this calm but authoritative voice—“ST…go back to bed.”

          1985 Ironman. I’m cruising on the run, a comfortable lead with 5 or 6 miles to go, throwing a little football with a camera crew and this guy is calling out run splits from the back of the lead van. “You can break the course record. Get serious!” I think, well, that’s awfully nice. I look over and it’s Dave Scott, the cottage cheese-rinsing King of Kona, and he wants me to break his record because he knows it will validate perhaps the greatest cherry pick in the history of the sport.

          At one point around 1983, Scott Molina and I were running in the hills above Blacks Beach at sunset and he says, “Is there any other job you’d want right now?”

“Don’t think so.”

          These men were always the rock I broke myself against. And I am honored to be considered along with them in the same conversation. What we all did, including Bob and Sally and Ethel and Mike Pigg and Greg Welch and too many athletes to mention, was hard…but at least right now, tonight, it seems meaningful.

          Of course none of this is would’ve ever been possible without so many other people. Certainly triathlon is not an individual sport.

          It’s 1982 and I’ve been sneaking into the pool just outside this ballroom after work. The pool is 19 and ½ yards and takes 90 and ¼ lengths to equal a mile. I know this because it’s the first place that I will swim a mile without stopping. One night a security guard asks me if I’m a hotel guest and perhaps because I’m feeling good about my future in endurance sports I tell him the truth.

“Well actually, I’m thinking about buying this hotel and putting in a health club. I could use a good Director of Security.”

“Good one,” he says. “But at least keep the beer cans off the pool deck.”

Go big, I think this guy understands it. Be creative, original.

          Later that year, USAT Hall of famer, Carl Thomas, who was working for Speedo at the time, marches into my office at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center and says he needs 2 water ski boats and some good looking coeds for his catalog shoot. Can I help him? I think so, I tell him and immediately a bond is formed. He has a vision and I have no idea what it is, but it’s way beyond the immediate purview that I possess.

          18 months later along with fellow USAT hall of fame inductee, Jim Curl, the United States Triathlon Series is formed. And Dave and Mark and Scott and many others who had the dream now had a stage. $500 for 1st place. Is this a great country or what?

Play for pay.

          But something goes sideways and we get really serious about the games we’ve chosen. I get conflicted. My wife, ever the brilliant pragmatist, tells me, “do what you have to do, but do it well.” My brother-in-law, Big John Rulon, who is working 14 hours a day at a small business he owns, tells me after one of the first commercial triathlons, “Do you know how many people would die to be doing what you’re doing?” That lesson has never been lost.

          For 36 years in this sport I have been blessed with the grace of wonderful people around me. My parents, my 7 siblings, including my awesome brother, Jeff who finished 3rd in Hawaii twice and always had more potential than me, my amazing wife and life partner, VT, my friends like Paul and Roch and David and Willy, my business partners like Jim and Kris Riley and Jeffrey and Jill Essakow, and our kids, Torrie and Dane. Last weekend at Wildflower, Dane came out of the water 3 seconds behind me. He says I’m going down next year. But not without a fight, little brother. I can’t run with Torrie anymore because I don’t want to hold her back. She’s got it all going on and I love her to death. You know Kenny Souza used to rub Torrie’s head for good luck just before the start of a race. She didn’t have any hair back then. But it’s not the performance of our kids that matters as much as they know that sport is a kind of thread that stitches our collective families together. They understand this and any success as a parent or a teacher that I’ve had, far eclipses anything that I ever did in sport. And I don’t say this lightly.

          Look, I know I’m starting to sound cliché and it’s never a good sign when an ideologue gets weepy. Let me end this with a story about Tom Warren, the original ironman.

          “It’s May in 1979 and Tom Warren leaves a copy of that week’s Sport Illustrated Magazine on the front door of the house we’re living in. The issue features his win in February of that year. There’s a note on the cover that says, “You should try this event, Tinley.” He spells Ironman in two words and says, “It’s hard but meaningful. Call me,” he wrote. “I’ll show you how to win at something other than the race.”

Thank you all again for your support. ST

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date: May 23, 2012

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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