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
Untold as Yet: Part 2, On Tennis and Hanging Johnnys and Mexicans in Saabs
As endurance athletes we purposely trick our psyches. Our minds hop-scotching our physical bodies. We play chicken with something very personal.
by Scott Tinley
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer
The sport of triathlon is rife with untold stories of chicanery and altruism, deviousness and grace. Chasing skeletons from the closet is never easy. But it feels better than having to cut them down.
On a rainy night in March of 1980 we rolled on a possible suicide. A teenage son had argued with his mother and threatened to hang himself. He disappeared, she called the cops, and they called us.
Man, why you waking us up at 2:38AM when you don’t have a body? My partner snapped.
The SDPD sneered back and said that if they found one, he wanted us close. We searched the house and sure enough little Johnny was hanging in an upstairs closet. He didn’t look well and I decided then that this was an unsustainable occupation. The firefighter/paramedic gig would be my Vietnam and too many hanging or shot or car-crunched Johnnys would soon enough send me to the Bellevue Psych ward. And that’s when I started training hard. I could out-run the decapitations. Out swim the stabbings and generally ride away from trauma, death, and disease. I’ll be damned if it didn’t work for a while. Out-running ghosts.
Years later, fully committed to the lore of success-in-sport, the training would come in handy. Patch my own wounds from a bike crash, help some poor Old Guy who codes on a trail run and the most bizarre miss-use of my skills ever. It was the night before the 1984 Ironman Triathlon and I had this brilliant idea that I would pre-hydrate by loading myself up with 1000cc of a normal saline solution. A pre-event IV wasn’t against any rules and the whole concept of fluid cell-stocking had been stymied in drinking so much water over the days before the event that you peed clear and often. You peed in your sleep. And you felt ready.
So I schlepped a 1000cc bag of NS (water with a hint of salt), some IV tubing and a few needles from the mainland. This was going to work, I convinced myself as some inner argument of its ethics and efficacy battled on. I’d started IVs under crumpled cars while gas dripped on my crotch but never on myself. You gotta want it, the warrior argued, and slipped into a back bedroom and tried to put the needle in.
Then came confusion. I couldn’t find my normally ropey veins and my wife was calling that dinner was ready and I realized that the whole idea had been some biblical test: Just how bad do you want to win this race? I removed the needle and watched as a few drops of precious oxygenated blood left my body. Then Virginia Tinley opens the door saying that the pasta is…
And there is this look in her eyes that reeks of disdain but is loaded with empathy and peppered with confusion. “Have we gone too far, ST?”
Dave Scott kicked my ass the next day.
Pundits have suggested that endurance sports offer inherent benefits not available through team or power and performance sports. Confidence, superb fitness, focus. And then there is this non-descript notion that triathlon teaches you to know your body, your mind, and your spirit. The part of me that still wonders how he could swim 2.4 miles, ride 112, change his shoes, wink at his wife, and run low 2:43 for the marathon doesn’t believe it. If you really knew your mind/body/sport and know that it isn’t possible…then what would be the point of a sport proving that you couldn’t? But then you went and did it. So that part of me is wrong.
As endurance athletes we purposely trick our psyches. Our minds hop-scotching our physical bodies. We play chicken with something very personal—that collection of flesh and bone and sinew that houses the intellect and the spirit. It’s the very root of sport psychology; tactics such as self-talk and reaffirmations and negotiating with demi-gods. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. But if you never try, how will you know?
My self-test strategy of pre-loading cells with water and salt from a plastic bag manufactured in Chicago and traded on the black market for a 12-pak of microbrew doesn’t seem a natural thing to do. But what it signifies—my commitment to the challenge of winning the hardest race on the planet—is forever natural. In Rocky 3, Stallone’s character, when confronted by his wife about going to Russia to fight the impossibly prepared cyborg of a man, Ivan Drago, responds by claiming, “Men like us, we don’t have a choice.” And so we keep on tricking ourselves and others. It’s a great charade. But then so is that other ancient institution. Men paying women to pretend they love them. Somehow though, it works. We go on doing what we do because we don’t have a choice. We are physical beings.
Perhaps the greatest recurring charade in triathlon lay in tennis. For several years, my partner in crime and sometimes Ironman nemesis, Scott Molina scheduled a tennis match the morning after any and every Ironman race. The point wasn’t to actually have a competitive match--Scott’s SBR skills far outweigh his ability to hit a fast moving yellow ball—it was something else. And I can’t remember exactly what that was at first. It might’ve been a bar bet or a guy-thing. It might’ve been something catalyzed in our mid 80s naiveté. We were going to play tennis and anything before an Ironman seemed unprofessional. Anything after was just what-you-got-left?
Manly shit. Stupid, really. But manly still.
And so, come post-race Sunday morning, 9:30ish when the age-group contingency limped off to a 6,000 calorie brunch, passing the hotel tennis courts in their finisher’s t-shirts and Bermuda shorts, double-taking the two slightly used warriors, one hitting a wicked cross-court top spun beauty only to be surprised as the creaky Latino dinked it across, and seeing the cocky blonde rushing the net to at least get a racquet on the horribly ugly but efficient return, feeling his hamstrings resist and call out and complain that less than 18 hours ago they had been forced to run 26.2 miles after riding who knows how far and then this? A tennis match? And the age-group contingents would whisper under muted, minty breath—Damn. That was Molina and Tinley.
Because men like us don’t have a choice.
Men like us. Molina and me, a couple of boot strappers, Nor Cal/So Cal survivors from the blue collar Rivieras of East Orange County and the East Bay Delta. Catholic families with barely enough fingers to count hungry kids and most but not all making it good and something like successful. But who can define success?
Molina and I were driving a loaned Saab 9000S Turbo after an Ironman event near the quaint Swedish burg of Sater, a little logging town that was convinced by a local board that hosting an international Ironman would bring untold economic fortune. Sater, Sweden, 1986 and a few hours after I’d won the event and Scott Molina and I in a loaned Saab 9000S driving 200km per hour on an empty road because it's nine o’clock PM on a Saturday night and the eternal summer sun still stands high and there is not a soul on the road and the tires are sticky and Molina says floor it because this is Europe and there are no speed laws and you just won a big race and we can do whatever the hell we please.
The telephone poles pass as a picket fence and soon enough an unmarked German-engineered thing enters the rear view mirror with a single flashing light.
I thought you said this was the Autobahn?
How bad can a Swedish jail be?
The cop makes me sit in the back seat of his German thing and yuk yaks into the radio. Molina is laughing his ass off from the fine leather seats of the Saab. The cop is not very happy with me. He has been chasing for 9 kilometers, I think I hear him say as I lean over the seat to apologize and pin the blame on the Mexican in the Saab. He’s writing something and barking into the radio and I think I’m screwed until I see a poster for the race lying on the front seat. It has Molina and my pictures on it and I point. The big Swede double takes and IDs and motions for Molina to walk over to the German thing very slowly.
He makes both of us stand near the front of the car, hands on the bumper and places the poster flat on the hood. He reaches for his holster but comes up with a marker pen.
“You both sign for my son. No jail tonight. Ve love ze triathlon.”
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