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
On Fear - Scott Tinley
If you ask beginning triathletes what they fear most, a standard response usually includes some reference to mass swim starts and bike crashes.
by Scott Tinley
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer
If you ask beginning triathletes what they fear most, a standard response usually includes some reference to mass swim starts and bike crashes. While these acceptable, even natural fears constitute the dramatic and spectacular in sport, they also signal how fear can metastasize itself in service of more fear. As FDR noted in his 1933 inauguration speech, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
That said, looking at a mass of humanity; flailing arms and legs swarming through towering surf can lump throat. And hearing stories of spandexed-bodies sliding across eighty grit roadways is enough to send you to the safe confines of a 6AM spin class. As the cliché goes: There are only two kinds of cyclist—those who have crashed and those will crash.
The dark imaginings of the more experienced triathlete tend to shift from survivalism to the performative: Will I fail to qualify for Kona? What if I cramp? A flat tire will ruin my age group rankings! I wonder how one navigates their way around the minefield of the mind, that central nervous system that so challenges the athlete’s nerve.
There are days when I am afraid of waking up, fearful not of what I will find printed in the New York Times or on Yahoo News but of what might be lacking when I finish my coffee and face the world. Forty-point font warning of Ebonic Plague, crack babies and steroid-juiced jocks don’t elevate my blood pressure as much as a life without the challenge of physical movement. There seems a connection between the arrows slung and the shield I wear. Perhaps it’s just my body playing hopscotch with my brain, a shot across the bow to remind me that it needs to exercise in order to combat the effect of those fears, if not the origins.
It seems hard to separate the occupation from the behavior, what we are afraid of from how we fight it. Roosevelt had it wrong. There is a lot more to our fear than the fear itself. I used to be more afraid of placing second in the Ironman than losing my house to foreclosure, though in hindsight, they were professionally-connected. It’s not quite lamentable now, but twenty years ago I wasn’t afraid of high cholesterol, the tyranny of a fifty-minute 10k or hairs growing out of my ears. Fear is to age as Peter Pan is to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
While athletes know the calming effect of an easy run or a hard swim, fear is a pervasive emotion within most sports. This is not necessarily an unhealthy fact. Sport offers a kind of malleable tension that can both thrill and kill, excite and indict our senses with an anxiety that leaves us somewhere between satiated and starving. But while there is a kind of universal desire to live beyond Pleasantville, each of us can and must salt our fear and tension to taste as well as blood pressure.
Of late, the idea of fearing one’s ranking in a sporting event seems trite and petty; as if the narcissism and the naïveté of our athletic youth is something to be ashamed of in mature times of responsible decision-making. But one cannot blame our choices of what to fear on age as much as experience. Many and varied are the influences that affect our perceptions of The Boogie Man.
A few years ago our home was robbed while we slept. They took all our nice bikes (a new Scott Addict R-3 56 cm and four sweet Litespeeds), computers and enough Avia shoes to outfit a small militia. What they left me with was a newfound distrust in humanity. I didn’t realize this paradigm shift as I consulted my friends from Georgia on types of ammunition to load in the prospective shotgun; never saw that I was mortgaging the next thief’s life in the margins of my fear. My family threatened in the wake of a material assault, I was reduced to an essential survivalist. My fear had become mortal because someone had put a pin in my balloon of Utopianism, flattening much of what I had dreamed was worth living for. But the notion of mortality, I thought, wasn’t mine as much as it belonged to the assholes I was going to shoot if I caught them in our digs.
Weeks later I realized that I had only shot myself in the foot by allowing the unplanned transfer of goods to affect my ability to harness and control my fears. The emotional weapons an athlete owns, they should be willing and able to use. The sources or our fears might be eliminated or they might be maimed. But we must be ready to accept the consequences of our actions. Even my friends in Georgia would agree.
If sport can be used to thrill and fulfill us in ways imaginable, it might also be used as a peaceful tool to train our parasympathetic nervous system. So far, that flight or flight reaction that supported our ancestors in their escape from a saber-toothed tiger has failed to evolve within the human species as we creep along a congested freeway and the catecholamines in our bloodstream merge into narrowing vessels. But sport is the brilliant spigot: twist one way for cold, one for hot; the temperature and pressure to suit our moods and our motive. We can stand on the starting line of the World Championship and yawn or we can project our ancient ideals of nationalism onto a soccer match rather than a fascist regime. We can parry an impending panic attack with a yoga class or prepare for an invasion by honing our mixed martial arts. Drownings are often the result of panic, not poor swimming skills, though the two are joined somewhere on the cusp of confidence.
I don’t want to be afraid of the things that media wants me to or the things I know I might be catalyzed in the naiveté of my own ancient maps. I already know about the limitations of humans. While willfully jumping off a bridge with some rubber bands tied to my ankles just doesn’t seem natural, I’d like to think that sport allows us to mediate our fears based not upon our failures but upon our dreams.
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