A Way of Seeing Things: Athlete as Traveler

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 1

by Scott Tinley

  
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

                  In the pre-dawn hours, Mike Pigg and I rode south across the island. We had started in the Upper East, rolled south on Lexington, made the sign of the cross in front of St. Patrick’s, and dodged a few poor homeless behind Grand Central. From the seats of our racing bikes we marveled at the Empire State, all lit up and grand and much older than us. South through the Village we struggled with the notion that pubs were still open, and patrons were just then headed to bed. Pigg and I heard too many sirens in SoHo, and then became nervous in the Financial. There were two towers back then. And we would be swimming towards them.

                  We’d crossed barely three miles by four thirty A.M. averaging twelve M.P.H., arriving at the Battery just in time to rack our bikes and catch the ferry to the Statue. It was one of the most interesting rides of my life with Mike wanting to stop and ask directions and take pictures every block and remain amazed at the endless skyline of spiking edifices and chrome and glass.

                  Dude, we have a race today. Be a tourist tomorrow.

                  There is no tomorrow. Only now. We’re the stars. They won’t start without us.

                  And they didn’t. Mike Pigg and I made the ferry to Ellis Island, the newest immigrants from California, and then swam back to Battery Park. It was a rough swim as I recall, choppy with heavy-shifting tides. I saw a NYC Maritime Authority boat picking up one swimmer. The guy looked particularly bad, all clad in jeans and a trench coat. Turns out he’s a floater; some sadly nameless man whose life passed away in the Lower Hudson. And we kept swimming towards the Towers.

                  The 1984 Crystal Light NYC Triathlon went on to be a great success for just one day. The winner, Mark Allen, was on the cover of the NY Times sports section, shirtless, and his sponsor, Nike, was pissed. But the Grip looked good nonetheless, ripped and happy and gleaming with success. Nike’s third world money, another competitor offered, can never make you completely happy. They’ll get over it. And we all finished in the Park in front of Tavern on the Green and felt almost famous for being traveling athletes in the Big Apple. So innocent. So bitchin.

                  And then the event died from its own earliness. As the first truly Manhattan-based triathlon, no one was ready for prime time players that no one had heard of or seen on Johnny Carson. But this is a story about travel, not failed race production.

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                  What Mike Pigg and I bore witness to as we stabbed and dodged our way across Lower Manhattan was a world wholly new and exciting and tragically thrilling. At least for us. We saw the world’s softness from the hard seat of a bicycle in a light rain and dawn’s early light, with darkened streets made slippery by our own nerves. We may have been elite athletes but we felt more like age group tourists.

                  In the thirty years that have run under us, Pigg and I and Dave Scott, Scott Molina, and Mark Allen and nameless journeymen and women, some loose knit band of traveling tri-brothers have raced in 500 cities across 50 countries on 5 continents. And counting. The Kananaskis and Kuala Lampurs and Kansas Cities seem to have run together, a Cuisinart of culture, of people, places, and race results. And if our years chasing trophies and rent checks had any value beyond the well-appreciated dream fulfillment, it is in the child-like views from the seat of an adult two-wheeler.

                  I used to love traveling with my bike. It made me feel important and vital and on more than one occasion, I could simply put my bike together in baggage claim and ride it to my homestay. Before hard cased bike-carriers, there were only cardboard boxes and custom canvas bags sewn by grandmothers with thick fingered callouses. Customer service agents at airline counters might’ve been confused by the odd shaped bags but a quick-witted “oh, those are my samples” or “It’s my great aunt’s harp. Please take good care of it” mostly resulted in waiving of excess baggage charges.

                  But when the first manufactured plastic and fiberglass bike cases come to market, some dufus had the words “bike case” printed on the side. After that, deception was out of the question and the $35 bike charges—each way-- rankled the athletes to no end. At one point, inventor and age group champion, Gary Hooker, was so incensed with airline bike charges that he regularly put his bike frame in a hanging suit bag, his wheels in a drum symbols disguise, and his handlebars and seat in the overhead. It took two hours before every race for Hooker to re-build his bike but the airlines never lost it; Hooker’s entire bike was never further than twenty feet from seat 12A.

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                  Traveling as an athlete is better than traveling as a tourist or on business or even just wandering around with a backpack and a holey sleeping bag. An athlete is given wide birth. He or she is respected across periods and places and cultures. From Odysseus to Odum, the traveling athlete moves through airports and border checkpoints with their head high and on occasion, as my friend, Kenny Souza was fond of doing, a thick wad of $100 prize money bills in his sock.

                  The traveling athlete is given deferment not for what he or she takes from one nation state to another but for what they bring: performative skills, fame, media, new ideas, and with Souza, bikes to sell at a profit. Kenny was arguably the most successful import/exporter in all of multisport during the 80s. I followed Souza through Customs in Los Angeles on the way home from Brazil and the agents were surprised to find an empty bike case.

                  “I left my bike with an orphanage,” Souza dead-panned, “and was going to bring Brazilian coffee in the case for my grandmother but ended up not having any money left after I bought all those blankets for the homeless.”

                  “You’re a good duathlete, Mr. Souza, but a bad liar. Welcome home and get the hell out of here.”

                  And we laughed all the way to Kenny’s limo waiting outside baggage claim.

                  Still, the traveling athlete can be fraught with nuanced challenges. One year I went to a race in Finland but the main sponsor, Finnair, lost my bike box with all the necessary equipment--wetsuits, running shoes, vitamins, small bore ammunition. What could I say? They were our sponsor? And by race day I was still struggling to find anything race-able in some small town well north of the Arctic Circle. One local felt particularly pleased that he had brought me his dead uncle’s circa-’75 Schwinn Paramount for me to use. It was a beautiful, steel-framed monolith that had been a coveted vehicle…30 years ago. So, I made the best of the leather Jesus sandals they were offered as running shoes and the reindeer urine extract as fluid replacement. And went culturally nowhere very fast.

                  On the way home, I stopped at the Finnair desk at the JFK terminal to inquire about my bike and found that someone had converted it into a desk the week before when I’d come this way on my way to Helsinki.

                  “Uh, do you think I can borrow your desk for a few minutes? You know, just to get my favorite swim goggles out of the drawer?”

                  The traveling athlete always has the best view. Some years ago on yet another flight, I sat next to a senior marketing executive from a San Francisco-based firm.

                  “It’s such a beautiful city,” I offered. “With so many iconic images and views, what’s your favorite?” I asked.

                  “Oh, by far it’s looking directly up Hyde Street from the entrance of Aquatic Park toward the south beyond Ghirardelli Square.”

                  “That’s a good one,” I nodded. “But have you seen that same view from the water, half way between Alcatraz and the shore? Water in your goggles and container ships and ferries and fish framing your amazement?”

                  The great cities now offer great opportunities for the traveling athlete, sometimes more than the oceans of the world and the edge of the forest. In recent years, perhaps in response to politically-mobilized bike lobbies, bike lanes and bike rules and bike shops and bike people have proliferated the most densely populated place. Modern urban landscapes are now rife with runners and gear-heads and blogging yoga-preneurs. Fitness is for profit, baby, and if you’re too old or too slow, then get the hell out of the way. I’ve got an app to post, and a start-up to prep for IPO.    

                  And if this seems a bit youth-centric, we remind ourselves that Odysseus took ten years to return from the Trojan Wars and every 18 seconds another American boomer turns sixty years old. There are no age limits for traveling athletes, only more discretionary income to be spent on fine wines consumed in the comforts of finer tented travel; that bourgeoisie glamping experience courtesy of a platinum card.

                  And if you feel the need, or want or are cast into proletariat places to find the resonant glory of dust in dirtbag traveling…the muse is always there in a warmed over Coors Light or a re-heated Ramen. We’ve all been there. And most wouldn’t change a thing. I used to feel that the most decadent thing I did every year was write a check to Ironman for $100. That was one half my monthly rent and twice my grocery bill. But it got me into the Show. So, I worked a few OT shifts and collected aluminum cans and said WTF…I’m going to be an Ironman in Kona.

                  But when someone from another country called and invited me to come to their Ironman, I replied thanks very much but I don’t have and more benjamins.

                  “Sorry, Mr. Tinley…we will comp your entry fee here in (enter New Zealand, Japan, Canada et al.)”

                  “Well, thanks very much but there is still the issue of my jay-oh-be.”

                  “What’s your boss’ name? Perhaps we can call him or her and explain.”

                  “He/she is the State of California.”

                  “Will your ever leave the State of California to see the world on someone else’s dime, Mr. Tinley?” The race director asked with more than a taste of challenge in his voice.

                  There were a lot of things I had to say to people I met while traveling as an athlete, and the hardest was always goodbye.

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date: October 8, 2014

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

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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