A Good Story

author : Scott Tinley
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A good sport story gets better with time. Sometimes, it’s because the story has a new teller, a new listener or a new twist; a purposeful tweak that makes a little tale something of legend.

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

           To be sure, a good sport story gets better with time.  Sometimes, it’s because the story has a new teller, a new listener or a new twist; a purposeful tweak that makes a little tale something of legend. But any lasting lore requires more than a few elements that go into a story that people want to tell and hear again and again. Sports stories are not that different than other genres of literature or journalism. Each requires round characters, an accessible but intriguing plot, well-developed setting, rising action, a climatic event, and the dénouement or falling action and review. It’s formulaic, for the most part, and every good sports writer knows the rules.            

           But where a story will gain lasting transcendence is in its ability to be used to deliver the same resonant message when applied to a variety of audiences over the arc of decades, not just months or years. Nearly a century later we know about the Curse of the Bambino for its’ message of loyalty and patience and revenge. We know about Milan High School’s 1954 Indiana State Basketball Championship for its tale of teamwork and redemption (and its’ filmic version, Hoosiers). And we know of Julie Moss crawling across the 1982 Ironman finish line for her unbridled and graceful acceptance of that somewhat ignominious role thrust upon her.            

          There are other triathlon stories, however, less famous perhaps but still rife with the potential to last a very long time. Take the Mike Pigg Hair Brush Affair. Somewhere in the early 1990s, when Mike was losing his hair by the hour, I spied a hair dryer on his hotel room sink. “This is a bit of positive thinking, isn’t it Mikey,” I asked. “That’s for my disc wheel,” he didn’t bat an eyelash in response. “The hot air makes the the exterior membrane tighter against the spokes. More aero,” he said, “less drag though I don’t really need it to beat you.”

          It’s a cute little story, perhaps, but reminds me of Mike’s absolute focus on the task at hand. No stone, no ounce of drag or single hair follicle would stand in the way of making it to the top of the pile. There is something about a good sport story that moves us. It can transcend time and place and enrich our lives in ways we cannot define. A good story, whether or not it’s true; if told in the proper form at the proper time, is as enlightening as living that story. We become its key figure. And the story becomes part of us.           

          If you are a sportsman, a good story will transport you back to that moment, it will make you feel all over again the height of victory, the despair of loss or the simple pleasure of moving your own bone and sinew in some form of flight. A good sports story can make you feel things about an event or a game that you didn’t have time to feel when you were in it. You can win that race over and over again as it’s re-run in the warmth of your living room, or you can be humiliated by friends over and over again as the tale of your dropped ball or cramped calf is regaled between rounds of ale at the local pub.  Its life lived twice, in all its beauty, joy, agony and angst.            

           Sports stories tend to morph with age. Depending on who’s delivering it, why their telling it, the audience, and which round of ale he or she is on; the story can become legend or lie.  It creates heroic feats out of a lucky catch. It can take a valid act of selflessness and turn it into a bumbled chance to score the winning run.               

          And if it really is a true story, told in an honest, unprompted style, it will stand the test of time, the attack on its validity as an old oak battered by the elements. A true story doesn’t necessarily have to be a good one; it doesn’t have to bathe in virtue or morality. It doesn’t’ have to reflect ethical behavior or be told in a preachy tone that reeks of overt theatricality, self-consciousness, and feigned altruism. It just has to be as real as if it happened that afternoon and you are still scratching your head in question, or afraid to laugh anymore for fear of another pulled stomach muscle.            

          Likewise, a good story can be the biggest whopper ever fabricated. But if it’s not true, it had better be told well. Otherwise it’s just locker room white noise; some guy who never learned to lie well.            

          A true sports story, even embellished to the point of comic disbelief, must make you feel something deep and wondrous. It must resonate in some deeper message long after you have heard it. That’s what gives it its truth, not the fact that it happened or not.

            Some stories wear out over time. The so-called Iron War between Dave Scott and Mark Allen in 1989 is worn out. It was embellished, made legend, and then commodified. Now it’s worn out. A great battle between great men. But like alligators in the sewer and Area 51, you hear something enough…well, tell me something new. Or let the real characters tell us about what it feels like to be telling it.

            Others, due to their sanctified stature and appeal to certain innate human traits, never get old. David and Goliath is about the little guy fighting back and winning over all odds; no different than Julie Moss’ finish line crawl at Ironman ’82. And there are some great sport stories that don’t have anything to do with an act of sport. Muhammad Ali going to jail for refusing to fight a war he didn’t believe in or could consciously endorse. Whether or not you agree with Ali, his strength of character in that story calls on our own conscience. What would we do? How do we feel? The fact that it happens to be true makes that connection unavoidable for us. The best triathlon stories are often set in the hallowed past before it was a sport; just a devious group of subcults looking for a physical expression. My all-time favorite involves the legendary 1979 Ironman winner and tavern owner, Tom Warren.  Warren, for his part, is a capacious story teller but even better at creating content. As it was, sometime in the early 1980s, Tom and his girlfriend were passing between two small islands in the southern Caribbean on an overcrowded ferry. Tom was sitting up high on a splintered gunwale to offer more room for his friend and to grab some fresh air.  The first mate, an ugly dark figure who seemed to take special interest in hassling Warren for sitting on the edge, continued to threaten Tom with having to swim to the next island if he didn’t come down from his low seat.

            Warren, wanting to avoid confrontation but unable to let someone bully him for the sake of his own false masculinity, reached into his pack for a pair of goggles, handed his shirt and shorts to his friend and jumped over the side. “You gave me the option of swimming, Pal. I’ll see you in port.”  The captain, sensing a legal issue, had to follow Warren at his swimmer’s pace the two miles to the next island. Interestingly, the thick crowd supported Tom’s decision and harangued the pushy staff. And so it goes.


Scott Tinley 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.

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date: November 28, 2011

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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