An Historian's Dilemma
"An event enters 'history' when it is recorded. But there may be multiple, and competing histories; as there are multiple, and competing, eyewitness accounts." – Joyce Carol Oates
John and Judy Come Out Swinging
FIVE INDIVIDUALS WERE INDUCTED into the USAT Triathlon Hall of Fame at a ceremony on June 26 at Navy Pier in Chicago: Pro triathlon great Mike Pigg; age-group legend Sister Madonna Buder, the wonderfully eccentric Tom Warren, winner of the 1979 "Iron Man"; and John and Judy Collins, who were recognized by the Hall as co-founders of the Ironman, and who came out swinging in their acceptance speeches against any past, present or future telling of the Ironman Creation story but the official Collins-approved version.
In theory it is a hard point to argue. The Collins' were there, after all. Their place among the Founding Mothers and Fathers of Triathlon is irrefutable. But the story is nearly four decades old, and absolute authenticity is a slippery thing to grasp for any period of time, especially after multiple retellings. For those of us who hold and tell the history of the sport, the Collins' closing comments at the celebration raised significant questions for triathlon historians: Is the past retold more accurately, or less so, over time? And is it the details that matter most, or the historical impact? Do we settle for the story or revel in the myth?
McGillivray Introduces Mike Pigg
History was not the issue for Mike Pigg, whose induction into the Hall was an acknowledgement that nice guys sometime do finish first. In his acceptance speech, Pigg was as charmingly down to earth as he was during his competitive prime, eloquent in his lack of pretension. He gave special thanks to his wife, Marci, and his former business manager and now fellow Hall-of-Famer, Dave McGillivray, who flew into Chicago from Boston for the sole purpose of introducing his close friend and former client. Addressing his 16-old twin children, Chloe and Christian, from the podium, Pigg, using himself as the best possible example, encouraged them to 'follow your dreams, follow your hearts." Known and widely recognized for his fearless, go-for-broke racing style and for being the man who shattered the dominance of the Big Four back in the mid-1980's and early 90's, Mike Pigg is also much loved – for being... well, Mike Pigg. If that is not a way to teach your children well, then such a thing does not exist. Link HERE to Scott Tinley's recollection of the Pigg Man.
Sister Buder, Amazed and Amazing
As for Sister Buder, the honor apparently came as a genuine surprise. She seemed flabbergasted to be on stage, yet at the same time expressed a charming sense of entitlement, musing to the crowd that, upon reflection, she had, after all, been breaking age barriers in the sport for early 40 years. Neither the audience nor USAT needed to be convinced, although Buder was obviously still trying to get her arms around it. The fact is, Buder is a triathlon icon. She has been a PR bonanza for the sport since her early days in the 1980's with the Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series, and the number of older athletes she has inspired probably cannot be counted. In her long career she has completed hundreds of triathlons and dozens of Ironman-distance events. She is the sport's Patron Saint of Back-of-the-Packers, a throwback to the early days when eccentricity ruled over physical prowess. True to triathlon form, Buder's acceptance speech focused not on teary-eyed nostalgia, but rather on her recent recovery from a broken hip and subsequent attempt to qualify, at age 83, for the 2014 Ironman in Kona. The power of prayer came up, of course. And she did cry a bit – at the end – when she called the people in the sport her family. It was corny, genuine, touching and absolutely perfect.
Tom Warren, Aging But Ageless
Warren, who doesn't like to fly and did not attend the ceremony, was recognized for winning Ironman #2 in 1979, but mostly for being in the right place at the right time, then knowing what to do with the opportunity. Put any four 60-year-old triathletes from San Diego in the same room and there will be Tom Warren stories bouncing off the walls within minutes. Warren's biker bar/tavern "Tugs" is a must-see stop on any magical mystery tour of the sport (the actual building is long gone, but the site still resonates), and ghostly shades from his Swim-Run-Swim biathlon still haunt the sands of San Diego's Pacific Beach. The USAT Hall of Fame would not be complete without Tom Warren; his touching appearance on a taped acceptance speech was likely the first time most of the younger members of the audience had ever laid eyes on him. That is regrettable; those of us who knew him in his prime knew an athlete, a philosopher, an individualist whose unique approach to life and competition helped shaped the first decade of what Time magazine once called a "cobbled-up sport." If not exactly a Founding Father, Warren was, at the very least, one of our most prominent cobblers. Follow link HERE to read an account of Warren's 1978 victory from Mike Plant's book, Iron Will
John and Judy Collins – A Quixotic Quest
For the Collins', who were introduced by their children, the podium became a something of a pulpit. Both offered passionate claims that the real story of How the Ironman Came To Be has never been accurately told, and that Judy's role has been appreciably and consistently understated.
In the sense that the Ironman concept unquestionably originated in the Collins household, it's hard to argue the veracity of their claim. It is their story, after all. And if John says Judy deserves more credit, whose place is it to contradict? Yet for years, John Collins praised this correspondent (and perhaps others) for doing the necessary homework, for cutting through the early myth and telling the story as it truly occurred. His current claim that "No one seems interested, really, in how it happened, where it happened and where it came from," is an unfortunate generalization.
Historically speaking, the Collins' are on a Quixotic quest. Despite their passion, they will never set the story "straight." The telling will never be "right," simply because the memories of everyone involved, including the Collins', are 37 years old. And even if a completely accurate version did exist in a vault somewhere, it would be unlikely to resonate because the Iron-myth that the couple is battling against so desperately – that of a drunken, muscle-bound barroom challenge -- is so bloody compelling.
Thomas Mann said, "For the myth is the foundation of life." If the Ironman is still around in 50 years, the story of the First Race will likely be better than ever, and even farther from the truth, no matter how hard the Collins' or anyone else try to make it otherwise. History is programmed to march toward exaggeration. The men will be bigger, stronger and drunker, the women will look like characters in a Frank Frazetta painting, and there will be dead bodies on the floor. It won't be anywhere near what it really was, but it will be a helluva lot more fun.
In any case, as of 1985, Chapter 4 of my book "Iron Will – Triathlon's Toughest Challenge" – was the closest thing to an accurate, carefully researched narrative of the how the first Ironman came to be. The chapter may not track with the current telling of the tale, but at the time, it was close, at least. The hours of interview tapes with the principal characters, including former Commander Collins, still exist. Hopefully, it's still good reading. See PDF link below.