Ron Smith was an important person to both Scott and me. The man was a lion, a guy you could meet once and never forget – a personality as far out there on the edge as a person could go, yet as grounded and centered as a Buddist monk. His passing affected us both deeply, and we were each moved to mark the launch of trihistory.com with a personal essay. Ron would have not liked all the attention, but he would have loved this site.
By Mike Plant
It’s hard to speak about Ron Smith in the past tense. Even on his next-to-last day, none of us would have been surprised to see him swing his feet out over the side of his hospital bed, stand up, shake out the kinks and stride off down the hall, with his bare ass hanging out of his gown, trailing tubes and wires and shedding cancer cells like fleas.
No such luck. Ron died this morning, June 29. As in all he did, he went gracefully, without drama or fanfare.
Ron was the kind of guy you would have wanted your kids to meet. You would have wanted them to look into those slightly rheumy eyes of his, look into that half-wrecked but still-handsome face, and learn how to live. Ron never shrank from a challenge, never gave an inch, but he also gave everything he had to the people around him. He treated CEOs and janitors exactly the same – as if they were people. That’s all. People. He wasn’t a corporate guy not because he didn’t have the brains or the talent (heaven knows, he had more than his share of both), but because his heart was too big. He cared too much about being down in the trenches with the crew, hands-on helping, making sure things were done just right. Don’t get me wrong, Ron could lead; he could, and did, command with authority, but I know that somewhere down deep, he probably figured that if you couldn’t do it in flip-flops or running shoes it wasn’t worth doing. Wing tips, business suits and boardroom politics were ridiculously not his style.
In case you don’t know the story, Ron Smith was one of the best age group triathletes of all time. He finished his first Ironman in 1980, the last year the race was held in Oahu, back when the “sport” of triathlon had not emerged from its cocoon of insanity. He raced up and down the Queen K Highway in Kona annually for years after that – a 40+-year-old former Navy UDT-frogman with the heart of a lion and the body of a god. A powerful cyclist, Ron was so fast in short-distance triathlons that he was disqualified more than once by race directors who didn’t believe a 45-year-old guy could be winning not only his own age division, but also the two or three groups below him. They figured he must be cutting the course. He wasn’t.
In his pre-triathlon days Ron was an early man into the Chart House restaurant chain, and he made a chunk of money, lived in a big house in Rancho Santa Fe in North San Diego County. But when he lost pretty much everything in a financial scandal not of his own making, he went from living in luxury to living out of his Volkswagen van, pretty much overnight, and thing is, you would not have known one Ron from the other because there truly was no difference. The van was big enough for his bike and his workout gear and from that point on it was all good.
This for sure: you’d want Ron on your team. For anything. He would never let you down. He used a crude term that he picked up in his UDT days that I found compelling: “When the shit gets brown…” Whenever I was with Ron, I knew that when the shit got brown he would be there. He would walk through fire and ice for a friend, and I think it’s fair to say we would all do the same for him.
Way to go Big Man. You did well.
(A version of this article appeared in SLOWTWITCH.COM on 6/29/11)
By Scott Tinley
Ron Did It