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Daring Greatly -- Steve Tarpinian 1960-2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Steve Tarpinian at his beloved Mighty Hampton Triathlon 

by Jean Mellano

Editor’s Note: Steve Tarpinian was a true pioneer of the sport, known well to both founders of this publication. Sadly, he is not the first triathlete to live a secret life of emotional turmoil, and to ultimately lose himself at the wrong end of a pendulum swing of doubt and despair. We received this short piece from Steve’s lifelong partner, Jean Mellano, who is writing a memoir of Steve and their life together, titled “Slipped Away”.  Jean has expressed an interest in donating a lion’s share of the prospective proceeds from the sale of the book  to a non-profit organization involved in suicide prevention and/or mental health awareness. You can read more here:

And here:


On March 15, 2015, Steve Tarpinian lost his war against depression.  He was loved and respected by many in the triathlon community, from seasoned pros to first-time triathletes.  He was a great visionary and an entrepreneur.  That combination made for a very successful triathlon legacy. 

Steve had been involved in the sport of triathlon since 1982, as both a competitor and contributor.  He finished 18 Ironman events, including 14 consecutive IMLP since the event inception in 1999.  In addition, Steve finished 17 consecutive Maui Xterra Triathlon Championships since the inaugural event in 1996.  He was a member of the charter National Coaching Committee that created the USAT Coaching Certification Program and gave continuing education seminars for the USAT coaching community.  I believe one of Steve's greatest talents (and he had many) was his ability to coach not just the athlete, but the person, as well.

Whether it be from creating new youth and adult triathlons in the NY metro area or coaching and developing junior and adult triathlon teams, or developing swimming clinics, DVDs and books, Steve's passion for the sport was apparent to anyone who knew him.  

Steve prided himself in being an old-school kind of guy.  He was enamored with the origins of the sport.    He kept the same racing bike (purchased in 2003), with little to no technological improvements, for years.  In his mind, it was a perfectly good bike, no need for the latest and greatest model.  This sense of practicality was apparent in the faithful mountain bike (purchased in 1999) he took with him every year to the Maui Xterra Championships – it looked like an antique compared to what the elite age groupers and pros were riding.  Steve was just so happy to be at the event and enjoying himself on the course.  Make no mistake, Steve would always give his all to every training session and every race he participated in.  But his motto was "The Beauty is in the Balance".  I used to like to interpret that to having doughnuts and coffee after a hard workout.  Sometimes Steve saw it my way. 

Although Steve loved IMLP and Maui Xterra championships, his favorite race was the RJA Memorial Olympic distance triathlon (formerly the Mighty Montauk) in Montauk, NY.   I clearly remember the first time he did this race in 1983; he was first out of the water to the transition area with the bikes laying flat on Montauk Highway (no racks).  I held up a towel while he changed from his Speedo swimsuit to bike shorts.

In 2011, Steve sent an email to his triathlon team about Montauk event.  There is no better way to see Steve than through his very own words:

This Saturday is coach Steve Tarpinian's favorite triathlon. (The RJA Memorial Mighty Montauk Triathlon); not just in Montauk, not just in Long Island, but my favorite triathlon, period!  Why?

1. My close friend Bob Aaron created it in 1983 one year after he participated in the first ever Mighty Hamptons, so it was born in a time of no wetsuits, no aerobars, no energy bars, no aero anything, no "Olympic Distance", no Half Iron Distance, no Sprint distance, just a handful of triathlons, all of varying distances!  It comes from a time of triathlon when the sport was part endurance event, part adventure race, part beer blast and all fun with lots of camaraderie. Many of these elements are of course are still present in the sport, but being the old school guy I am, the nostalgia of an event from this era that has maintained much of its allure makes it very special. Many of Bob's original direction signs (made on drift wood and miscellaneous planks etc.) are still used to mark the course. There have been several upgrades like the swim course is no longer set by Bob's best guess at 10 PM the night before the race in an alcohol adjusted "looks good" way; in place of this, the East Hampton Ocean Rescue sets the swim course up in the afternoon in the day light; probably stone sober and with the aid of a GPS.

2. Bob was quite a character, a true renaissance man. Electrician, skilled to do anything construction guy, surfer, athlete, smoker, drinker, fisherman, entrepreneur, hotel owner, romantic, artist (his course maps were amazing).   He was an all around great guy to hang with. His spirit is all over the event since his widow Merle Aaron has been running the event after he passed and maintained almost all of Bob's creative beauty and ideas in the event. Things like no relays, no athletes under 18 etc. When Bob started the event he called it the Montauk Triathlon. He always wanted to call it the Mighty Montauk but the Mighty Hamptons already had that name. In 1999 he requested EventPower to allow him to use the name Mighty since they had it trademarked for Mighty Hamptons.  EventPower agreed and he changed the name to Mighty Montauk. When he passed, Merle changed the name to RJA (Robert J. Aaron) memorial and that is the event this Saturday, celebrating its 29th running! One year less than the Mighty Hamptons celebrating its  30th annual on September 11th! How significant is this? There are less than 10 triathlons worldwide that have been running this long. The sport is less than 36 years old!I

3. I love this event so much I have done it every year they have had it! It always makes me remember my close friend Bob Aaron and the fun times we shared together talking surf, triathlons, booze and women; okay not too much booze talk since I was never the drinker Bob was. :-)

4. I love the course since it is always challenging with a rolling hill bike and hilly run. Over the years we have had some very cold events where the water was cold, the air was cold and without wetsuits (pre 1986-ish) one might be numb from the knees down to well into the run making it like running on pogo sticks. Once there was a hail storm! Of course there have been gloriously nice weather days as well. No matter what, when you cross the finish line you feel a great sense of accomplishment at this event.

The one thing I do not really like about the event is that after next year I will either have to stop telling the truth that I have done every RJA race for 30 years or stop telling a lie that I am 29 years old! Can't do both."

After I decided to write Steve's memoir and donate the majority of the proceeds to a non-profit related to mental health awareness/suicide prevention, I was advised by more than one person to leave out the fact that Steve took his own life.  My initial feelings were no different in that just after Steve had passed, I was adamant with a local reporter that I did not want the cause of Steve's death reported in an article he wanted to write about Steve.  My feelings have changed and now, when people ask me the cause of Steve's death, I am honest.   Immediately, I feel their discomfort when I tell them the truth.  As a society, we tend to sweep mental illness and suicide under the rug and no one wants to talk about it.   Cancer had a similar stigma attached to it in years past.  Cancer is now treated and spoken about as the illness that it is.   We need to get to that point with mental illness. 

I found a note Steve had written to himself in April of 2014 about what he would like to be said at his funeral:

"Steve was a man who was compassionate and learned from his mistakes.  He dared greatly"

I believe this to be so true about Steve.  He was a beautiful, gifted man not only in the physical sense, but spiritually as well.  To most people, he  appeared to be healthy, strong, a great athlete and a visionary entrepreneur.  However, on the inside, he was so conflicted with the paths he had chosen in life.  He struggled with depression for many years until he could not take the pain and despair any more.  In the end, for Steve, the fear of dying became less than the fear of living.

I want Steve Tarpinian to be remembered, not as a great athlete/coach/race director that took his own life, but as a human being who did his very best to make people feel good about themselves and who inspired them to accomplish things they never thought they could do.  This is Steve's true legacy.