William R. Katovsky didn’t like very many triathletes. And in a pathetic indictment of the sport, many of the self-anointed movers-and-shakers didn’t like him. Or at least they didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t understand him. Bill, founder of Tri-Athlete Magazine (which merged with Triathlon Magazine and eventually became Triathlete Magazine), was a quirky intellectual from the San Francisco Bay area, a UC Berkeley grad, a sometimes self-loathing, Jewish-guild laden, endurance athlete who had a hard time convincing anyone he could run 5k in under an hour. He died the week before All Hallow’s Eve, 2015 from complications having to do with a recent bout of spinal stenosis. His legacy and substantial contributions to the world of endurance sports are largely forgotten.
When an endurance athlete passes, stories abound of their athletic prowess and generic inspiration. He/She/They were so powerful, so compelling, so…admirable. The very short story of Bill Katovsky is that no one really knows what to say about his time in triathlon. Was he a publisher? A writer? An instigator of edgy thought? A literary mensch of the sporting kind? Or just some kid from Cleveland who was drawn to California’s Valhalla and triathlon became his gold if not his grail?
Let the competitive grieving begin.
I met Bill while riding my bike on Pacific Coast Highway in the fall of 1982. He was driving a faded beige Ford Pinto with out-of-state plates and screamed out the passenger window. “Hey, Tinley. I’m Bill Katovsky and I just started the world’s first triathlon magazine.” Jesus, I thought, who is this kook?
His dark curly locks mixed with excited sweat and he spoke in rushed, almost challenging tones. His dog, Rockee, sat in the passenger seat and look inquisitively at the pair of us posted up on the curb across from the beach.
“It’s going to be called Tri-Athlete Magazine and we’ll be looking to cover people like you,” he gushed. “You won’t want to get left behind. How do I contact you? Where do you live? Is this your regular training route? How much did you pay for that bike? How do you feel about only being the Ironman champion for eight months since there are two of them in Kona in 1982?” His enthusiasm was both off-putting and infectious. Although I liked him immediately, I wouldn’t tell him that until recent decades. What a kook!
In the late 70s and early 80s, Bill published a smart and hip periodical titled Frisco. That platform offered him access to people like Tom Hayden (Bill thought him a “wonderful man, slept with Jane Fonda”), Allen Ginsburg (“the most over-rated poet in the modern period”), and Harvey Milk (“the first gay man to show real public strength”). How he morphed from political science grad student to 1981 Ironman finisher is indicative of his inquisitiveness if not his naiveté. If he wanted to know the interior narrative, Bill would not be denied.
When he ran Tri-Athlete Magazine, Bill would do the outlandish, twisting the narcissistic self-import of the sport on itself as if to ask, “Can you laugh at yourself? Because that would indicate some form of humility.” He put Julie Moss on the cover wearing a sausage-case leather mini skirt holding a kid’s tricycle. He put Dave Horning on the cover wearing a WWII-era gas mask and titled him Sergei Boguslavski: The Great Russian Triathlete.
The consummate idea-guy, Bill would regularly call (often late at night) the few who accepted his quirky-though-thoughtful suggestions: Hey, Tinley, what do you think of this new book title? Hey, Mitch, here’s a thought…Hey Roy, Hey Tim, Hey Amanda. But the list was short and getting shorter. And so Bill circled the few wagons, locked his doors, and foiled the windows. His writing became darker, crisper, more indicting. Moving away from sport he re-entered his self-politicalness with books such as Patriot Act and The World According to Gore. He sent his co-author on Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, Tim Carlson into the Middle East Theater of war while he stayed home fighting his own kind of battle in a Marin County bunker-apartment. His girlfriend gone, his dad and dog dead, those were tough times.
But then in the late 90s, on the pre-cusp of a new endurance sport movement, William R. Katovsky found his stride in a denial of competition, a return to basic fitness and health, and the hippy-esque barefoot running culture. New books, new sites, and new energy flowed from his keyboard. It was a good time for Bill; he wrote well and encouraged others to do the same. He was that literary mensch, finally.
The only thing missing was his health and more than five small fingers to tell him that he was good. Maybe better than good.
In the spring of 1985, Bill called and asked if I would write a “how-to” for the back page of Tri-Athlete Magazine. “But it has to be really tongue-in-cheek, totally irreverent, and snarky.”
“I can do that that,” I told him. “I don’t even have to fake it. I’m a cynical bastard.”
“I know. That’s why I think you might be able to learn how to write more than a ‘sex and abs and Gatorade’ piece when you grow up.”
Two weeks ago he called me—very late at night—and wanted to remind me that he and I were on a very short list of those excommunicated from Triathlon Magazine; he having been systematically carved out of control in some long ago ownership change and me finally losing that back page of gradually-morphing tales after a 22 year-run that began with one quirky publisher believing in one quirky athlete.
“Those triathletes you hang out with,” he was found of ribbing me, “they are of hard body and soft mind.”
“Now who’s the cynic?” I’d ask him.
And in his softer, hard-edged moments of veracity he’d say that he only wanted to be admired by the triathlon community. “Why don’t they like me, Tinley?”