At some point every January a day goes by and suddenly I realize that another year has passed since my good friend Steve Issaris passed away this month back in 2003. At some point in your life as you get older, people start to leave you. Your grandparents, great Aunt, etc., but you hope that your spouse and best friends are in it for the long haul and that you never see the day your children leave you. So losing a close friend at age 45, having been born only days apart back in 1957, and only three months after Steve completed Ironman Hawaii, was a shock to us all.
Steve was raised by his Aunt as his parents divorced early, he didn’t know his Dad, and his Mom died very young from cancer, so he didn’t have any family history of heart disease. His visits to the Doctor didn’t reveal any issues with his heart and he had spent years training for long distance triathlons so shouldn’t he be among the healthiest people on the planet, immune to such things? So we thought, but it wasn’t to be.
The reason this means so much to me, aside from Steve being such a close friend, best man at my wedding, was that Steve was the guy that got me involved in the sport of triathlon. I met him at work, an avid surfer and cyclist who used to run in high school. He had done a couple of triathlon relays and asked if I wanted to do one with him out at Castaic Lake to cover the bike leg. My only knowledge of triathlons was watching Ironman Hawaii on television and I thought this was some crazy sport, but I could ride a bike hard so I said yes, and the rest as they say is history.
From that day forward Steve lead me on many firsts in the world of triathlon. My first Santa Barbara Triathlon in ’90, another relay, my first solo triathlon at Malibu that same year, the Wildflower Long Course triathlon in ’95, another relay, as Steve did his first half. Then in ’98 Steve got Vic Birtalan (who went on to race IM Hawaii 12 years in a row!), and I to drive to Lubbock, Texas to do the Buffalo Springs Triathlon, my first half, and then the following year we did the Escape From Alcatraz on Steve’s birthday, what a way to celebrate.
All this lead to my increased participation in the sport, in our local triathlon club, and eventually to Steve finishing Ironman Oceanside in 2001, his first IM distance race. With a young family and wife, a full-time job that keep him busy all the time, Steve realized that his best chance to qualify for Ironman Hawaii, a dream that he and many of the Santa Barbara locals were focusing on, would be in 2002, riding the wave of fitness he had created. That following year, long before Michael Simpson coined the phrase, we all became Iron Stalkers as we followed Steve’s journey to Ironman Hawaii.
First up was the first and last Ironman Utah, stopped after the winds kicked up on the swim, dragging the swim course buoys out of position. He didn’t get an IM slot at that race so he ventured back to Lubbock to try for a slot there, only to get an entry into Ironman Lake Placid where he did get his IM Hawaii slot, before heading off in October for his unbeknownst to him, last triathlon. The following January, out on his long board off the coast of Isla Vista by UCSB, a place he surfed many days as an undergraduate, out playing in a small swell, Steve had a heart attack in the water and despite the heroic efforts of the other surfers who administered CPR to Steve on his board out in the water, he was gone.
If you’re wondering why I’m going through all this, this sad story of a young man’s early demise, it is because every January when I think about this I don’t think about what could have been in his life, his families lives, or that of the local triathlon community, but instead I know that his legacy as an athlete, a hard working co-worker, husband, father, and friend, has made each of us better for knowing him. You see, Steve was the guy that got us out to train, to take our minds and bodies to the next level, and to go and race someplace different, looking for a new challenge. I can honestly say that because of Steve I connected with many more of the local triathletes, became president of the local tri club, and then became a USAT certified coach because I wanted to give back to the community, to inform and inspire, as Steve had done for me.
So I ask, who inspires you?
The SB Tri Club hosts a sprint distance triathlon as a training day every year and the year Steve passed away we renamed the “Tri for Fun” to “Steve’s Tri”, and I hope that we always continue to call it that. Every July the current president of the club asks me to talk a little bit about Steve, because now 10+ years later the number of people who attend this event that know Steve are down to two or three, so I try in 5-10 minutes to retell the story I’m telling here today, so that they know why we honor this man.
I tell them that we all have a “Steve” in our lives, the person that introduced us to this crazy sport of triathlon, either through hearing about their adventures, or watching them race, or maybe like me, joining them in a relay and getting hooked yourself. These people have inspired us, changed our lives (definitely for the better!), and let us find out for ourselves what we can do physically when we set our minds to it.
So who’s the “Steve” in your life? What did that person mean to you, how did they inspire you to do your first triathlon? Or to step up to the big time for your first SB Triathlon, Half Ironman, or Ironman distance race? If you’re still in contact with them, thank them for helping you find yourself in this sport, amongst this fabulous group of people.
So I ask you again, who inspires you? And then I have two more questions for you; who have you inspired? And who will you inspire today?
Steve Issaris, 1957-2003, R.I.P.
P.S. After finishing this story I went out for a run, mentally editing it like all writers do, trying to make it better. After many attempts, a saying came to mind, “Better is the evil of good enough”, and I decided to leave it alone, but add the following to recognize the other people who have greatly influenced my triathlon career, as Steve may have been the first, but he won’t be the last.
Jon Martin and Stuart Sato, who resurrected the Santa Barbara Triathlon Club in 1997, introducing me to many new faces and athletes, bringing the local tri community back together. It was my honor to follow in their footsteps as club president, and in turn pass it along to Dave Groom, Chris Latham, Kyle Visin, Adrienne Hiengels, and now Aldous Pabon. Keep up the good work!
Vic Birtalan, the guy who 14 years my senior was kicking my butt in the pool and on the run, while I was thinking I was this young hot athlete who should be kicking his! It took years for me to overtake Vic on race day, but his run of 12 consecutive trips to Ironman Hawaii starting at age 55 showed what hard work, dedication, and consistency could do. BTW, he’s still out there rocking it!
The 7AM East Beach bikers, who for the past 20 years I have ridden with pretty much every Saturday that I wasn’t sick, on vacation, training for a marathon, or recovering from an injury. Without your camaraderie during the ride (and after at The East Beach Grill, chowing down on the blueberry wheat germ pancake special!), I would never have ridden as far, as hard, and accomplished what I have been able to do.
Jack Bianchi and Joe Howell, a couple of the old guard athletes (I mean that in a nice way!), who have come back time and time again from disease and injury, humbly (well maybe Jack, not so sure about Joe…), and who continue to be ambassadors for the sports of triathlon, duathlon, and running.
Thanks to all these individuals for raising the bar, again, and again.