Steve Fink has been on my radar to interview for a few years and I’m so happy I finally caught up to him. Steve is a great example for all of us as to how volunteering can enhance a person’s TCSD membership experience. He has done an outstanding job as our Events Director over the past couple of years. I know you will enjoy getting to know Steve.
Craig: What sports did you participate in when you were young?
Steve: Thanks Craig, for your hard work on these incredible interviews for the Tri Club over the years. I know this is a lot of work to put these together. As a member, it’s a been a real gift to me and to the club to hear from so many interesting people.
I was very lucky to grow up in a tiny town in Southern Oregon called Ashland, nestled between the mountains because it was small and safe, and it was great for running and biking. My Mom volunteered at the Chamber of Commerce downtown and Lithia park was right behind her work, so after school I would go running the trials through the park up toward the top. I loved those trails and I remember bragging to one of my friends that “I know those trials like I know the back of my hand”. I can still visualize them. I played soccer as a kid and wasn’t too bad at it and played football in junior high and wasn’t very good at it, then back to soccer in high school and a little in college and didn’t get any better at it. As I look back on it I wish I would have joined the cross-country team, but of course the coach’s sons were on the team and I knew I would never have a chance against them, but I wish I would’ve given it a shot because I was one of the fastest guys on the warm-up runs on the soccer team, but I ran out of breath on a 100 meter sprint down the field for the ball, then I couldn’t get my head around what to do with it. So, in my free time I road my road bike up and down the mountains, mountain biked on the trials and ran all over town. I remember we stupidly used to draft trucks on our bikes around 50 miles an hour down the freeway. I’m glad those days are behind me and I still had some days to live after that!
Craig: What was your first triathlon experience like?
Steve: In college I did an Exchange program to Mexico and ended up staying almost two years. After that I got the travel itch and decided to teach English in Japan. I lived there for 5 years. I lived in a small town called Oita in the south on the Kyushu Island in the mid-90s. One of my friends owned a bar called Bar Brown. He was in great shape. I don’t think he drank, but I would be out drinking until the morning on the weekends so I saw him a lot and he would invite me to various running races where I always beat him, even after a night of drinking, who knows, maybe that helped. Then he invited me to a Triathlon. I asked him, “what’s that?” and he said you had to swim, bike and run. I thought that’s no problem, I can bike and run and I can swim, at least I think I can swim. I think he thought he might finally get me. We had to put our bikes on these tiny little fishing boats that took us over to this island where the race would start. It was a 200 meter swim, I think a 9 mile bike and 6K run. The swim was out and back. You swam out to a buoy, I guess only about 50 meters and went around it then up on shore around a cone and back out to the buoy. I remember my friend asking me if I had a wetsuit on the boat, I didn’t even know what that was. I just about drowned! I was the second to last person out of the water. It was me and another lady and she had a full body wetsuit and was back stroking. I was dog paddling. I think I barely beat her out of the water. But then I jumped on my bike and went at it and then out on the run somewhere with around 2 or 3K to go I passed my friend and came in 9th overall. When I finished, I thought this is an amazing sport! You can really suck at one of the 3 and still come out strong!
Craig: I’m aware you have done a lot of world traveling. Let’s start with one of your first trips – cycling 2000 miles on your mountain bike throughout Europe. What are some of your fondest memories of that trip?
Steve: Yes this was an amazing thing. I was 24 and turned 25 on the trip. I went in the summer of ‘94 for about 2 and half months. Looking back, I can see it was a crazy idea, but it turned out to be an incredible journey. I didn’t have much money. I think $800 and a credit card and a mountain bike and my little 2-man tent that I had sprayed the hose on before I left thinking it would hold water – nope! I ended up buying a tarp just to cover everything because who knew that it rains all year around in England! I arrived in Amsterdam and biked The Netherlands, England, Germany, France, Switzerland and Spain. A lot of amazing experiences here so it’s hard to narrow them down, but I guess I first want to say that the trip really showed me that people everywhere are wonderful and very friendly. I met people off the street who invited me into their homes or backyards to stay multiple times. People would just show up randomly with food or beer – I had a beer with two 13 years old boys beside the Danube river in Germany in the middle of the afternoon. One of them explained various types of beers that he liked in detail and gave me his cup! Outside of Amsterdam I was sitting on a corner with one of my maps, no GPS – the maps were always too large. I would buy one map for every country, but it didn’t help with getting anywhere on small streets. If I really wanted to get somewhere I would have to buy a new map every day so I gave up and would just go in the general direction of the next city. Anyway, this man named Rein Wentink came out of his house while I was turning my map around in various directions and he asked me if I needed directions. I said yes and he invited me into his home. He was a graphic designer, so he drew me this beautiful map that showed me where his grandmother lived and where the pizza restaurant was and the river and bike path along it. Then he asked if I wanted some tea and soon his wife came home and asked if I wanted to stay for dinner. I politely declined but they insisted, then they insisted I stay there that night and 2 days later I left after they showed me the entire town with their whole family. I visited them again for another 3 days after I came back from England – incredible people and I met similar people throughout the trip. Later when I got back to the States I read an article about a couple of guys who had biked across the States. They said they generally would show up in a town and meet people who would let them camp in their back yards and then they would have a BBQ for them or invite their friends over. They said it was like that all the way across the states. I could really relate and I’ve never forgotten about how wonderful people are including a couple of sisters who took another cycling friend and I around Pamplona during the running of the bulls for 8 days, and the family in Germany who invited me into their home and I went to school with their kids!
Craig: You lived in Mexico for 2 years on an exchange program. What was that experience like?
Steve: In High School and College I went to Mexico every Spring Break with my church to work in orphanages down there. This got me excited about learning Spanish so in college, in 1994 after cycling through Europe, I did an Exchange program through my college in Ashland, Oregon to Guanajuato Mexico. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of Spanish influence. It feels like you’re in Spain because of the cobblestone streets and Spanish style of the buildings, except in color. In looking back, it didn’t feel so much like my senior year of college as much it felt a year of partying and travel.
I would get up at 8am, which is when class started and get there around 8:30 before the teacher arrived. Life was just slower there, nothing had to happen on-time. I hated wearing a watch so this fit me perfectly. We went out and partied Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and then I would hit the gym a few days a week and ride my bike up the cobblestones and run up the hills. I loved the simplicity of the hole in wall gym my friend took me too. He was able to get in before it opened. All the equipment was old and you couldn’t be sure anything worked but a few free weights for bench pressing and a pull-up bar was all we needed.
Craig: You lived in Japan for 5 years. What did you do to support yourself and what are your lasting impressions from those years?
Steve: I lived in Japan from 1996 to 2000. After Mexico I had the travel bug and wasn’t ready to settle down with a job in the States like the rest of my friends were doing so I found a book about teaching English abroad and realized that you could make the most money in Japan. The book suggested a process of getting your TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate and signing up for one of the many programs that would fly you over and set you up in housing. I hadn’t planned that far ahead, and I was itching to go so I hopped on a plane, again with a credit card and a little bit of money. I found this cool little city in the south of the country called Beppu, it’s a hotspring town. I thought it would be warmer there – I found out quickly that it was similar to the rest of the country – freezing cold in the winter and hot and humid in the summer, kind of like New York. I ended up staying with a family at a Shinto Shrine for 3 months before I finally got a job teaching. A few years later I moved to Kobe near Osaka. I had only planned to stay for a year, but I ended up staying for five.
Japan was so opposite of Mexico, Japan was on-time to the second and Mexico was never on-time. It was a tough adjustment for me without a watch. But the cycling was amazing. On a break, I road my bike 3 days down through Shikoku, a beautiful Island known for its 88 shrines. I was often the spectacle, but the people were so friendly and loved to talk. I also had a group of cycling friends and it was so much fun riding up through the hills then down to the fishing villages.
I picked up hitch-hiking. Japan was one of the best countries in the world to hitch (by the way, Mexico wasn’t so bad either because you could jump in the back of truck). I would hitch-hike through the night for a 10-hour trip down from Kobe to Oita in Kyushu to see my girlfriend. All you needed was a sign showing your destination in Japanese and then if they weren’t going that far you could ask them to drop you off at the rest area. (Mom, if you’re reading this, it was actually really safe…) It was a great way to practice Japanese with truck drivers, students and one time, the Russian mafia. I also met a bass player in the Tokyo orchestra who drove me the whole 10 hours. He said he actually played the cello, but there weren’t any jobs because there was too much competition, so he practiced 10 hours a day and learned the bass and got into the Tokyo orchestra!
Craig: What was your return to triathlon like?
Steve: Like so many of us, life kind of takes a priority until we’re able to get back to our roots so I didn’t actually do another Triathlon until 2013 when I did the club race on Fiesta Island. I had actually decided to do one about a year and half before that, so I bumped up my biking and running and decided I should get a wetsuit this time and try to swim. I went down to Paradowski’s on Convoy and told them I was going to do a Triathlon and I needed a wetsuit. What brand? Sleeveless? How thick? I had no clue so I just said give me the one that will make me float! They gave me a 4-millimeter sleeveless, the thickest one they had. I still have it and use it today. Then I decided to try it out at La Jolla Shores in February when the waves were probably 5 to 6 ft. I had never swum in the ocean before. I had been trying to swim in the pool, it was actually a lot of sinking. I remember in the pool there was this one lady who was walking in the lane beside me and passed me. So at the Shores I jumped in and swam about 100 meters out and got pummeled by the waves and just about drowned because I was hyperventilating. The lifeguards on the beach were making that circle signal to see if I was okay. I convinced myself that I wasn’t dying and realized that my wetsuit did float! I took a few breaths and managed to get an okay signal back to them then made it out to the quarter mile buoy and back through the waves without getting smashed against the rocks. I was really proud of myself. This kid on shore as I was crawling out was looking out at the waves and said, “Wow you’re really brave!”. It kind of came as a shock – was it really that bad!
Looking back on it, I really wish I would have jumped into the Tri Club’s beginner’s program. It would have been great to not go through a trial by drowning and have a few people by my side giving me a few pointers and gentle nudges out of the nest. Later I volunteered with the Beginner’s races and saw what I missed out on.
I wasn’t deterred however so I did my first Tri with the Tri club on Fiesta Island, made it out of the water and got beat by Les Shibata on the run (most people did and still do) but it put a fire in my belly so I got to know Les and Andy Thacher. That year and many years after I did all of the club races. I couldn’t believe this club was putting on such amazing races for only $75 a year with these to die for breakfasts afterwards!
I thought there might be a ton of dirt and sand on my feet after the swim so I had read online that you could bring a bucket of water into your transition area. I know there were a lot of behind my back comments and giggles, but it does work – I haven’t done it since though, slows down your transition, which was one of the places I was losing to Les Shibata. Have you ever seen him go through transition? Right “No”, because he’s too fast.
Craig: The TCSD is run by volunteers. How have you served as a volunteer for the TCSD and how has that enriched your membership experience?
Steve: Around 2015 I decided I wanted to be more involved as a volunteer, so I started watching other volunteers and trying to find out how that process works. I would show up at the races early and ask if they needed a hand and always stay late to help cleanup. That’s kind of how things worked back then and it still works a little bit that way now, but now it’s easier to volunteer because you can sign up on the website. Since I was at all the races anyway I quickly learned the ropes and met everyone. I also hung out before and after the meetings. It was a pretty amazing group of people. I got involved the same time as Chip Slack did and watched him go on to become an Ironman and a leader for the Beginner’s. In 2018 I became the Events Director and in 2019 we put on 19 races. Including a time trial up Palomar Mountain – that was one of my favorites.
Craig: What are your favorite benefits of TCSD membership?
Steve: TCSD is like church for me. I remember in my church as a kid they had that awkward standup and say hi or shake hands with the people around you. At least it’s awkward until you know everyone around you. I think some people in the tri club have felt that way at the beginning, I certainly did, but it didn’t take long to meet almost everyone and eventually I was the last person out of the house again, just like I was as a kid at church. That has become the best part of the club for me, getting to know these wonderful people that do amazing things like get up at 5am in the morning and go swim a mile. I also love the “Go Tri Club”. Any race I ever did I would hear that throughout the whole race, either me yelling out to someone else or them yelling to me. One time to me it was “Hey Tri Club! You’ve got your helmet on backwards!”
Craig: What are some of the funny things that have happened to you as a triathlete?
Steve: I’m afraid to ask my friends this question because I know they would come up with more crazy and funny things that I’ve been the reason for than I would, but apart from having to stop at the beginning of the ride and turn my helmet around and nearly drowning on my first swim at the Shores, I would say every race has had a memorable Steve moment – let’s see…
- I was penalized 2 minutes for racking with the Kiddies
- I chased a guy down the hill and started chasing him up the hill on the bike, half way up the hill I realized he was doing the Olympic while I was doing the Sprint so I had to backtrack to get back on course
- Now the referees all know me – especially as the shirtless biker – although I never got penalized. Bobbie Solomon’s first question to me race day was always “Are you going to wear a shirt?”
- Standing in the rain – a lot – the rain seems to wait for race day.
- I think I’m the genius for recruiting Rick Wade who always holds everything together at the races – Rick calls me the night before the GWL duathlon and says you know what we forgot (the “we” is really me – I should have thought about this as the Race Director) Porta Potties! So Rick came up with an ingenious tent, bucket and toilet paper solution that worked!
- It’s not what it looks like, it’s pickle juice! straight from the jar!
Craig: What are your favorite triathlons?
Steve: One of my favorite tri club races was at Kitchen Creek back in 2014. It was a duathlon that Jay Weber organized. We had a 16-year-old who was going pro race it, and he won. We did the race in February. It was a 9-mile ride from Pine Valley to the start of the race at the bottom of Kitchen Creek road then 10 miles up to the snow and 27 miles total on the bike. Then a 4-mile trail run at 6000 feet. It just about killed me and then I had to ride 40 miles back to Pine Valley, but it was exhilarating. I love that ride so look me up if you want to go!
I also love the local races, especially SDIT and the Tri Classic, both of them with that wonderful hill up to Point Loma on the bike, where you feel like you’re going to cough up a lung near the top but then you get to fly down the back.
The Aquathlons are magic. They have been nothing but amazing memories as a racer and director. When you cross the line, you’re dirty, sweaty and there are your friends (Les Shibata usually in front of me) all dirty and sweaty together but as happy as ever to be there with pizza in hand watching the sunset.
Fiesta Island club races with everyone cheering you on for that last lap on the run and then breakfast! There’s nothing like it, showing up at 5am and watching the sunrise just as you jump in the water with a whole group of friends all excited about sharing the love and misery together!
Last year I did my first half – the Chula Vista Challenge. It actually became a duathlon – because of the rain they dropped the swim, which was great for me. I got a flat halfway through and took 20 minutes to change it. It’s wonderful if you bring cans of air, but it’s even better if you know how to use them!
And then this year in February I did a 50k trail run, Sycamore Canyon. That was special. I had never run that far and I had never experienced aid stations with so much wonderful food including pickles with pickle juice!
Craig: What have been some of the most influential things to happen in your life that have shaped you into the man you are today?
Steve: I just turned 51 so now that I’m half-way there, I’m guessing the most influential things are yet to come, but so far…. I would say living abroad and learning Spanish and Japanese (even though I’m far from fluent) changed my way of viewing the world. When I got to Japan I felt left I had arrived on a different planet, all of my set-in-stone world views were shaken up and turned on their head, Mexico did that too, but Japan was more dramatic. For example, before I learned Spanish I would spend time in Spring Break and some summers in orphanages in TJ and Ensenada. I met some really poor people working in the dumps getting their money from the government by recycling glass. My first impression was that they were poor but happy, something my rich lifestyle could learn from. They would still invite me into their shacks and offer me food. The children were playing outside and their mother was making dinner and they seemed to be content with so little, but once I learned Spanish and was able to talk to these people throughout my travels in Mexico and they told me that all they wanted was what I had and they would give up just about anything to get it. Some of them, by the way, succeeded. Learning the language changed my world view entirely.
Another thing that greatly affected me was starting two businesses, one in 2004 and one in 2015. Starting the first business was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in life and then when I decided to start the second I talked myself into thinking it would be easier, but no dice! It was harder. So every time I hear someone say something like “It’s difficult training for an Ironman” or “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to finish the race”, I think, no it’s difficult raising kids (which I haven’t done, it has to be harder than running a business) or it’s difficult running 5 miles a day 6 days a week for 20 years, like some of the members of the club have. Maybe you have poor family members in Mexico, like some of the friend’s I’ve met, that you’re supporting from the States while trying to figure your way through the immigration system. I would call that difficult. So I don’t really put a race in the category of difficult and it kind of bugs me that others do.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you change?
Steve: I love Triathlon and I still love the sprints the best. I don’t really like the way the sport has become so commercial but I understand that as part of the evolution of any sport.
I would change one thing though – I would love to see the playing field leveled on the bike. I’m not sure running shoes or a wetsuit make much of a difference but I do think that an expensive bike does knock a lot of time off of your race. I haven’t figured it out or how it would work but I would like to put on a race where everyone uses the exact same bike, maybe those yellow bikes that you can rent to ride around town? I don’t know, tell me if you have any ideas.
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
Steve: In June, I worked with a friend to do the Be Supportive Relay, a Canada border to Mexico border 24/7 running relay. It was a fundraiser in support of Healthcare Workers. I followed about 150 runners down the coast in an RV. We ran over 1500 miles. The majority of runners completed full marathons. Some of the marathon legs were divided between various runners. It was amazing to meet so many incredible healthcare workers and runners all the way down the coast.
Organizing and Volunteering for events like this has really made me happy and I hope that the events that I’ve put together and volunteered for have made others happy as well, so I know I’m going to be organizing more events like the Be Supportive Relay and Triathlons in the future.
Craig: Steve, it has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you. I am very envious of your well traveled passport! Thank you so much for all you have done and continue to do for the Tri Club.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.