Robert Vigorito to be honored before 30th annual Columbia Triathlon

Robert Vigorito knew he had changed some lives over the years since he helped start the Columbia Triathlon in 1984. He transformed an inaugural event that attracted fewer than 100 competitors into one of the top triathlons in the country with as many as 2,500 coming to Centennial Park each spring since 1988.

It wasn't surprising, considering that Vigorito knew how competing in triathlons had changed his own life. Vigorito, whose friends growing up in East Haven, Conn., called him "Pig Iron" because he was usually among the slowest in whatever sport they were playing, went from not knowing what a triathlon was to competing in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii six times.

"I saw the Ironman on TV in the early '80s, like a lot of people did, on 'ABC's Wide World of Sports' with Jim McKay, and I thought, 'What is that?' and then, 'Why would anyone want to do that?' " Vigorito said. "[Starting the Columbia Triathlon] was on a lark, it was something we did. How does any great thing continue or get discovered? Sometimes by serendipity, or by stubbornness."

Recalling the first year of an event that was organized by a few in the Howard County Striders running club, Vigorito said, "We found a book, "How to Do a Triathlon," I photocopied it and we gave it out to everybody. How to do the swim. How to do the bike … We were all novice triathletes. I got in the pool one day and swam 25 yards and I thought I was going to die."

Vigorito — "Vigo" to friends who did not know him as "Pig Iron" — emerged as the face of the Columbia Triathlon, eventually becoming its race director from 1986 until last December, when he announced his retirement. Still feisty and fit at 65, he will be honored at Centennial Park before the start of the 30th running of the event Sunday. He will also compete in it for the first time.

"They said, 'Come race.' I'm going to participate fast," Vigorito joked.

Many thought Vigorito would never quit, but there had been signs of it since he and his wife retired within a year of each other. Sharon Vigorito retired as an education manager for the Greater Chesapeake office of the Red Cross in 2007. Her husband retired a year later from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where as a pathologist he helped start its brain and tissue bank.

Three years ago, they built a house in Naples, Fla.

Sharon Vigorito said her husband stepping away from the Columbia Triathlon "took a lot of soul-searching for what direction he wanted to go in. Was it difficult? Yes and no. He knew he wasn't going to step away from triathlons altogether. But it would afford him the opportunity to put things on from wherever he was. In addition, he likes to train and it's very difficult to train in Maryland in the winter."

Altering his journey

It took a serious bicycle accident on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2010 that left Vigorito with nine broken ribs, a broken shoulder and a punctured lung after being hit by a truck that helped alter what he calls his "journey." He had been there to help the friends he had made at the Ironman World Championship in Kona run the event.

He remembers the day (Wednesday), time (6:45 a.m.) and color of the truck (red), but mostly he recalls its aftermath, both physically and spiritually.

"It probably focused me a little more," Vigorito said one afternoon last week, sitting on a hill overlooking the lake at Centennial Park. "Life is fleeting, you never know what life is going to bring, you never know when your day is going to come. In a shortened time, your life passes in front of you. You don't know if the next breath you take is going to be your last."

In the moments after the accident, Vigorito thought about his family and work back in Maryland.

Injured on the road in Hawaii, barely able to breathe, Vigorito saw his life after the Columbia Triathlon starting to take shape.

"I remember looking up at the sky and thinking, 'If this is it, OK. If not, Lord, I'll know I have other things to do,' " Vigorito recalled.

Sharon Vigorito said the accident changed her husband's "view on mortality." He reflected on how his own father, Andrew, had died from heart disease at age 59 and never got to see his son's successes. It also made Vigorito think about some of the people he had worked with in recent years who, according to his wife, "are not as fortunate as he was — people who have cancer or brain tumors, Wounded Warriors — and it helped him focus on what he could do to help those individuals."

Vigorito's TriColumbia organization ran triathlons on the Eastern Shore for five years, helped run two triathlon national championships (in 1994 and 1997) and started the popular Iron Girl triathlon. He has also run triathlons for children, those with disabilities as well as the Celebrating Heroes event for Wounded Warriors.

"It's been a great experience, I've met a lot of wonderful people along the way," Vigorito said. "I feel blessed in many ways to affect the lives of so many people, by using triathlons as a means to improve fitness and health. … You meet people along the way like I have the last 10 years, and through my events create these charity team formats and people raise hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars. You look back and think, 'That's pretty cool.' "

Max Prola, who met Vigorito more than 30 years ago and has competed in every Columbia Triathlon to date, said of his now close friend: "What else can you say? He's been such an iconic figure. ... I can't say enough about him."

Asked whether he was surprised that Vigorito stepped down as the event's director after three decades, Prola compares it to what he faces himself as a competitor.

"I've got pressure on me to do each one; I can I feel the pressure on him to do each one," Prola said. "It's very tough. You're up all night. You've got to make sure everything is being done. You've got to talk to people in the organization. It's very, very taxing. He and Sharon would really be exhausted afterward."

Entering the next phase

Slowly, Vigorito and his wife worked their way toward what some might call retirement, but he calls it the next phase of his life.

Vigorito said it's been an adjustment, though he acknowledges that living a few months every winter in Florida has made the transition a lot easier. He cycles there three or four days a week, has joined a few local running clubs and is back to playing golf, hoping to get down to the 4 or 5 handicap player he had been playing in college at Southern Connecticut.

"My attitude about retirement is pretty simple," Vigorito said. 'You're officially retired when they put you in a box or in an urn having been cremated, then you're retired. The late George Sheehan, I really like his book 'Personal Best.' One of the quotes attributed to him was, 'Life is not a spectator sport,' and I'm kind of drawn to that. I have plenty of energy, plenty of time and effort to give, and I'm going to do that."

It was during the first six weeks of his recovery after the accident that Vigorito began to put his life into perspective.

When he was first able to walk, Vigorito would pass an 8-foot bronze statue of Olympic swimming champion and Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku near the entrance to the beach.

"Every day I would go there and kind of talk to him, I got energized by him. I bought a couple of books and read about him, and thought, 'This is my kind of guy, he was one of the people,' " Vigorito said. "There's a lot about Hawaii in terms of its culture and symbols of what the island means and the people that live there.

"You're always in the spirit of aloha. … Aloha means many things. It can mean love, it can mean thank you, it can mean your inner spirit, it can mean the world around you. But there's something meaning when Hawaiians say, 'Live aloha.' "

During his recovery, Vigorito said, he received thousands of emails, cards, flower arrangements and gift certificates for meals.

"I really realized, or I re-realized, the impact I've had on all these people," Vigorito said. "I still have their cards and letters in a box. I read them periodically. It wasn't like, 'Hey, I hope you get better.' It was more, 'You changed my life through your events, you don't know what it's meant to me.' What you realize is that through the events we created, you actually got to the soul of people and you make them look inside."

Vigorito, who will be honored by the USA Triathlon with a Lifetime Achievement Award in August, thinks about a song from "The Lion King."

"There are lyrics in the 'Circle of Life' that say, 'Never take more than you give,' " Vigorito said. "I kind of thought about that. We've been able to raise millions of dollars, close to $7 million, and have given back to the community. Those kinds of things, you realize the impact that you've had with people.

"Were it not for the events that I was involved with, and all the great volunteers that I've been honored to work with and be supported by, these kinds of events would not have become what they've become. It's really been a special journey and I'm moving forward."

Columbia Triathlon

When: May 19, 6:40 a.m.

What: .93-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, 6.2-mile run

Where: Centennial Lake, Ellicott City

Registration: Closed

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