Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Steve Larsen: A Study in Balance

In Memoriam: March 13, 1970 – May 19, 2009

Balance. It’s one thing triathletes are famously notorious for lacking. It’s all training, all recovery, all clean nutrition, all the time. No time for movies. No time for anything. Sacrifice, it’s all about personal sacrifice. Courtesy? Empathy? Those are casualties of being a champion. You run across enough athletes—and the pros are the worst—and you become numb to the myopic element of our sport.

Then a guy like Steve Larsen comes along, and reminds you what it’s like to have a life.

Several weeks ago, I caught up with Steve Larsen at the Sea Otter Classic. Steve was racing cross-country long course as prep for the coming Xterra season, but while he had to face the likes of Christoph Sauser and his Xterra nemesis, Conrad Stoltz, he was more fired up about his some Massimo, who was doing his first big race in the junior cross-country event.

Of course, Massimo podiumed, taking second, and dad beamed. Steve had a “whatever” day in the race, but whatever—Massimo podiumed. The drive south from Bend was a roaring success.

By now, the proper obituaries are out; “Steve Larsen, a veteran professional triathlete with a race resume that included road and mountain bike championships, suffered a fatal heart attack Tuesday evening during a track workout in his hometown of Bend, Oregon. He was 39. Before Larsen found triathlon, he had already amassed a lengthy and successful bike racing career, compiling a race resume across a variety of cycling disciplines that will be impossible to replicate. Two NORBA national titles, world championship appearances across five disciplines (road, track, cyclo-cross, mountain biking and triathlon) before devoting his training to triathlon in 2000, earning an Ironman USA Lake Placid victory in 2001 among others…. “ It goes on, the guy with more decorations than a war veteran.

But his real resume reads best as the signature tag on his Slowtwitch handle “Steve Larsen - dad, triathlete, mtbiker, roadie & online retailer”.

The impact that Steve brought to triathlon is immeasurable. A guy with his palmares (we can say palmares when the guy raced the Giro d’Italia) like his has it at his option to be selfish. To be flighty. To be arrogant. Many pros take that option. Steve went the other way—he was a man of his people.

Want an example?

Just before Sea Otter, Steve made a trip to San Diego, driving his Jeep south from Bend to visit with retailers at his online retail storefront. Steve said he was gonna be in town and asked if I wanted to grab a bit with him. As if there was any other answer—I told the office I was gonna be in late, and took whatever time I could having huevos rancheros with one of the baddest cyclists and triathletes to stomp on this earth…. and his son.

Of course I asked about his coming season race plans (he wanted to get back to Hawaii again, but wanted to have a fun Xterra season first) and we chatted about his online storefront—how business was doing, what the good brands were to carry. He let me in on something that tells you a bit about what made Steve Steve, as an aside as we were chatting about his business practice:

“I send out thank you emails to all my customers,” Larsen said. “It’s a little thing, but hey, I want my customers to have a positive experience.”

For cyclists and triathletes, this is akin to getting a personal thank you from the President for voting for him.

Those who met him found it impossible to not get sucked into the vortex of cheer and inclusion that is Larsen’s legacy. While Larsen reached the top of road racing, of mountain biking, and Ironman racing, he was always there for his fans, for the industry, his customers, for the media, fair with everyone, fan or critic. He was open with the triathlon forum community, answering any forumgoer’s question, about anything. In business, Larsen was faithful, a sponsor’s dream, and a well-spoken spokesman. As an online retailer, he was able to personally help plot your purchasing path with truly educated advice. If you had Steve’s endorsement, his suggestion it meant something.

But his family always came first. Five kids. Count ‘em. Five. One wife, Carrie. All those kids, his wife, his job, his training, there’s no place for sleep in there at all, is there? I asked. “I have a very patient family,” he said. “There’s no way I’d be able to race and be the kind of guy I want to be if it wasn’t for them. But…. it’s great when I can get out and do stuff with them,” as he threw a glance over at Massimo.



Selfishly, I was disappointed when he retired from pro racing in 2003, as I always enjoyed watching Steve more than any athlete on the race course. You knew he would have a deficit out of the water. And you knew he was going to tear through the bike and get to the front, making so-called bike specialists look like they were standing still (when you make Normann Stadler say after the Hawaii Ironman in 2003 “he passed me like a motorbike,” that constitutes being on another level). And you knew that based on that gap, he might win that race, because he was no joke on the run.

But that competitive fire burned, and after a few forays as an age grouper, while managing his real estate business, he dove in again as a full-time pro. (while still being a full-time dad, husband and online retailer). I still remember one of Larsen’s first races back from retirement last year, when he donned a CAF race kit and entered Ironman 70.3 Oceanside. He had at that time received coaching consult from TeamTBB’s Brett Sutton, asking me to introduce the two. “I know he can make me faster on the run, and I want to try something different,” Larsen told me as we talked about how to approach Sutton for coaching. “The swim, any gains are negligible, but I’m sure he could help there, too.”

“But the bike, I got that.” I laughed.

Giddy with anticipation of the inevitable as I rode on the back of a photo moto, I awaited the arrival of Steve… and here he comes, cutting through the field to the front. If his male pro competitors were going 24 miles per hour, he was going 28. It was an absolute treat to watch him simply tear past big names who were clearly already giving their all. “How demoralizing for those guys,” I remember thinking, smirking with mirth. Even amid the monotony that triathlon can be, Steve’s bike power, his ability to become one with the bike and push through the air like a rocket was something to witness. Oceanside became like watching him at the Hawaii Ironman in 2001. It was one of those days where watching a guy do his job was like watching for the green flash during a sunset on the Pacific, or seeing Michael Jordan do an up-and-under that defies gravity. It was just a special moment, sporting or otherwise.

I found him after the race and said “Man, it sure is fun seeing you out here again.“ His reply: “It’s good to be back.”

While Steve grew his fame racing alongside Lance Armstrong on the Motorola Racing Team in the mid-90s and on the NORBA circuit, I venture to guess his enjoyment and happiness in sport came in the balance that triathlon afforded him. Balance with family, friends, business and his fellow competitors.

Steve is survived by his wife Carrie, and five children. Steve's business partner tells me that services will be held Saturday at 1 p.m., at the Old Mill near Les Schwab Theatre. There will also be a ride heading out in conjunction, before or after services.

At this point, I’ll let those who were lucky enough to cross paths with Steve speak…

“It was a delight to work with a man that had so little airs and graces for the status he reached in professional sport. To work with him made one realize why, after so many years, he still wanted to compete—he loved it and he was passionate about not just his competition. (He) was one of the few that had reached the top that spent as much time as he could putting back into the sport, and out of the limelight level. I personally, and I am sure all at TeamTBB pass on the warmest heartfelt wishes to his family." —Brett Sutton, TeamTBB head coach

“He had so much focus. When he was gonna go to Hawaii, he just plainly wanted the fastest machine out there. He was sponsored by Mongoose and he said they didn’t care, so we put him on the Lotus. When he came to me, he was a legend. For him to trust me on everything, the fit, I was like” wow, what a huge honor to work with him.” He
He was professional with everything he ever did, and easygoing. He was really enjoying getting back into the industry, it’s his passion. Absolutely the nicest guy. He was magic. My feelings and heart go out to Carrie and the family.” —Craig Turner, Xlab (Former owner/manager, Nytro Multisport)

“I considered Steve a friend. Last couple year he’s really encouraged me in my career, and then we’d slay each other on the Saturday ride. I consider Steve a friend, and I’ll miss that push, and that guy. But more importantly, it’s sad for the community. He has five kids, and they’re all active in the community. The community will come together, but my heart goes out to Carrie and the kids.” — pro triathlete and fellow Bend resident Matt Lieto

“He was a fierce competitor, one of the most fierce I’ve raced against. I was very intimidated by him. He would lose three minutes on the swim, catch me, and put five, six minutes on me. And he didn’t just overtake you—he chopped you down. He could push himself harder than anyone I ever met. On rides, he’d just push until it was just him, I’d just be dropped. But I got to see a side of him most didn’t get to see, as one of the most sincere, nicest people I’ve met in the sport. In 2004 Steve said come to Bend and I took him up on it. He let me stay with his family for a week. I trained there three years, and he was my best friend in Bend. He was my agent one year and was so unselfish about it. He drove me to the Bay Area and we saw sponsors, and afterward it was always Italian and great wine, and we would laugh for hours. I bought from him I sold through him a condo a couple years ago. I was leaving back to South Africa, and in typical Caveman style, I left my renovations unfinished. He finished them for me, then sold the place. Such a very selfless person. At Sea Otter, his son Massimo was like “you have a shoe named after you,” but I was like “hey, your dad has two tires named after you and your sister!” (The Maxxis’ Larsen TT is called TT after Larsen’s daughter Amalia, while the Maxxis Mimo is the nickname for his son Massimo). Everything he touched turned to gold, and he was always so professional. He was an example to me and other athletes of what a true professional was. Two weeks ago, we had drinks after the race, we were talking about the old days. Now he’s gone. I feel really bad for his family. As a friend. It’s not going to be the same to be in Bend.” —reigning Xterra World Champ Conrad Stoltz

“One of the things that struck me most about Steve was his humility. I last spent time with him at Sea Otter in April, where he had an absolute crap race. He told me about a fellow athlete on course, recognizing Steve as he walked along with his bike and blown tire, who slowed down to accompany him for a bit. The racer said that Steve had been his idol growing up, and he was honored just to race together for a few minutes. Steve was pretty emotional, and a bit surprised, as he recounted that story; it really touched him to hear that he had that kind of impact. After Steve’s rough race at Sea Otter, and his son Massimo’s stellar performance, Steve suggested that maybe it was time we switched our sponsorship to Massimo! It was so obvious, seeing those two together, what an amazing father and role model Steve was – and will continue to be – to Massimo and all of his and Carrie’s children.” — Holly Bennett, marketing manager, Gu Sports

“So sad hearing about the loss of Steve Larsen. Leaves a wife and 5 kids. Terrible. He and I were on natl team and Motorola together.”—Lance Armstrong, via Twitter

“We did one race together, one of my 1994, and all I knew and remember was that he was a fierce competitor. It was unique how he went from pro road to mountain biking, to triathlon; not too many that could to that. That’ll be his legacy; succeeding at a world-class level in three sports. I’m really sorry to hear this news.” —Gord Fraser, former Motorola Cycling Team teammate

“At Ironman New Zealand in 2003 he came down with his wife. They were fantastic people and he was such a friendly guy. It took me 18k’s on the run to catch him. That was when I first saw him. But in Hawaii, the speed he’d come past you at, you‘d think he couldn’t keen it up, but he could, he was such an incredible cyclist. It was out of sight, out of mind pretty quickly, an incredible sight to see. With some guys you have a good idea, but with Steve, you could only hope you could pull him back. I am very sorry for his family.” — pro triathlete Cameron Brown

“We first met at the Hawaiian Mountain Tour, he was one of the first Xterra competitors. To have him come back this year was special. When he started in Las Vegas, it was great to see him, full of life, the normal, professional, well spoken guy he is, ready to get down and dirty. We’ve always saluted him and he has a special place in the Xterra family. I’m flabbergasted, I don’t know what to say… it’s a tragic loss.” — Xterra President Janet Clark


IronMoe said...

Amazing tribute. Thanks for a poignant reminder of what Steve stood for.

Jay Prasuhn said...

Thank you... it's my hope that it's meritous of the man that Steve was. It was a hard day for our sport... my heart goes out to his wife and five kids. His boy Massimo is on track to continue his dad's legacy, cutting his teeth in mountain bike racing. I hope he finds solace and answers out riding the trails...and learns to rip the cranks off the bike like his dad did.

KGS Bikes - Kevin Saunders said...

I was so impressed with your article and then saw the comments! This is one of the hardest articles to write because nobody knows what to say when a person leaves us so early in life.

We do need to remember to take one day at a time and to recognize the impact we have on others.


Heather Gollnick said...

Thanks for such a great post Jay. Steve was a fantastic racer but a better person, husband and father-thanks for writting about that, what made him a true champion.
Heather Gollnick

Kathleen @ ForgingAhead said...

thanks for writing this...wonderful tribute. very sad news indeed. life is short.

Matt said...

Excellent article, and a great tribute for a great athlete. I never met Steve, but feel like I have a very good idea of what he was all about after reading this, thanks again.

Roger Hospedales said...

Thanks for a wicked article (best I've read so far). It really gives great insight to what Steve was all about. I will be sure to recommend that people visit your blog to read it.