Our friend Mike Nofzinger believed “Miracle”, the story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, was the greatest sports movie ever made.
Maybe he was right, but only because no one ever made a film about the 2003 Ripon Triathlon.
They will, my friends. Someday, they will.
That year, an unlikely trio of Mike, me and our friend Kory made up a tenacious but woefully under-trained, long-course, co-ed relay team.
I recall driving along the bike route with them the night before the big event.
“Woah,” someone (may have been me) said. “This seems like a lot of hills.”
The next morning started with the swim portion of the race and, for that, we had our 6-foot-6, wingspan-of-an-albatross ace, Kory. The swimmers took off and we all cheered near the exchange area. Poor Kory, though, had not trained in a lake and certainly not among other swimmers who were kicking waves into his face. He swallowed so much water, he threw up. But, he kept rolling and eventually staggered out of the water.
“Tougher than I thought!” he said as we sent our intrepid biker, Mike, on his way and then moseyed over to the bike-to-run exchange area.
In the distance we heard sirens and joked among ourselves that they might have been coming for Mike. Turns out, they were. Mike had cramped up with a mile to go on his ride and rolled into a ditch. He waved off the ambulance someone had summoned, climbed back on his bike and completed the route.
Then, I took off on my run, which seemed like it was going just fine until I realized the course officials had already packed up their stuff and headed in. A few of my competitors followed me up a steep hill, an unfortunate choice for them because I got us all lost. Eventually, we turned around, retraced our steps and found our way back to the route.
I crossed a lonely finish line and we all began the long trudge back to the car, when we heard someone call out “Team Nofzinger.” Turns out we had won first place in the co-ed division.
That’s right, baby. First place. The. Best.
We wore our medals all over town that night as we celebrated Mike’s son Quinn’s 21st birthday and our title. Nobody cared (because we didn’t tell them) that we were actually the only co-ed team competing that year.
We were the champions, my friends and that night will make me smile for the rest of my days.
We had to say good-bye to our friend Mike this week. As we did, I thought about that race and about a thousand other great memories we shared.
Mike decided that our daughter Katherine should sing the National Anthem at Lambeau Field and then he made it happen. Twice.
He and his wife Stephanie hosted us at their house so often it felt like home. We were all members of a Gourmet Club that lasted for more than 20 years and we spent many weekend nights and New Year’s Eves with Mike and Steph.
We traveled together, played games, enjoyed concerts (mostly Mike’s favorite band Chicago), attended all kinds of athletic events from hockey, baseball and football games to bed races, and teamed up for a few more athletic challenges.
It’s really hard to believe he’s gone.
Life is a lot like that Ripon Triathlon we won (ha!) all those years ago. You plan, struggle, pick yourself up, cheer each other on, laugh, sweat, make mistakes, redirect, stagger, catch your breath, reach your stride and, when you win, you hold that medal high because life might be painfully finite, but it’s also filled with joy and good memories that last forever.