Point of View: Not Forever Blessed

A painful disease, clinical depression, that if it is ever discussed is done so in lowered tones

One of the myths I’ve entertained over the years is that athletes are somehow immune when it comes to what can drag you down. 

Wasn’t it I who once said, “While my athletic days are pretty much over, I take comfort in the company of athletes, men and women, boys and girls, and like taking photos of them, deriving joy from the at times sublime headiness of sport, a headiness I’ve known running and playing, of being in the moment, when all within the realm of consciousness seemed, however briefly, perfect.”

And yet . . . and yet the list of athletes I’ve known or have known of, who’ve died before their time — by no means all because of depression, but a few of them — is steadily lengthening. John Villaplana, Brandon Hayes, Kendall Madison, Chris Schiaffino, Chris Cosich, Annette MacNiven, Andrew MacNiven, Steve Tarpinian, and now Mike Semkus come immediately to mind. So I am finally disabused of thinking that all athletes are forever blessed.

Jean Mellano, who lived more than 30 years with one of these outwardly buoyant souls assailed within by demons, has in a memoir of Steve Tarpinian called “Slipped Away” celebrated his successes (he was among triathlon’s founders on Long Island, in the early 1980s) and his kind spirit, while at the same time drawing attention to a painful disease, clinical depression, that if it is ever discussed is done so in lowered tones.

Knowing someone who is clinically depressed myself, I told her it was extraordinary, and a great testimony to his strength, that Steve, who took his life a year ago, at the age of 54, had in spite of his suffering accomplished so much. 

Having made a vocation of his avocation — something his friend Chuck Sperazza, a top amateur triathlete who’s won many times out here, said he envied — Steve Tarpinian joyously competed, in Hawaii, Lake Placid, and on Long Island, with his peers (just about always, as I recall, coming out of the water first, or very close to it), and vigorously promoted the multidisciplinary sport under the Event Power and Team Total Training banners, setting numerous students, many of whom at first didn’t think they had it in them, on their way to triathletic careers. He himself had 18 Ironmans (in Hawaii and Lake Placid) and 17 Xterra championships to his credit. 

“Slipped Away” abounds in testimonials from peers, Dave Scott, John Howard, and Scott Tinley among them, and from students.

“Steve encouraged, motivated, and helped people to realize their own dreams,” Jen Gatz said in thanking him “for passing on your enthusiasm and positivity. I can’t help but notice that those touched by you continue to spread that message.”

“He left a legacy and set a standard for us all to live up to, of giving, sharing, smiling, hoping, believing, and then giving again,” said Al Lyman.

“I always wanted to do my best for him,” said Nancy Burpee, a U.S. Paralympics pool racer. “Everyone did. He brought that out of you.”

“You’ve inspired me, intimidated me, encouraged me, drafted me, beaten me, congratulated me, and handed me trophies — all the time making me feel better about me,” said Ric Stott on learning of Steve Tarpinian’s death. “After lifting so many spirits, it’s so confusing to hear that you struggled with yours.”

The memoir is available through SlippedAway.org. Most of the profits, Ms. Mellano has said, are to go to a Long Island veterans organization, Project Nine Line, perhaps toward the development of a program that helps returning veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, or to help an individual know that he or she is not alone in confronting depression and suicidal thoughts.

It is time — long past time — that the subject come out of hiding and into the open.