Both my parents were (and are) great about supporting my athletic passions, but my dad and I formed a special bond over sports. From early morning skating practices in elementary school to cycling world championships 30 years later, my dad has driven me -- both literally and emotionally -- toward my goals.
Along the way, he taught me that when it comes to being an athlete, there's one opponent we're all allowed to cheat: Father Time.
I wrote the following essay for the book, "Fathers & Daughters & Sports," (2010, ESPN books).
My father, the cheater
"I cheated," my father says, panting slightly. We are at the finish line of the 2005 Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, which my 68-year-old dad, Peter Bertine, has crossed after almost four hours of athletic effort. After swimming 1.5 miles from the famous prison island of Alcatraz to the shore of San Francisco's Crissy Field, then cycling 18 miles of the notoriously hilly city, and topping it off with an 8-mile run over streets, trails and sand, I attribute my dad's cheating comment to temporary post-race disorientation. With perhaps just a smidgen of dementia. My father, cheat? This is a man who turns his head and shields his eyes if an opponent drops one of their Scrabble tiles on the floor. Not to mention, it is pretty difficult to cheat in a triathlon.
"How?" I laugh. "Did someone give you a ride?"
"Yes," he says.
February, 1986. 4:45 am. My father's car has a thermometer that bleeps out a crisp "ding!" when the outside temperature falls below 34 degrees. My father starts the car. The ding! is immediate. It is a bitter New York winter morning. I am eleven, and my dad is driving me to figure skating practice. For six years, until I can drive myself, he will take me to my beloved, freezing, half-outdoors Murray's Rink every day at five o'clock in the morning. He will pick me up two hours later, with a chocolate chip muffin and an ice tea from the vending machine in the rink lobby. He will watch me skate, giving me the thumbs up through the plexiglass after each maneuver I attempt. I point upward through the plexiglass, reminding him not to stand under the rafter with the pigeon's nest. This is our routine.
The waters of San Francisco Bay are known for three things. Frigidity, rough currents, and the lore of Great White sharks; a delightful trilogy of complications for the bizarre tastes of an endurance athlete. On the remarkably beautiful, clear, warm June day of my father's race, sharks and water temperature are not factors. The current is another story. As is often the case with open water events, swimmers pick out a target on shore to "sight," or help keep them in line while they swim. Sometimes it is easier to follow the swimmer who's leading, provided they are sighting correctly. When the seven competitors of my father's age group (65-69 year old men) jumped into the water among the 1,500 younger triathletes, the collective of wetsuit-clad seniors smartly swam their own pace. It wasn't until the rescue boat pulled up alongside them that my father realized no one had been sighting properly, and their whole tribe had drifted so far off course that the Golden Gate Bridge was almost within grasp. The boat picked up the seven sexagenarians, brought them back to the exact spot where they drifted off-course, and kindly re-deposited them into the water rather than disqualifying the entire age group. While the rules of triathlon have a strict "no outside assistance" policy, the race directors did not find any fault with this particular situation. Except my father, who still believes he cheated by accepting the rescue-boat ride. I console him by offering an alternative perspective.
"I don't think it's cheating if you race more than anyone else, Dad," I say, as we check the results. "Besides, if the finish line were in Japan, your age group would have won." He finished toward the back of the 65-69 year-olds, which is just fine with him. He gives me a sweaty hug and asks, "How was your race?"
September, 1994. Freshman year of college. I am recruited to run for Colgate University. I have an argument with the coach. In the first month, she dismisses me from the team. "You should try rowing," my father says to me. Rowing is my father's sport. Every evening before dinner, the wheezy whir of his rowing machine wooshes through our home. "You'll be good at it," my father promises. "Rowing coaches usually make you run a lot, too." I mope into Colgate's rowing office, so sad about not running. The sadness soon passes. I row five-seat on the crew team during all four years of college, and under Title IX our sport is finally awarded varsity status. After graduation, I am invited to row with the US National Lightweight Development team.
I finish my Escape from Alcatraz race a few hours before my father, coming in 19th in the professional women's category. There are Olympians and World Champions in my field, and it is my rookie year as a pro triathlete. I am no phenom, no podium topper, no household name. Just a hardworking athlete who wanted to see if it was possible to turn pro at the age of 30. Turns out it's possible. Turns out it's worth it, even if no one ever knows your name. I tell my father the details of my race, how I felt good in the water and fast on the run, but that the bike felt strongest. I tell him I finished toward the back of my field, but not so bad for an old rookie.
"Like father, like daughter," my dad tells me, proudly.
July 2001. Ironman Lake Placid. After three years of the short, local triathlon races I started doing in grad school, I sign up for my first Ironman event; 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 marathon. Family is there to cheer me on. Dad is mesmerized, but not so much by me. "Look at all the old farts out there!" he exclaims. "Maybe I could do a triathlon." This will be his tag line for the next three years. At 66, he will sign up for his first race, the Westchester Triathlon in Rye, NY. I watch him shuffle across the finish line with his slanting lope of a stride and a huge smile on his face. I hand him Gatorade and cookies with tears streaming down my cheeks.
After our escape from Alcatraz, my father and I head to Ino's sushi restaurant in Mill Valley to celebrate our day of father-daughter athleticism. I live in Arizona, he lives in New York. Racing has kept us close in all regards. The pride of today's accomplishment is setting in, and I can literally see the experience of the day settle into his face. He has forgotten about the swim course incident. Such is the beauty of athletic accomplishment. Eventually, all disappointments and glitches fade away and what's left is the true reminder of why we choose to be athletes: it makes us feel alive.
"You know how I want to die?" my dad says, mid-California roll.
"I am definitely not having this conversation," I answer.
He ignores me. "No nursing home, no hospital. When I'm really old and start to lose it, I'm going to enter a triathlon. Then, as soon as I start fading on the run I'm going to sprint. All out. Fast as I can. None of this steady, slow, shuffling, seventy-year-old stuff. I mean, I'm going to sprint until ..."
"... until my heart explodes! I mean, I have to go really, really fast because I don't want to half-ass it and end up in a coma or on life support, you know? I'm gonna race the life right out of me right at the very end! Woohoo! That's how you do it. You go out of this world doing what you love."
"Don't worry, sweetheart, I'll sign a waiver."
"It won't work, Dad."
"And why is that?"
"I'd have to take your body off the course. That's outside assistance."
"Yep. You'd be cheating."
He considers this for a moment. "Well, I guess it wouldn't be the first time."
June, 2008. Vancouver, BC. At the age of 72, my father qualifies for a slot at the Triathlon World Championships. I am on the sidelines cheering him on, just as he was there to cheer me on a few months ago during my Olympic trials quest in cycling. Although we're forty years apart in age and on opposite sides of the amateur/professional ranks, my father and I are strangely indistinguishable in the world of sports. We're two old athletes with the same goal: we just want to see how far we can go, how long we can cheat the expectations of age. As my dad comes shuffling around the corner of the run course, he gives me a high-five and says, "This is my sprint lap ..." I simultaneously laugh and protest. His speed never changes. He lopes off toward the finish line. This is our routine.