I have had the good fortune of being friends with Tom Piszkin for many years. Please feel free to eavesdrop on an entertaining conversation with one of the TCSD’s all-time great legends.
Craig: What happened to you in 1974 that changed your life forever?
Tom: I was a student at Cal Berkeley on my way to the Oakland airport to fly home (San Diego) for a weekend visit. Waiting alone for a transfer bus near the Oakland Coliseum (73rd and East 14th for you Raider fans) I was approached by four enterprising lads who wanted to share my wealth. Their three guns made for a persuading argument. I was in the process of cooperating with their redistribution plan when the gang leader misinterpreted my reaching behind my back for my wallet as reaching for my .44 magnum--Dirty Harry style. With one gun on my head and another trained on my leg my thoughts were to get my wallet to them as fast as possible. Standing nose to nose with the leader, with his .38 Special pressed firmly against my sternum he pulled the trigger. Not expecting any malevolence, it felt like a sharp punch in the chest--not much noise, no excruciating pain, no past visions of my 21 years. It was more like a cartoon character sticking his finger in the end of the barrel and the gun blowing up in the bad guy's face.
Only when my next exhale was a mixture of blood and air did I realize that my game might be over. As I stumbled toward the gas station on the bus stop corner I told the attendant that I'd been shot and needed help. I heard him reply under his breath, "Oh my God, they shot the guy." He obviously was aware of the transaction occurring at the bus stop, but wasn't able or willing to intervene. He did call for help. The police arrived quickly and asked me which way they fled and how many guns they had. Because I was lying on my side, donned in my first ever suit (think 70's polyester) the police couldn't tell the extent of my injury. After boring through my sternum like a 3/8" drill bit, nicking my aorta and tumbling through my left lung the lead slug struck the center of my fifth rib where its forward progress was finally arrested--saving my suit from an exit hole. (Unfortunately, my matching 70's tie bears a hole and powder burns.)
The police could see blood flowing on the ground, but were content to simply cover me with a blanket till the ambulance arrived. I was taking a psyche class at the time, studying the notion of "locus of control." I put the concept into practice by assuring myself that there was nothing I could do but remain calm and manage my shallow, but adequate breathing. I felt warm and numb from the internal bleeding and onset of shock, but the thought of expiring never entered my mind. About 5 minutes after the police showed up the gas station was alive with gaukers. Probably in the interest of protecting my privacy, the police pulled the blanket over my head. Quite aware of my circumstance I pulled the blanket down and said, "I'm not dead yet!" The ambulance pulled up about 10 minutes later, picked me off the ground and got me to the Oakland County hospital that lead the nation in gun shot and knife wound business. The doctors opened me up, took out the bullet, sewed up the major arterial damage, checked my heart's moral fibers (just kidding!) then stitched me up. A week later I was back at school. About a month later--sufficiently recovered-- I rode a sympathy wave to the loss of my virginity. So yes, Craig, my life was forever changed!
Craig: What was your athletic background before the loss of your virginity and before triathlon?
Tom: I started competing in track and Pop Warner football in the 3rd grade and finished as a "440-yard dash" runner in college (at the dawn of the metric era). I should add that I mastered bowling in the summer of 1964...and hung up my shoes when I bowled a 150 game with my non-dominant arm! I've survived body surfing, dirt bikes, skiing, bungee jumping and trekking in Nepal.
Craig: How did you get started in triathlon?
Tom: Fresh off a divorce in 1986 a SDSU intern working for me suggested that triathlons would be a good place to meet healthy chicks. I just needed to buy a bike and learn how to swim. Gents, need I say, sex is a powerful motivator! My debut race was the USTS Triathlon in Dana Point, CA. I remember starting on the run as Scott Molina was crossing the finish line. All in all, it was a good day and I was hooked...like so many that have followed.
Craig: Out of all the races you have done in your career, what performance are you most proud of and why?
Tom: This is an easy one. I'll never forget the last TCSD race I did before retiring in 1994. I beat you by one second! Looking back, that symbolically marked the baton hand off to you, and has enabled me take personal pride in all of your great performances these last 17 years. You probably never sensed that I was a second ahead of you in all those races. Seriously, my best performance was setting an age-group course record at the Desert Princess Duathlon in 1990. The record has stood for 20+ years, mostly because it was the last year they offered the sprint distance race. I never did an Ironman. My fast-twitch bias produced occasional podiums at Carlsbad, Mission Bay and Bonelli Park.
Craig: I couldn’t have lost to a better guy! When were you the President of the TCSD? How has the club changed since then and how is it the same?
Tom: I served as the Club's President in 1987-88. We had a couple hundred members on the roster, but only a handful showed up at meetings, workouts or events. In the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone world the newsletter (distributed via snail-mail) was our primary connective tissue. Club cohesion was pathetic compared to today's "collective consciousness." Fortunately, our core operations satisfied the needs of the growing sport. Fortunately we had access to and help from local legends and celebrities like Scott Tinley, Mark Allen, Bob Babbitt, Rick Kozlowski, Mark Montgomery and Kenny Souza. J. David Dominelli's ponzi scheme resources helped fuel triathlon's noteriety. On another scandalous note, my 1987 VP was later (as a councilwoman) convicted of not reporting gifts from Padres owner John Moores. Only in San Diego!
Craig: What is one of your favorite TCSD memories?
Tom: My most cherished reflection is the witness of Jim McCann's influence on the club. Jim joined on my watch. He had some bold ideas, but was respectful of the leadership and the club's "traditions." Over time he came to understand the soul of the club and it's true potential. His vision was all about challenging and empowering every member...compared to a classical leadership style (which I embraced) based on central control, hierarchical structure and risk avoidance. Under Jim's leadership the membership exploded from less than 500 to more than 1,500 and put it on a trajectory that is tickling 3,000 today. The club was the perfect canvas upon which his natural talents were rendered. Not often in life do you have a front row seat from which to witness the grand unfolding of one human's aspirations.
Craig: You are the developer of the Titanflex. How did Titanflex come to be?
Tom: Please excuse my long answer, but TitanFlex owes its existence to a confluence of circumstances that date back to the 1980’s. I was looking for a fresh athletic challenge, or was it just a hot date? Anyway, 18 months into the game my carbon fiber bike broke, converting me to a two-bike life style: train on the steel 27" Schwinn Circuit, race on the carbon 650c Kestrel KM40. The bikes’ strikingly different handling characteristics didn’t help on race day. Unpracticed cornering at race speeds meant time left on the course.
In January 1989 I underwent surgery to repair my L4-L5 disc that was ruptured in a bike time trial put on by the CycloVets every month in Lakeside. The doctors gave me a clean bill of health but warned that continued riding could lead to long-term back damage. I was having a blast with triathlon so I was not about to throw in the towel. Instead I pondered…what if I could have just one bike that was a 17 lb racer, an indestructible trainer, and didn’t leave my back feeling like it had been in a paint can shaker?
At this juncture it’s important to introduce another stream in the confluence. My father was an aeronautical engineer who worked on top-secret projects in the 60’s involving a magic metal we now know as titanium. I remember dinner table conversations of the time about this amazing material. The end of the cold war allowed titanium into the hands of the common man. It was the perfect (and only) material for the job of suspending a rider's weight for millions of load cycles.
The timing was perfect. TitanFlex was put on the drawing board in 1991. A patent disclosure was filed and Kent Eriksen, the founder of Moots, completed fabrication of the first one in 1992. Some of you might remember me riding it in the Coors Light Duathlon fitted with a piece of foam as the saddle. In 1993 Bill Holland built the second prototype which was ridden by Christina Baum in the Race Across America (RAAM) that year. The winner of that race asked if he could ride it in defense of his title. In 1995 Gerry Tatrai rode the 4th prototype to a third-place finish in RAAM. Later that year TitanFlex was exhibited at InterBike and the federal government granted utility patent #5,747,317.
In 1996 Nytro ordered 10 framesets and featured it in their catalog on the page opposite Softride. Claiming patent infringement, in 1997 Softride demanded that production cease. Despite TitanFlex's patent status the financial burden of legal prosecution halted production. Gerry Tatrai won the 1998 RAAM on the last TitanFlex produced in 1997.
Development work on the current AL-Ti (monocoque) design shifted into high gear in 1998. Factory production of two sizes began in December and the battle of the boom bikes was back on! February 29, 2000 – Triathlon Legend, Scott Molina celebrated his 10th (leap year) birthday and decided to ride a TitanFlex. The "Terminator" edition was born. In 2003 Scott’s son, Miguel inspired the creation of the Terminator Jr. design which gives 8-11 year olds a road bike that grows with them.
Softride ceased frame production in 2005, so the original (tubular) TitanFlex model was re-introduced as the Transition®. The AL-Ti model has undergone several design enhancements over it’s 13-year production run. Both models are fabricated by Russ Denny in Hemet, California. The titanium booms are welded by Bill Holland in Alpine, California. Producing anything in the USA is oodles more expensive than off-shore sourcing, especially in small volumes. Consequently, I can't afford the typical 35% margins required to offer my bikes through dealers. Please visit www.TitanFlexBikes.com for more technical details.
Many TCSD members past and present have aided in this venture. Bob Rosen sketched out a unique curvature on a napkin at Trophy's after a track workout. Jonathan Toker's Softride experience made him the perfect test pilot. Bill Gibbs can put serious hurt on a bottom bracket shell. Jim McCann gave me the MOP (middle of the pack) athlete perspective. Through Bob Cunningham's mastery of explaining things mechanical I better understand how to convey the value of the TitanFlex design. Will Canham was simply supportive and generous. As TitanFlex owners they've been my informal Board of Directors. My part time work as a bike technician at the Sport Chalet keeps my mechanical skills sharp. (By way of a commercial plug, Sport Chalet's Mission Valley location has a lot of tri-specific merchandise in stock.)
Craig: You are also a triathlon coach at TCSD. What is offered through the UCSD triathlon program?
Tom: My coaching career started with the club in 1986. The track coach's free time was shrinking under the burden of a new addition to his family. Being the only regular with collegiate track experience, leading the workouts fell into my lap. Thirteen years later, Terry Martin at UCSD asked me to help her out in the Masters program. The program has three options: running, swimming and triathlon. For a fixed quarterly cost ranging from $110 to $145 anyone can take part in all of the 30 weekly workouts. (UCSD students, faculty and staff pay less.) TCSD held winter running workouts at UCSD's all-weather, illuminated track for the first time. It was a blast to return to my coaching roots.
Craig: Locally you have the legendary status as Dr. SPAM. How did you earn that title?
Tom: In 1986 I found out about this underground (un-permitted) event held on Thanksgiving morning in Penasquitos Canyon. It was fashioned by Bob Babbitt around an old west event called a Ride 'N Tie where two riders shared one horse. Teams would start with one member mounted and the other on foot. The rider would gallop ahead some distance, tie their horse up and proceed on foot. The trailing teammate hopped on the horse, leap-frogged ahead, tied up the horse and ran. Instead of horses we used mountain bikes. Bob enhanced the event by placing "prizes" along the route that if turned in at the finish line (not pilfered by other teams enroute) were worth time bonuses. Typically the bigger and more awkward to carry, the more time they were worth. A single full-size stuffed animal could be worth 10 minutes in a race that might take 80 minutes to complete. Another way to earn time credits was to ingest a slab of SPAM on a graham cracker. For some reason I couldn't participant in 1987 so Bob talked me into manning the SPAM-Aid station, where no liquids are served. The joke was that one should be in possession of a doctor's prescription in order to legally consume this mystery meat. Ergo, Dr. SPAM was born!
Craig: You have had a hip replacement. Why was that necessary for you and what advice would you like to share with others considering a possible replacement?
Tom: Yes, my right hip was replaced 7 years ago. The best Dr. Roger Freeman and I can figure out is that 45 years of running (including a 2:54 marathon and sub-5 minute mile) simply wore out the cartilage. As a quarter-miler I ran around the track at 20 mph many times and always in the same direction...like a NASCAR driver blowing out a right side tire. This might explain why my left hip is fine. This also explains why I have my athletes switch directions during running workouts. Mobility-wise I'm good. I can still demonstrate most of the explosive plyometric drills and run a 5-minute mile (for at least 50 yards). I choose not to run for conditioning because Roger says it will wear out the parts sooner. It's no problem to challenge my life and limb on the bike or in the weight room. Looking back, I don't think it's necessary (as a triathlete) to run more than 3 times a week: one long, one intense and one moderate over varying terrain; all focusing on perfect form.
Craig: What are your future goals in triathlon?
Tom: The good Lord willing, I hope to continue doing what I've done for the last 25 years: help people discover and exploit their athletic passion.
Craig: Tom, thank you so much for sharing your story. You have given a great deal to the TCSD, our local community and far beyond. We wish you the very best of luck in continuing to successfully dodge those bullets!