On Sept. 18, not long after dawn, more than 500 athletes will splash into the waters of Sag Harbor to start the swim, bike and run of the Steve Tarpinian Memorial Mighty Hamptons Triathlon.
The event was named after Steve last year to honor the man who began directing the race in the 1990s. It will be a bittersweet day for me.
Steve was my life partner for 33 years before he lost his years-long battle with chronic depression. He took his own life on March 15, 2015, in Sedona, Arizona, where he had gone to get treatment. He was 54.
Steve was well known in the triathlon community around the world, but because of the circumstances, the cause of his death wasn’t widely publicized.
He grew up in Franklin Square, attended Chaminade High School, was a Jones Beach lifeguard, graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in electrical engineering, and worked as an engineer on the F-14 at Grumman.
A swimmer in college, he began entering triathlons in 1983 and competed in 18 Ironman-length triathlons. Steve left Grumman to pursue his passion for triathlon and to start the Total Training coaching company. Then he started EventPower, which created several annual races on Long Island that continue today.
Steve was an innovator, compensating race-day staff at events instead of relying mainly on volunteers. He’d arrive before dawn to set up each race, and was the last one picking up litter at the end of the day. He always rallied spectators to cheer for the final finisher.
Steve helped create a coaching certification program for USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body. He gave seminars for coaches, ran swimming clinics, wrote books and developed DVDs.
With his dark ponytail and fit body, Steve was a beautiful, gifted man. To most people, he was healthy and strong, a great athlete and a visionary entrepreneur.
I saw sides of Steve that the public did not, particularly mood swings that occurred with increasing frequency in his last years. In his passion for triathlon, many days he would leave the house at 6 a.m. and not return until 10 at night. He seemed to throw himself into work and training to distract himself from his mental anguish. Instead of turning to drugs or alcohol, Steve would just create more races and coach more athletes. He recognized his propensity to do this, but seemed powerless to change anything.
Steve was conflicted about his career path. In the late 1980s, he pursued becoming a New York City firefighter, and later regretted that he didn’t go when called. It was one of many examples of indecision that plagued him. At low moments in later years, he would stay in bed all day and struggle with whether to sell his business and move on to something new.
I was in denial over the severity of Steve’s struggles. I felt helpless and never realized that his pain was so great, he might take his own life. Even as he did all the “right” things for mental illness (medication, counseling, inpatient and outpatient therapy), I hoped the mental illness would just go away. I thought the love of his family and our love for each other would eventually help him overcome his demons.
Since we lost Steve, it has been my goal to inspire conversation about mental illness and suicide. There should be no shame or stigma in mental illness. Some people suffer depression in silence because they are embarrassed. The topic tends to be swept under the rug.
In the days after Steve died, I did not want to tell people how he lost his life. But I realized I was perpetuating the stigma of mental illness and suicide with my silence.
To quote Brené Brown, a scholar and motivational speaker, “When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
Steve’s legacy is that of a man who did his best to make people feel good about themselves through athletics and accomplish things they never thought they could. I believe telling his full story will help and inspire others.
Reader Jean Mellano lives in Wantagh.