One of triathlon's pioneers, and a mentor to many during the sport's early days, Ron Smith, died today. Mike Plant, chronicler of triathlon's formative years, author of "Iron Will", and Ron Smith's friend, honors him below.
It's hard to speak about Ron Smith in the past tense. Even on his next-to-last day, none of us would have been surprised to see him swing his feet out over the side of his hospital bed, stand up, shake out the kinks and stride off down the hall, with his bare ass hanging out of his gown, trailing tubes and wires and shedding cancer cells like fleas.
No such luck. Ron died this morning, June 29. As in all he did, he went gracefully, without drama or fanfare.
Ron was the kind of guy you would have wanted your kids to meet. You would have wanted them to look into those slightly rheumy eyes of his, look into that half-wrecked but still-handsome face, and learn how to live. Ron never shrank from a challenge, never gave an inch, but he also gave everything he had to the people around him. He treated CEOs and janitors exactly the same – as if they were people. That's all. People. He wasn't a corporate guy not because he didn't have the brains or the talent, but because his heart was too big. He cared too much about being down in the trenches with the crew, hands-on helping, making sure things were done just right. Don't get me wrong, Ron could lead; he could, and did, command with authority, but I know that somewhere down deep, he probably figured that if you couldn't do it in flip-flops or running shoes it wasn't worth doing. Wing tips, business suits and boardroom politics were ridiculously not his style.
In case you don't know the story, Ron was an early man into the Chart House restaurant chain, and he made a chunk of money, lived in a big house in Rancho Santa Fe. But when he lost pretty much everything in a financial scandal not of his own making, he went from living in luxury to living out of his Volkswagen van, pretty much overnight and, thing is, you would not have known one Ron from the other because there truly was no difference. The van was big enough for his bike and his workout gear and from that point on it was all good.
This for sure: you'd want Ron on your team. For anything. He would never let you down. He used a crude term that he must have picked up in his UDT days that I found compelling: "When the shit gets brown…" Whenever I was with Ron, I knew that when the shit got brown he would be there. He would walk through fire and ice for a friend, and I think it's fair to say we would all do the same for him.
Way to go Big Man. You did well.
Publisher's notes: I found out about Ron Smith's passing earlier today. He was 77. I struggled, wondering how I was going to write about this. And then Mike Plant dropped me the above, unsolicited, and solved my problem. Mike, you wrote it perfect, and much better than I or anyone could've.
The pic is apparently from Ron's UDT days. Mike referred to this above. UDT stands for Underwater Demolition Team. He was a Navy frogman. This before the existence of the Seals.
Ron was a fixture in triathlon from the earliest of days. His buddies numbered among them Scott Tinley and Gary Hooker, and the rest of the early 80s San Diego crowd. ST and Gary were with Ron in his final days and hours.
Ron was our sport's archetype. He was a gladiator. As basketball fans know, the NBA's logo is the silhouette of Jerry West. If triathletes bore a similar icon on their race singlets, it would be the image of triathlon's original strongman.
Ron was a lion. He will be missed.