Steve Tarpinian, 1960-2015

Mar. 20, 2015

Steve Tarpinian, one of the true legends of triathlon, passed away this week at the age of 54.

"Tarp" was an XTERRA original. In that first race in 1996 he was one of the fastest swimmers in the field and ultimately finished on the podium in the 35-39 division, placing 36th overall.

The world-renowned swim coach from Long Island, New York fell in love with Maui and the challenge of XTERRA that year and made it a staple in every season thereafter.

For more than a decade Steve was the only competitor from the continental U.S. to have competed in each XTERRA World Championship, as he made the long trip to Maui every year for 17 seasons in a row.

"We lost a great XTERRA Warrior this week," said XTERRA managing director Dave Nicholas.  "Steve was there from the very beginning of XTERRA and we worked together well.  I recall meeting him in his office in New York and figuring out how we could work XTERRA and his swim coaching together and how to create an off-road tri in upstate New York.  Always had a smile when bantering with him, saying 'when the hell are you going to get a haircut?' to which Steve would reply 'when you learn how to swim."

Tarpinian’s impact on triathlon went far beyond XTERRA, and to get a feel for just how many people he touched have a look at the comments in Tuesday’s post announcing his passing.

“Steve was single handedly responsible for the triathlon movement on Long Island,” said fellow New Yorker and XTERRA great Anthony Snoble.

“A true legend of sport.”

At XTERRA Worlds in 2003 Tarp went head-over-heels on the bike, “a 360-degree flip” as he described it, broke his pedal, two ribs, and then flatted.

“I made the bike cut-off by five minutes, and the finish by 10,” recalled Tarpinian, later adding that the race was among his all-time greatest accomplishments.

Of course, much like all frequent visitors to the old Maui course, spills and thrills were nothing new…

“The first year I was in 5th after the swim and on the very first downhill I started to lose control at about 20mph and decide to lay it down right there before I got going too fast. While I was on the ground Ned Overend comes flying down in an aero tuck going at least 35 + mph, looking like he was on pavement! I laughed at how badly I sucked on a mountain bike!”

He didn’t suck. Ned was that good.

Tarpinian was a swimmer in college at Stony Book University on Long Island, where he made it to NCAA Nationals and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He had many skills but found his niche in swimming, triathlon, and coaching.

In a profile form he filled out 10 years ago Tarp described his pre-race rituals as “Coffee, chocolate, coffee, chocolate, repeat til’ ready” and listed his hobbies as “modeling, surfing, and romancing with Jean.”

Jean is his long-time partner, who he said always looked forward to the desert bar in Maui : )

Tarpinian was a good friend and motivator to many, and will be greatly missed.

Looking back, we found this article Steve wrote for XTERRA in 2004, titled “10 Years of XTERRA, already?”

By Steve Tarpinian

When I first did XTERRA in 1996 I knew immediately it was a special event, but I had no intentions of making any kind of a string of finishes. My interest was pretty pure and pretty much the same as when I did my first triathlon….gulp, 25 years ago! It seemed like a challenge and something not many had done. In a way, triathlons have always been about exploring new frontiers; but by 1996 they were getting a little stale. Well, I was soon to discover “the wild west” of our sport.

Looking at the course description for the first XTERRA race, the only thing that resembled a normal triathlon was the swim and the first two miles of the bike (on pavement). As soon as we turned off the road we did a little climb, and then preceded with what most of us triathletes considered a challenging course and mountain bikers considered “fun” and fairly non-technical!

A few things stand out in my mind from that first XTERRA World Championship (a little trivia for you, the first event was called Aquaterra). From the first contact with the people running the event it was obvious this was going to be a unique and first class event. Registration was very organized and the presence of such Mountain Biking Legends as Ned Overend (what a cool name for a mountain biker) and Mike Kloser in addition to triathletes like Mike Pigg, Scott Tinley and Jimmy Riccitello gave the event an air of a showdown.

The 9am start time was the equivalent of a noon start time for us veteran triathletes. As I approached the transition area I see at least a half a dozen television cameras and can hear announcer Whit Raymond with his deep voice booming on the PA system:


Ocean swim, mountain biking and trail running. All of a sudden I had chills and visions of sharks and broken bones! Why did I sign up for this again?

On the start line I felt more like we were all in this challenge together as opposed to a competitive world championship. A mass start would put professionals and age groupers on the start line altogether, just like the races of the early 80’s….cool!

Telling you the XTERRA Race course is beautiful is an understatement. The bike course is only open on race day each year (since it is privately owned). The view down Haleakala just before the plunge is literally breathtaking. It may be enhanced by the fact that you only get to enjoy it for a few seconds before the downhill takes every bit of your concentration, nerve and strength.

Here is a quick synopsis of my first XTERRA: I have a nice swim and get out on the bike course in the top five. A few triathletes like Pigg and Tinley make short work of me, but otherwise I get the first off-road climb under my belt in good form and start the first little descent.

Did I say mountain biking skills were not my forte? Well, about halfway down this hill I realize I am on loose lava rocks and stand no chance of braking. My speed is increasing and I guess I was going about 20 MPH or so. I start losing control and realize I am going to crash, so I make it a graceful slide off to the side of the trail and as I slowly get up and check my scrapes, I hear a low whirr……It is Ned Overend in a road bike tuck that I have only seen Tour de France riders use during a descent in the Alps! His bike is totally under control and hardly bouncing. I estimate he is going 35 – 40 mph and looking like he is on flat pavement! I am not sure but I think he even looked over to see if I was okay! With my ego bruised I forged on towards the “plunge”, a 5-mile screaming downhill with some random loose lava rocks looming like land mines on the trail and off the trail to either side was an array of sharp pointy lava rocks and Kiawe thorns. In other words: DON’T FALL! After surviving the plunge I am not sure if I just finished the most exciting amusement park ride or should be committed to a psychiatry ward for suicidal tendencies. Either way, I am full of endorphins and have an awesome run with single track trails, soft sand, rocky beaches and finally one of the most festive and exciting finish lines I have ever had the luck to cross.

Since then I have competed in every XTERRA World Championship, nine going for ten. Why do I go back each year?

  1. I have an annual swim workshop in Hawaii each October
    2. I love Maui and it’s residents
    3. Racing with my friend Rip Esselstyn
    4. The pre and post-race parties are unbelievable with great food and entertainment (read, Greg Welch)
    5. Top level international World Championship competition
    6. Colorful (and crazy) race director
    7. Great race shirts
    8. Great post-race dance and costume party
    9. The spirit and camaraderie of the competitors and event team
    10. The challenge