Robert Vigorito to be honored before 30th annual Columbia Triathlon

Robert Vigorito knew he had changed some lives over the years since he helped start the Columbia Triathlon in 1984. He transformed an inaugural event that attracted fewer than 100 competitors into one of the top triathlons in the country with as many as 2,500 coming to Centennial Park each spring since 1988.

It wasn't surprising, considering that Vigorito knew how competing in triathlons had changed his own life. Vigorito, whose friends growing up in East Haven, Conn., called him "Pig Iron" because he was usually among the slowest in whatever sport they were playing, went from not knowing what a triathlon was to competing in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii six times.

"I saw the Ironman on TV in the early '80s, like a lot of people did, on 'ABC's Wide World of Sports' with Jim McKay, and I thought, 'What is that?' and then, 'Why would anyone want to do that?' " Vigorito said. "[Starting the Columbia Triathlon] was on a lark, it was something we did. How does any great thing continue or get discovered? Sometimes by serendipity, or by stubbornness."

Recalling the first year of an event that was organized by a few in the Howard County Striders running club, Vigorito said, "We found a book, "How to Do a Triathlon," I photocopied it and we gave it out to everybody. How to do the swim. How to do the bike … We were all novice triathletes. I got in the pool one day and swam 25 yards and I thought I was going to die."

Vigorito — "Vigo" to friends who did not know him as "Pig Iron" — emerged as the face of the Columbia Triathlon, eventually becoming its race director from 1986 until last December, when he announced his retirement. Still feisty and fit at 65, he will be honored at Centennial Park before the start of the 30th running of the event Sunday. He will also compete in it for the first time.

"They said, 'Come race.' I'm going to participate fast," Vigorito joked.

Many thought Vigorito would never quit, but there had been signs of it since he and his wife retired within a year of each other. Sharon Vigorito retired as an education manager for the Greater Chesapeake office of the Red Cross in 2007. Her husband retired a year later from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where as a pathologist he helped start its brain and tissue bank.

Three years ago, they built a house in Naples, Fla.

Sharon Vigorito said her husband stepping away from the Columbia Triathlon "took a lot of soul-searching for what direction he wanted to go in. Was it difficult? Yes and no. He knew he wasn't going to step away from triathlons altogether. But it would afford him the opportunity to put things on from wherever he was. In addition, he likes to train and it's very difficult to train in Maryland in the winter."

Altering his journey

It took a serious bicycle accident on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2010 that left Vigorito with nine broken ribs, a broken shoulder and a punctured lung after being hit by a truck that helped alter what he calls his "journey." He had been there to help the friends he had made at the Ironman World Championship in Kona run the event.

He remembers the day (Wednesday), time (6:45 a.m.) and color of the truck (red), but mostly he recalls its aftermath, both physically and spiritually.

"It probably focused me a little more," Vigorito said one afternoon last week, sitting on a hill overlooking the lake at Centennial Park. "Life is fleeting, you never know what life is going to bring, you never know when your day is going to come. In a shortened time, your life passes in front of you. You don't know if the next breath you take is going to be your last."

In the moments after the accident, Vigorito thought about his family and work back in Maryland.

Injured on the road in Hawaii, barely able to breathe, Vigorito saw his life after the Columbia Triathlon starting to take shape.

"I remember looking up at the sky and thinking, 'If this is it, OK. If not, Lord, I'll know I have other things to do,' " Vigorito recalled.

Sharon Vigorito said the accident changed her husband's "view on mortality." He reflected on how his own father, Andrew, had died from heart disease at age 59 and never got to see his son's successes. It also made Vigorito think about some of the people he had worked with in recent years who, according to his wife, "are not as fortunate as he was — people who have cancer or brain tumors, Wounded Warriors — and it helped him focus on what he could do to help those individuals."

Vigorito's TriColumbia organization ran triathlons on the Eastern Shore for five years, helped run two triathlon national championships (in 1994 and 1997) and started the popular Iron Girl triathlon. He has also run triathlons for children, those with disabilities as well as the Celebrating Heroes event for Wounded Warriors.

"It's been a great experience, I've met a lot of wonderful people along the way," Vigorito said. "I feel blessed in many ways to affect the lives of so many people, by using triathlons as a means to improve fitness and health. … You meet people along the way like I have the last 10 years, and through my events create these charity team formats and people raise hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars. You look back and think, 'That's pretty cool.' "

Max Prola, who met Vigorito more than 30 years ago and has competed in every Columbia Triathlon to date, said of his now close friend: "What else can you say? He's been such an iconic figure. ... I can't say enough about him."