Triathlon’s “Big Four” Reunite

Mark Allen, Scott Molina, Dave Scott, and Scott Tinley deliver a keynote talk for the record books.

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It may have been a Zoom presentation instead of an in-person gathering on a race course, a stage, or over beers at a bar, but the sport of triathlon’s legendary “Big Four”—Mark Allen, Scott Molina, Dave Scott, and Scott Tinley—got together for the first time in about a decade last Thursday. The foursome, who famously raced each other tooth and nail throughout the 1980s and 90s and, subsequently, launched the sport into what it is today, gave a group keynote speech in the form of an un-moderated panel during USA Triathlon’s Endurance Exchange Expo. And it was awesome.

The rivalry between these men ran deep, but the shared experiences and bonds built traveling around the world and racing for years runs deeper.  

The foursome’s inaugural meeting took place at the first U.S. Triathlon Series event in San Diego in June of 1982. Tinley had won Ironman World Championships in Kona the previous October and had been battling Scott for a few years. Molina was less known, and Allen was a relative newcomer to the sport.

What followed that first race between them (where Scott won, with Molina second, Tinley third, and Allen fourth) was over a decade of battles, many of them in Kona, and many of them captured by the ABC Wide World of Sports. The foursome dominated the sport for almost 15 years, swapping titles of World Champion at various distances; they share 15 Ironman World Championship titles between them. 

According to Tinley, the last time they’d seen each other was at a race in 2012, when he, Molina and Allen were inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. Scott had been inducted years prior.

But here they were, almost 10 years past their last gathering and roughly three decades after racing regularly against each other, sharing a screen from their individual homes in a configuration that looked like the intro to “The Brady Bunch” (see pic).

Roughly 1,000 viewers tuned in to see just what these four had to say to each other.

In its un-moderated format, the panel allowed interactions between the foursome, now all in their 60s, that were unfiltered and sincere. In fact, it only took four minutes before the first f-bomb was dropped (Molina), and even less time for jabs and chuckles. They referred to each other by their nicknames: “Grip” being short for “The Grip” for Allen; “Skid” for Molina (who also had the nickname of “The Terminator,” in his heyday); “ST” for Tinley; with an interesting discussion about Scott being called “The Man.”

The mutual respect was palpable, as the unscripted format was completely devoid of interruptions, with deep questions being asked of one another. 

Tinley, a professor of sport humanities at San Diego State University and Cal State San Marcos, writer, (and a weekend beach life guard), prompted the others: “The plan is to ask each other questions that maybe we always wanted to ask, but were maybe too young, or too precocious, or too arrogant…and to let this conversation unfold organically.”

Here are some of the highlights.

Mark Allen to Scott Tinley: “You’re the only one who’s really exited the sport…Obviously you’re president of something because look at that library behind you there [laughter], but what led you to make the decision to move on? I know you struggled with it, because you wrote about it and you’ve talked about it, but what is it you can tell other people about moving on in anything in your life, I guess.”

Scott Tinley: “I should preface my response by saying those years competing in the sport before it became a professional sport and then afterwards, and getting to know all of you and travel the world…Those are really special for me and I don’t want to disavow those decades that were so important to me. 

But it was just a thing where I thought I’d gone as far as I could in the physical world and I’d always wanted to try creative aspects. I always wanted to write. I always wanted to go back to grad school. I always wanted to teach. I always wanted to play the guitar and if I stayed connected to the sport in a way, occupationally, whether I was working as a coach, or as a rep, or had another business, it would have precluded me from chasing down some of the other avenues that I felt were part of my total psyche…

…I had this weird response one afternoon. I said, ‘I have to go back to the crossroads!’”

Scott Tinley to Dave Scott: “You were in Davis, kind of separate from the San Diego scene [ed. note: where the other three often trained together]. You had this degree in exercise and nutritional science from U.C. Davis. And you were up there, kind of this iconic guy, rinsing his cottage cheese, and playing the piano… how much of that true, and how much of it was bullshit?”

Dave Scott: “…I would hear these gross misconceptions about me. And a couple of the words that always resonated with me over the years were that I was reclusive, I was by myself, I trained b myself 100% of the time. It almost said that I didn’t have any friends. That I was this solitude soul, who just became enamored with triathlon, and that’s all I did. That was really false. 

My family and friends were in Davis, where I was born and raised and went to school. That was home for me. People always asked, ‘Why don’t you go down to San Diego, where Mark and Scott and Scott are training?’ That seems to be the mecca. And I sort of played on that…This hermit, in Davis. That was very false, but I think I used that over time… All the media interviews…Mentally, I used that to my advantage. Part of your question was about having this sort of aloofness, which I didn’t feel I had at all, but I played off of it.”

Scott Tinley to Dave Scott: “As a follow-up to that, how did you feel when you first heard the nickname, ‘The Man?’ Were you flattered? Or was that a little awkward?”

Dave Scott: “Well it came from you, Scott. It was awkward to begin with. I said, ‘How’d that phrase come about?’ And then it just kept coming up more and more and I heard it resonate from your voice, and I said, ‘Goddammit, Tinley keeps bringing that up…’ Any kind of conversation, ‘The Man is doing this, the Man is doing that.’ And I thought, ‘That doesn’t really fit me,’ But, I use it to this day because I can’t really get rid of this nickname. I think it’s fine. I’ve grown with it I guess.” 

Scott Molina to Dave Scott: “I knew Dave to be Superman. But I also know that he had his ups and downs. Looking back, when you had your down periods, was it a normal aspect of depression? Or was it that your high expectations of yourself meant that you couldn’t always live up to being Superman?” 

Dave Scott: “I think the idea that there was this infallibility, but there was also this unknown. I had these periods where I wrestled with my own state of whether I could succeed again. I wasn’t driven by, ‘Oh gee, I have to be ready for the three of you.’ I always thought if I was ready with in myself I could race anyone at any time.

I had these real deep valleys of depression that really haunted me throughout my career … It was really just one day, one day, one day, and I’d just keep piecing it together and not look at the end result and then all of a sudden, being like, ‘Oh, I feel pretty good about myself.’ 

But it was the inability to do enough… If I had 100 miles on my schedule and I could only ride 60, I wouldn’t do it. It was absolutely all or nothing. It was like an alcoholic. It was sort of, ‘Now you’re over the edge and you’ve consumed too much…’ sort of self-inflicted abuse as an athlete. If I couldn’t do it at the standards that I wanted to, then I failed, and I was a failure. That is a quite a difficult standard for anyone to attain… In some ways I wish I had more camaraderie around me. I had a great support system, but it didn’t matter. It was really within myself. A real insightful question.”

Viewer to All: “Would you like to be competing in present day?”

Mark Allen: “I think it’d be a blast to have a little more metrics than we had…We were kind of shooting from the hip, and guessing on what was right or what was wrong and how to optimize everything. I think it’d be really fun to have all of the stuff they have now and to race the guys now, but to also have some of the perspective that we gained by not having all of those metrics. Kind of that intuitive body sense that sometimes get a little bit ignored now. You know, you’re looking at this thing [points to watch] to see if you’re happy or not, whether you slept enough.

We had to know all that stuff intuitively, which ultimately, at races, enabled us to go beyond numbers, in terms of our performances. 

If I could take this thing [points to head], and stick it on a 25-year-old body, I’d be all over it, ya.”

Scott Molina: “I feel just the opposite. If I were to be born in the modern era, not the dinosaur era like you guys…my experience in the sport was the learning, and the experimenting, and the unknown. And it seems now that along with all the technology and the coaching…there’s so much information that the young, aspiring, growing athlete doesn’t have to find out for themselves. It’s all provided to them, for them. And to me, not having that was what I loved about sports. Like, ‘I don’t know, but I’m gonna find out, I’m gonna try.’ To me, it seems like there’s a lot less of that today.”

Scott Tinley: “I agree. There was something about being in that time, and in that place, and having to work things out…What needs to be said is that the athletes today are really, really good. They’re really, really fast. It’s the age-old question: How would Babe Ruth do pitching against so-and-so?’ I don’t know, but when these When those guys get off the bike and they run 28 minutes for the 10K and we were running 33? I’m like, okay, whatever you guys are doing, you’re awesome. Congrats everybody, keep doing it. It’s hard to compare 1980 with 2020. It’s 40 years difference.”

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