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Filling the Void.
By Tom Demerly.

According to our calendar June 25th marked one year since triathlon and swim coach Doug Stern succumbed to his battle with cancer.

I find myself writing a lot of these tributes over the past couple years- friends and people I admire passing away and leaving us with… memories for one thing, but what else?

Nature abhors a void and the void that is left by these people is palpable. We feel it, we know it, and it hurts. It’s also part of being 40, then 45 and on toward 50. The second hardest thing about growing up is losing friends. The first hardest thing is trying to fill their shoes. It is up to us now, we become that next generation of admirable people, and that is a big responsibility and heavy burden.

Doug Stern shouldered the responsibility of being a leader with the effortless abandon that natural leaders do. If it was ever difficult for Doug to coach swimming or somehow distasteful I never saw him show it. Even when he was frustrated with a swimmer he owned the pool deck like a man who loved what he did and did what he loved. Doug was also a connector and in the often impersonal world of metropolitan New York City Doug Stern brought many people together. I can think of at least three couples who are together now because of Doug and one couple Doug presided over at their wedding: My wife and I. Doug is what some people refer to as a “connector”. He brought people together.

There are others too. Michael R. Rabe died in a bicycle accident in 2003 and since then no one person has been able to muster the dedication to the sport that Rabe did. His well-attended cyclocross practices help propel the sport forward but disappeared after his passing. We simply couldn’t fill those shoes. Sometimes we try them on, but in terms of dedication to the sport and the development of new athletes Rabe wore a size 14 Wide and we barely need a size 6.

So, what do we do?

Firstly, we remember. My wife marked the anniversary of Doug’s passing on our calendar at home. I’m glad she did. It prompted me to write this. More importantly it helped me remember Doug and the legacy he left behind.

Secondly, we move forward. Doug’s legacy is continued by his good friend Kate who has taken it upon herself to do an excellent job continuing and growing the annual Curacao Triathlon Training Camp. When I was on the run of the St. Croix 70.3 Triathlon earlier this year swim coach Boris Talon, one of Doug’s contemporaries and assistant coaches, rode up next to me on a bike to offer encouragement. Boris has a unique accent and a kind way about him. Having him there for just a moment on the run made all the difference in the world. The strength of Curacao, of Doug, of all the fine people I’ve met and come to know over the seven years I’ve been to Doug’s camp on Curacao came through in that instant and the void was filled by Boris and Kate. Thank you guys. These strong people have stepped up to the plate to heal the wound left by Doug’s passing. Curacao lives on thanks to Kate and also to Boris and the others who had the courage to pull it together and keep what Doug built alive.

There are other people who are working now to bring new athletes into cycling and triathlons and offering them technology, support and coaching resources that help them explore the sport. They are filling the void left by people like Doug Stern when he passed away. Here are just few of them:

Ken Gutowski of the Ford Athletic Swim and Triathlon Club has organized early morning swim practices and advised new athletes for years. He is a top level corporate executive with a family and an experienced triathlete himself, one of those odd magicians of time management that makes it appear he is always at ease, always ready to help. Mention Ken’s name to many new athletes and they will tell you he helped them with advice or they have attended one of his basement Computrainer rides or well organized swim practices.

Jim and Joyce Donaldson own Elite Endeavors, a race management company that produces some of the longest running classic triathlons in the world. As I write this, Joyce is in Beijing preparing to officiate at the Olympic Triathlon. She also serves as a Technical Delegate for U.S.A.T. and is an I.T.U. Official. Perhaps more importantly she is often seen before the grass-roots Women’s Only Triathlon giving first timer clinics to new athletes. All of Joyce’s efforts are done despite some serious back problems that haven’t kept her down for a single day from promoting and building the sport and bringing new athletes into the fray. When she is away working for the sport, Jim is back here organizing events like the Bikesport Ann Arbor Triathlon and pulling together organized training for the Toledo Triathlon Club.

Lew Kidder of Ann Arbor along with his wife Karen McKeachie are long time advocates of the sport. Lew’s legal background ideally prepared him as an administrator and director of the sport at the highest level, serving as a top official for U.S.A.T. and founding one of the most successful triathlon publications, Inside Triathlon, started by Lew Kidder as Triathlon Today. Kidder assisted local star Sheila Taormina in here first ever bid for the Sydney Olympics in Triathlon. This year in Beijing Taormina makes history by being the first ever Olympic athlete to have competed in three different Olympic sports.

Dan Empfield founded a company that invented the triathlon bicycle and the triathlon wetsuit as we popularly know them today. He went on to innovate across a broad range of mediums within the sport from products to events to media and even bike fit. He founded the first systematic approach to triathlon bike fit, the Fit Institute of Slow Twitch (F.I.S.T.). His concept of sizing bikes by “stack and reach” made comparison of bike geometries possible and set an industry standard for how to size and fit bikes. As a result of stack and reach, almost all bike manufacturers made a significant single year improvement to their triathlon frame geometries. He spearheaded the internet influence in our sport by being the first manufacturer to have a triathlon website and the first person to develop a dealer website. His on-line magazine,, has become the fastest moving, most feature packed publication in triathlons. He, along with former professional triathlete, lifeguard, paramedic and bon vivant Mark Montgomery hold training camps and fit education seminars at their desert compound, Xantusia, in California.

Todd Briggs has been a long time triathlete and swim coach in the eastern suburbs who fights for cyclists rights as an attorney and coaches triathletes in the evening when he isn’t getting ready for racing himself. Todd owns a slew of impressive Ironman finishes but more importantly has personally pulled a significant number of new athletes into the sport by holding ad-hoc indoor triathlons at health clubs and motivating young athletes in school swimming programs to continue their experience in endurance sports by using their fitness in life long sports like triathlons.

Russ Hudson took a buy-out from his previous job and splits his time between road riding, triathlons, X-Terra and volunteering at seemingly every triathlon in the eastern hemisphere. It seems as though every transition area you pull into in an Elite Endeavors event has Russ Hudson guiding athletes and using his experience to maintain the flow I the transition area. Russ frequently trains with Jim Donaldson and this pair pull together winter time Computrainer sessions and open water swims and beginner triathlon clinics for new and experienced athletes. Russ has enjoyed the sport for years at every distance but has taken it upon himself to give back with a level of vitality and experience few athletes can even approach.

These are just a few of the names that come to mind when I wonder who fills the shoes of people like Doug Stern and Michael R. Rabe. No person can be replaced but the energy of people like Kate, Boris, Ken, Jim, Joyce, Lew, Dan, Mark, Todd and Russ are indicative of leaders in our sport and help fill the void when we look back on the mournful loses of people who were so important to our sport and to us personally. Reflecting back on the one year anniversary of Doug’s loss, I am glad to know these people and the many others who help fill the void.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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