TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
For many years I have had a great time racing TCSD member Troy Cundari. Troy has become a great friend and someone in my age group I sincerely cheer for…always while I’m waiting patiently at the finish line for him to finish. That all changed last year when he finally smoked me. I think now I cheer even more for this great guy. Check out our recent conversation and you’ll see why.
Craig: What sports did you do before triathlon and how far did you advance?
Troy: Before triathlon I was involved with most of the sports kids play today, starting off with swimming with the Mission Viejo Nadadores, surfing, baseball, tennis, motorcross, and racquetball. In the early 70’s in Mission Viejo I was fortunate to live next door to California Angles Manager, Norm Sherry and Motorcross World Champion, Jeff Ward down the street. A kid could not ask for better neighbors. I was either playing ball or riding bikes with Jeff. Mike Sherry (Norm’s son) and I played on the same team when we were 11 years old and I played catcher. I had a great arm and was throwing out runners from all bases. Norm Sherry noticed and started working with me in his backyard to become a pitcher. He spent hours with me as well as his brother, Larry Sherry who was the Dodgers catching coach at the time during off season. I had Angels season tickets for several years in which my father and I went all the time, but there was nothing compared to Dodger games. There was something about Dodger Blue. Tommy Lasorda made the Dodgers my team and always will be. When I was 12 I was fortunate to be bat boy for the dodgers for a night. What a thrill that was…
Craig: How high a level did you reach in baseball and motorcross and what happened to end those sports for you?
Troy: My pitching improved throughout the years and played high school. I was killing it in Southern California in 9th grade when my dad was suddenly transferred for work up to San Jose. I was told that Northern Cali (San Jose) would be a great place for me to get picked up by a good school so I was looking forward to playing up there. I played for Leland High School and competition was furious. Not just from my school but from the others in the area. I had Dave Righetti from Pioneer H.S. (eventually pitched for New York) and Dave Steib from Oak Grave H.S. (eventually pitched for Toronto). I went on to play for San Jose State on a scholarship and by this time my arm was going downhill fast. Other guys were blowing out of the water from other parts of the country. My 86 mile fast ball did not even come close to the 90+mph other kids were throwing, so basically I was reduced to catching for the fast pitchers. I think the down fall was joining SAE fraternity…Man, the early 80’s were brutal for me… During this time I was still riding dirt bikes off and on and the following year dove back hard back into racing. After my first year back doing the Golden State Series, I finally moved up to Intermediate class which is right below pro and moved in with Pro Ricky Ryan. Ricky was a top privateer in the sport and was the first privateer to win the Daytona Supercross. My Motorcross highlight was racing support class at the Seattle Kingdome Supercross. Ryan got me in by lying basically and put his name on the line since I did not have a pro card. I knew I was going to have my ass handed to me racing there, but I was ready to throw down. On the 2nd lap I was in 21st out of 36, which was fantastic and as we were going on the 3rd lap. I remember going into a right hand sweeping berm, which I needed to set up for a double (jump) and needed to gas hard out of the turn. I was ready to launch when I was t-bone’d (how I got my nick name) and was thrown sideways into the air. I came down with my right leg and snapped my femur along with a herniated disk (L5) in my lower back. I really did not think it was that bad until I stood up and my boot was pointing 180 degrees. It was surreal being taped down to the back board while watching myself on the Big Screen in the stadium. I was transferred by helicopter and mobilized in Washington and put on the most uncomfortable flight back to San Jose where I went into surgery to have a steel rod put through my femur (bone marrow). I spent 21 days in traction in the hospital and sent home on day 22. I was on crutches for about 2 months, then a cane. I could not do anything for about 10 months. 18 months passed before I finally got off my butt. I went from ~180 lbs to 232lbs. I ate nothing but fast food and drank way to much beer, everyday! I was so miserable, and could not seem to get out of the pity phase. A normal day would be work, eat junk, TV and drink till I passed out. I stayed like this for a few years. My girlfriend (wife now) would come home and run 3 miles everyday, no matter if it was raining, or 100 degrees out. One day after a few beers I told her I was going with her and she started laughing. I started off and went about a block where I had to excuse myself and walked back to the condo, crushed on how out of shape I was. I was so upset that the very next day during my lunch I went across the street from work and ran in the neighborhood. I started with 6 houses, rested and did a few more. Next day a few more house’s and repeated, increasing my distance for about a month. I kept up with this routine, got on a diet and started to notice weight lost. I was stoked! Within 3 months I did my first 5K run, then 10K, half marathon, then full marathon.
Craig: What was your first triathlon experience like?
Troy: Several years had passed and by this time I had lost about 40 lbs and felt great. I was working at Qualcomm in 1996 when a co-worker told me there was this triathlon sprint race in Solana Beach (Fiesta Del Sol) and I should sign up. I procrastinated and about a 2 weeks before the race my co-worker went into my desk, got a hold of my wallet and used my credit card to sign me up. When I got the confirmation in the mail I was shocked, and a little ticked off for about 10 minutes. I started to think I could do this, but I only had a mountain bike. No biggie, I could do it. So race morning came and I did not sleep a wink the night before. I was terrified on race morning and could not eat and even threw up in the porty potty an hour before the race started. What I loved was the beach start. It totally reminded me of motorcross starts when the 15 second sign goes sideways. It was basically the same when the starter yelled out 15 seconds to start. I swam well and ran up to my mountain bike where I drank what seemed like a gallon of Gatorade, slipped on my Tinley tri tank top and put on my boat shoes for the ride. Yes, boat shoes. I thought I would be faster if I just put on my boat shoes for the bike, then ran in them. Let’s just say I never had so many blisters in my life since. Just after I finished and had this huge smile from ear to ear my wife came running up and said I only did 2 laps and I needed to do three, CRAP!!! I threw down the banana I was eating, put my damn boat shoes back on and did another painful lap. I did it!!! I completed my first triathlon! I was hooked!
Craig: Why was IM AZ the most memorable race in your career?
Troy: It’s not why you may think. On the morning of IM AZ race with little time to go until the start I realized I forgot my salt in my car so I needed to run about a mile back to get it. By the time I got back the pro’s were just talking off so I hurried to fill my dry clothes bag, put my wetsuit half way on and started to run towards the truck to drop off my bag when mother nature routed me to the nearest porta potty. I set my after race bag next to me while I did my business. When I stood up the bag fell over and my cap and goggles dropped into the forbidden hole. YES!! I was HORRIFIED to say the least!! I looked down and stared at my bright green cap on top and quickly retrieved it throwing it out the door. At that time I heard Mike Reilly announce 6 minutes to race start. It was still dark out and even darker in the potty. Basically I could not see anything. So for 2 seconds I started thinking of options and came up with only one that made sense. I went for it…..I plunged my arm down the hole and started fishing. They always tell you to expect the unexpected in Ironman, but this was ridiculous. I finally found them in the bottom right corner where I quickly grabbed them, grabbed my bag (with the other hand) and open the door with about 50 athletes waiting to use the potty. You should have seen the look on their faces when they saw me opening the door standing there with one blue arm all the way up to my shoulder. I quickly ran to drop my bag off when a volunteer said they would take it to the truck. I immediately used water bottles lying around the ground to clean me and the goggles off the best I could while running to the water’s edge. I made the front line within 30 seconds to the start!!! All I could think of was some disease I would have in my eyes by the time I started the run, Ha!
Craig: Despite all that trouble, you came pretty close to qualifying for Kona at that race. How close were you?
Troy: The swim went well, bike was going well until I got caught drafting. Yes, guilty. As I was riding into the penalty tent I flatted so I figured it was the best place to get a flat. The only thing was it took me over 10 minutes to fix the flat (learned to change a tire). I finished the bike in 5:27 so I was OK with it. Run felt great and finished in 10:40, 5th place in AG. I was amazed that I placed that high with that time, but extremely happy. Next morning came and found out there were 4 slots given to Kona in my AG and I missed by one. The cool thing was it was already past 9am and slot pick up was over at 10am when the roll down starts. At 9:20am the first guy came and claimed his spot, then 2nd guy, now it’s 9:30am and there were two slots left so I called my wife, Wendy, and told her to get down to where I was and bring the video camera. My dream was unfolding and I was not going to be denied in not recording it. 3rd guy came in around 9:40 and now one slot left. At 9:50 I told Wendy to start filming to get the whole thing on film. At 9:55 4th guy comes up, I quickly told Wendy to cut the filming. Then all of a sudden 4th guy starts ranting and raving about the price of the Kona race. He thought it was free if you qualified and started dropping F-bombs. So I yell to Wendy to start filming again because it sounded like this guy was not going to pay the $775. After he was done ranting he started to fill out paperwork, again I tell Wendy to stop filming. Then as I was walking away he yells. “Wait, I think I am on a cruise that week”. Again I yelled for Wendy to start filming while stepping back towards this knucklehead. Dude says he needs to call his wife back in Florida to confirm. The lady that was handling the sign ups told him he had 2 minutes before I get the spot. Now I am sweating and praying hard. So after trying to get a hold of his wife no one answered and tells me he has to sign up. I told him he better show up to Kona. So as I tell my wife to cut the filming for the last time I felt like I just went through a mental Ironman. Oh well, It was still a thrill to get on stage with Mike Reilly and get my cool rock – stone Ironman trophy. By the way, dude did do Kona….
Craig: How did you handle the disappointment of still not reaching your goal?
Troy: I was disappointed, but not as bad as I would have thought being that close to my dream. I was so happy with 5th place, my time knowing I was around 10:30 if I did not have the flat and getting on stage was a great thrill. How many people get a chance to get on stage at an Ironman? But no doubt it just inspired me to do better for my next Ironman. I had about a dozen calls congratulating me that night which inspired me, as well. I could not wait for 2012 Arizona to bring it up a notch.
Craig: What happened in September 2012 that changed your life?
Troy: We were over having dinner on Labor Day, my Mom after dinner told our family that Dad went to the doctor to find out why he could not shake a pesky cough. She went on the tell us that after a cat scan the doctors found a 2 inch tumor (not 2mm) in his left lung. Dad had stage 4 lung cancer. We were all floored. Of course, your mind goes crazy and my initial thought was wondering how long before I lost my best friend. I was a mess for about a week but with two daughters that love their grandparents very much I could not show sadness, but only a positive attitude. At this time there were really no signs of his illness besides the cough, though, he had the look in his eyes of uncertainty, which killed me. His chemo started right away, within a month followed by radiation. He lost about 20 lbs and a little hair but his biggest complaint was he could not taste food. Not good for an Italian not to taste food. They get grumpy!
Craig: You and I have had a lot of great races over the years. What was your greatest race to date?
Troy: Without a doubt, Mission Bay 2012. At the time (September) I was signed up for SuperFrog, But with everything going on I decided to race Mission Bay. My Dad asked if I was going to win my AG like I did in 2011 and I remember saying “no problem”. The morning of MB I felt great. I think due to two weeks of light training (I was training for SOMA half and then IM AZ in November) I was well rested even though I did a fast 42 mile ride on Saturday. The morning seemed like all others. I was happy to see Bill Dusting wasn’t racing and my main concern was Steve “Hot Mess” Tally, so I had a good feeling I could repeat an AG win. I was walking with Tally in T1 to the swim when he mentioned Craig Zelent was racing. I gasped, What? Craig is here? Where? BS…You’re kidding, right? At that time Tally pointed to the mighty Z-Man. Well there goes 1st so let’s lock up 2nd place. The swim was fast as usual and came out looking for same color caps and counted 4 right around me and 2 were in front. Not good. I needed a good T1. When I was running out of T1 I saw Craig on my left still on the rack just about to take off. The bike was crazy fast and was not expecting Craig to catch me on the bike until the very end knowing he will for sure on the run so I needed a fast bike. My thoughts were more on Tally knowing he can bike and run faster than I to capture 2nd place. T2 was quick and out on the run where I was feeling strong. I remember at about a mile and half I looked behind me to see where Craig was and there was no one which really surprised me. I then looked over to the right through the park and saw Craig about 45 seconds+ behind. I could not believe it. I ran scared from that point on. I just knew he was going to catch me so I threw it in over drive. As I was going over the bridge to the finish I heard footsteps behind me. I gave it all I had because I just knew it was Craig and possibly Tally. I was about 75 yards from the finish and two guys passed me and was relieved to see they were much younger. I went through the finishing shoot and was recovering when I heard the announcer say Craig’s name, I was overcome by hearing his name. I had my head down, hands on my knees and just saying to myself, no way, no friggn’ way. Dude must be hurt. No way!!! I had to take a walk just to think about what happened. It was truly my biggest win ever!
Here is one of the greatest e-mails I ever received after Mission Bay.
Email sent on 10/2/12 at 11:38am from Craig to Troy:
I just wanted to give you a special congratulations for your great race on Sunday. You really honored me with your enthusiasm, especially on the podium. That was very nice of you. You were so happy to win and that was really refreshing to see. I had a great race. Not just a good race. I had a great race and you beat me. I’m very happy for you, my friend. You have trained very hard. I absolutely do want you to have the success you dream of at Ironman Arizona and get that Kona slot. You are such a great guy. I’d be happy to come in 2nd to you anytime.
I really cherish this email since when I first joined the Tri Club I was so overwhelmed by these great athletes. After about a year of meeting folks, there were 3 athletes that I wanted to follow in their footprints due to their passion, enthusiasm, and love of life. . One was Craig Zelent. I always wanted to speak with these 3 athletes to get more educated on the sport but figured they would not really give me the time of day since I was a beginner. But I was so very wrong. Not only were these 3 guys incredible triathletes, but very humble and a pleasure to speak with. No attitude whatsoever. So after all these years, you could imagine how I felt to beat Craig. In fact, after the race during the awards I actually apologized and explain how I felt.
Craig: What did your Dad tell you before you raced Ironman Cabo in March 2013?
Troy: My parents always like to attend my races. They loved to people watch and see the athletes. They have been to 13 of my Ironman’s usually dragging my kids around for the day enjoying the sights. I was leaving for IM Cabo on Thursday the week before the race and we were all over at my parents having dinner and later my dad and I went to his man cave to enjoy some sports. We were talking about the upcoming race when he reached out and grabbed my arm and said, “would you do me a favor and qualify at Cabo?” I told him I will do my best to get him and Mom over to the islands. Dad then proceeded to say, “You have worked so hard at this and I just want to see my son in the World Championships before it’s too late”. The words killed me. I could only respond with, “no pressure old man”. He laughed and said “I know you’ll do good one way or another, have a great time and make sure you call as soon as you get done”. For the next 4 days until the race that conversation was all I could think of. There were 2 slots for Kona, 120 guys in my AG on a brand new course that I don’t have any idea on what to expect, no problem. IM Cabo was the only Ironman I was signed up for 2013 because I missed the IM AZ 2013 sign up. So IM Cabo it had to be. IM Cabo is a great race site in my opinion. The swim was beautiful, warm and hardly any contact. The bike was much hillier than I thought and took a lot out of me in the 80 degree heat. The run had a lot of turns, but basically flat. I think it was about 88 degrees on the run and it just drained me completely. I finished in 11:35 and still made the top ten but not even close to where I needed to be to qualify. On the plane heading home I am trying to think of another race I could possibly get in to that wasn’t sold out. The main reason to get into another race in 2013 was due to the news I received from my Dad’s doctor a month before Cabo. He told me that his life expediency was anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, maybe longer it was hard to tell. If the cancer moves up to his brain it is more like 6 months. So the first thing I was going to do when I got back to San Diego was to start asking people how I can get into another Ironman to try again for Kona 2013.
Craig: What happened on April 14th of this year that changed your life?
Troy: What a crazy, beautiful day. It was Sunday and I usually go down and swim with the Tri Club in Del Mar at 8am, but this day I decided to run. Saw the swim group going off when I started a nice hour run along the coast. When I got home my 16 year old daughter, Breanna reminded me that we needed to go shopping for Grandma since it was her birthday. We took off around 1pm and started down to Fashion Valley and on the way down we were listening to the Padres game. I came up with the bright idea to go see some of the game then go shopping on the way to meet everyone for dinner at Outback (Mom’s favorite). We watched a few innings and it was the top of the 7th when my phone vibrated. I received a text from Ron A. (Ron Aldron is the owner of my company) and the text read “boy, great weekend for you”, the only thing I could think of was a nice size purchase order came in over during the weekend, woohoo! Next we were in the 7th inning stretch singing God Bless America when another text came over, “Ron A.” again and this time the text read, “you have chills yet”, now I am seriously wondering how big this order was and just about to call when I notice the phone number and it was an 858 area code and my boss lives in Lake Forest which is 949 area code. It then dawned on me it was my friend, Ron Anderson and I had both Ron’s under “Ron A.” Still with the song going and people singing all around me I text him back, “whatta talking about willis?”, and the text came over, “you’re going to KONA”…. I stared at my phone in disbelief. Every year the lottery has been on April 15th, not on the 14th so I text back, “this better not be a joke because if so this is not funny”, well not exactly those words but you get the idea. Ron then texted over the confirmation list and I had to sit down. I literally started to tear up and my daughter was still standing with a look on her face like, “what the hell is wrong with you?” I showed her the text and she sat next to me and started hugging me. After the song ended we sat there for 30 seconds and bolted. There was no way in hell I could sit there and watch a baseball game. On our ride home we didn’t speak, but only looked at each other grinning at each other, it was so cool. I called up the Outback, since I made the reservations and cancelled, called the Chart House in Cardiff and booked a window table. Mom was thrilled I decided to go there and we all enjoyed a great meal with my daughter and I winking at each other the whole time. While having coffee and Mom opening up presents, my card was last and my daughter had made a copy of the letter that was sent to me and it was inside my card. After reading the card she opened up the piece of folded paper. I told her to read it out loud, she read, “Aloha and Congratulations Troy Cundari! As a 2013 Legacy winner, you are cordially invited to compete at the 2013 IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP in Beautiful Kailua-Kona Hawaii.” Once she read it the table broke out in screams. My youngest daughter started yelling “my Dad is going to Kona”, the table next to us started clapping and when I looked over at Dad he was wiping tears away and said, “I knew you would do it” and gave me a high five. I can’t tell you the feeling I had at that time. It was so surreal the way this thing came together I could not have scripted it better. The hundreds of hours spent training, all of the money spent, and the many sacrifices made by my family were all validated at that very moment. It was a huge relief and it could not have happened any better than it did. I truly appreciate this once in a life opportunity and it still gives me chills reading the letter that will soon be framed and on the wall.
For those not familiar with the lottery, Ironman picks 100 general lottery winners from around the world. Last year they started the Legacy Lottery and it requires you to have completed 12 Ironman sanctioned races, finished 2011, 2012 and signed up for 2013 to be in the running. The break down for the Legacy lottery winners were 6,600 entrants for 100 slots worldwide. 54 were picked from the US, 11 picked from California. This was my 12 year in a row signing up for the lottery…I truly believe the Ironman mantra, “Anything is Possible”.
Craig: What are you hoping for from your Hawaiian Ironman experience?
Troy: I just need to get to the starting line healthy. There are so many things that could go wrong, I just need keep positive and do what I have for the other 15 Ironman’s, stay out of the way of CAR’s!
I am leaving right after the Mission Bay Triathlon so I can enjoy everything this race has to offer. Getting that magical race bracelet, The Parade of Nations, Athlete’s Dinner, and of course the Underpants Run are must do’s.
On race day I will be a nervous wreck, but looking forward to it. It will be nice not to look at my watch every 15 minutes but to enjoy the day. After all these years of watching the NBC broadcast and then actually be in that same race will blow my mind. I will be there the week after the race as well and look forward to spending time with my family, as a KONA IRONMAN FINISHER.
I want to thank the athletes of Tri Club of San Diego for all it has done to change my life as well many others. My hat is off to the leaders that truly built this club into the largest, most desired club to join in the nation. Jim McCann, Brian Long, Thomas Johnson, and many others – Thank you!!!
And thank you Craig for taking time out to chat with me!
Craig: Troy, thank you for sharing your story. We wish you the best of success in Kona. We know you make your family and fellow TCSD members very proud.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.