Reflecting on his career at the helm of TriColumbia for the past 26 years, Robert “Vigo” Vigorito described himself as an enzyme—a protein in the body that makes chemical reactions happen.
“I’m a multi-sport enzyme,” said Vigorito. “That’s a pretty good way to describe it.”
Vigorito, 65, a retired pathologist, and current council chair of USA Triathlon’s Mid-Atlantic Region has been a fixture in the sport of triathlon, helping it grow on the East Coast since its early years.
On Friday, it was announced Vigorito would step down as CEO of TriColumbia, the organization he founded in 1984 that organizes the Columbia Triathlon, the Iron Girl triathlon and other events throughout the county.
“It seemed like the time was right,” said Vigorito. “A couple years ago I had a pretty eventful bike crash in Hawaii and that’s when I realized we’re all here on somewhat borrowed time.”
In the 2010 crash, Vigorito was attempting to avoid a truck while riding his bicycle, when he was sent over his handlebars into the truck, breaking nine ribs and fracturing his scapula, according to a news report at the time.
The crash, as well as his experiences with competitors suffering from life-threatening diseases, led him to the realization that now is the right time to step down.
Vigorito described how meaningful it was to greet his friend BethAnn Telford at the finish line of the 2012 Ironman in Hawaii. Telford, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004, completed the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run in a little over 15 hours.
He talked about his friend Jon Blais, an elite triathlete who was diagnosed with ALS in May of 2005. As the disease took hold, Blais and his family set up the Blazeman Foundation to raise money for ALS research, which Vigorito still promotes and supports today. Before Blais died, Vigorito convinced him to donate his brain after his death to the University of Maryland NIHCD Brain and Tissue Bank, where Vigorito worked as a pathologist.
“I assured him his brain would be well taken care of,” said Vigorito, “because I would harvest his tissue myself.”
Today, Blais’s tissue is still used across the country in laboratories researching ALS, according to Vigorito.
“Between John and BethAnn, those are the moments that really stand out on a personal and emotional side,” said Vigorito.
Vigorito retired from his job at UMD in 2008, but continued to pursue his passion for triathlon.
He said he first became interested in triathlon in 1982 or 1983 after seeing the Ironman competition on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” He and a group of friends got together and decided they wanted to host their own triathlon.
So in 1984, Vigorito and his friends managed to sign up 90 people for the first Columbia Triathlon. The next year they had 120 people compete. In 2012, 1,696 competitors finished the race.
As the race in Columbia grew, so too did the sport’s prominence on the national stage. By 2000 it was officially an Olympic sport.
In 2001, Vigorito was recognized by the International Olympic Committee “as a volunteer to the development of sport and Olympism and to the promotion of friendship and solidarity among peoples.”
Vigorito, who doesn’t have any children, said triathlon and its development was similar to raising a child.
“Triathlon is my child.” Vigorito said. “I was there along with many, many others to watch it become what it eventually became. I got to watch it get born, develop and mature. Now we have an adult child.”
“Vigo is a legend in the multisport world,” said Rudy Gil, chair of TriColumbia’s Board of Directors, in a statement. “A presences like Robert Vigorito cannot be replaced, but we look forward to continuing the history and growth of TriColumbia in the years ahead.”
Vigorito will be honored at a special ceremony prior to the 30th running of the Columbia Triathlon on May 19, 2013.
As he reflected on his life in triathlon, Vigorito said the sport is not so much about the competition or the challenge.
“It’s all about the experience and the journey,” said Vigorito. “Challenging yourself to take the journey, train, get to the start line, persevere and always finish what you started. That’s been my motto.”