Lavaman - a tribute to a friend and teammate.
While promoting at events Kevin and I are often asked if we are triathletes. My gut response is typically “oh god no” while Kevin likes to paraphrase Gimli from Lord of the Rings: “we rugby players are very dangerous over short distances”. Well, it appears things are about to change.
Last year while traveling down to the Wildflower Triathlon we received news that our good friend and rugby teammate Siegfried Kohl had passed away. A few years ago Sig had been diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of Sarcoma and had been locked in a bare knuckle brawl with the disease ever since. I remember first hearing about the diagnosis when I was living in the Bay Area and thinking it didn’t make any sense. Sig was the picture of perfect health. So much so that his nickname in many circles was “Superman”.
Superman Sig was a stalwart in the Pacific Northwest Rugby community. Everyone knew Sig. He was a shining ambassador for the sport and he never took a day off his duties. He genuinely cared about every person on the club and went out of his way to make sure people felt welcome. On the field, he may not have been the flashiest player but there was nobody who could outwork him. On top of that, he was playing high level rugby at an age when most of his contemporaries had been in the beer garden for 5 years.
2005 National Sevens Championships with OPSB.
A good representation of our relationship. Kevin and I in the foreground with our feet up stuffing our faces. Sig in the background trying to get people on their feet.
I can’t claim to be a super close friend of Sig’s. Kevin knew him better than I did. But over the years Sig did many things for me for which I am grateful. Sig sparked my professional career by putting in a good word to my future boss before my very first job interview. In 2003 I was knocked unconscious playing in a rugby game in Los Angeles. For reasons unknown the referee decided to let play continue while I lay limp on the ground. Sig ran onto the field and used his body to shield me from the cleats and collisions happening around me. One morning after a rugby game in Washington D.C. he surprised me by making arrangements to visit the Vietnam Memorial. Unbeknownst to me, Sig had bonded with my Dad a few months earlier. Sig thought a rubbing of my Dad’s co-pilot’s name would make a nice gift.
Here's the thing: EVERYONE I know that was friends with Sig has a dozen of these stories.
When I lived in Seattle he would constantly get my lazy bones out of bed to play a game of touch rugby on Sundays because it was “good for me”. Sig meant many things to many people because acts like these were just his nature. It’s just who he was.
Sig in his element. Playing touch rugby in Seattle.
One of his gifts was his ability to connect with everyone in the rugby community. Foreigners passing through, salty-dog old boys, and especially the Polynesian community. He took many trips to Fiji and its adjoining islands and absolutely fell in love with the culture and it’s people. And they him.
He even made an impression on the Northwest Sarcoma Foundation. One of my favorite tributes to him was written by the Director of the Northwest Sarcoma Foundation, Tammy Boysen Wilhoite.
“A couple of years ago we got a call from a guy named Siegfried. He had been diagnosed with a rare sarcoma and had heard about our foundation from his doctor at SCCA. First he just wanted to talk...it was still sinking in that he had cancer because he was so active and healthy and young and strong...he wasn't really sure how things were going to go for him, but he was determined to beat his sarcoma.
He called again because he decided he wanted to bring attention to the cancer that was "pissing him off" and to the foundation that was in his backyard helping people with sarcoma.
He called again because he was going to be participating in an iron man event in Hawaii and he wanted to put our logo on his shirt or whatever we would allow him to do to bring attention to the plight of folks stricken with sarcoma
He called again because he had put together a BINGO night and needed our help pulling it off so he could raise money for the foundation.
Once he called because he felt so lucky to have such an amazing support group of friends and family, and it had occurred to him that not everybody has that. He wanted to raise some money for those folks to help them get the assistance they needed through the foundation.
The Sig we knew is kicking a rugby ball around in Heaven, sucking on a beer, flipping off cancer, and trying to figure out what he can do to help someone less fortunate, because that's what Sig would do.”
And yes, Sig participated in Ironman Kona 70.3 AND Lavaman between chemo treatments. In fact, here is a pic of him coming out of the water at Lavaman….catheter scar and all. He often would try to recruit people to participate in these Triathlons with him, and he even had some success convincing some rugby guys to make it happen. I’m sad to admit that I always had an excuse. “It was too much money”, “I had plans”, or “I don’t know about the swim”. They are all excuses in the end. Ones that I regret making.
Superman Sig exiting the water at Lavaman.
Sig with triathlon recruits Chris Stone and Chris Ramirez.
When Sig passed the rugby community rallied together for what I am told was a celebration of life for the ages. If you need a good cry, check out this video of his Polynesian friends singing a Fijian farewell song. The Maori community also honored him with a Haka. This is high praise.
Meanwhile at Wildflower, Kevin and I honored him in our own way….by opening a bottle of Jameson, throwing away the cap, and telling stories about him to any triathlete who would listen. I think we scared a few of them.
I don't think anyone knows what to do when someone like Sig dies. There was a lightening bolt of Sig energy pulsing through Facebook….tributes, pictures, memories. People sharing their stories of spending time with Sig. I remember sitting at my desk late one evening reading them and crying. It had finally hit home.
Through it all there was strong consensus that everyone wanted to galvanize this energy to honor Sig in a big way. What came out of it was the commitment by many to compete in Lavaman 2017 in his honor.
If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on 2017 being the largest clydesdale division that Lavaman has ever seen. I think 33 is the total headcount. We will be wearing “Sig Strong” tank tops and rugby shorts adorned with the Fijian symbols for “Energy, strength, and love”. It promises to be equal parts moving and hilarious.
Many times throughout the last two months of training I have felt Sig give me a gentle push. More often, however, I can hear his voice telling me (a little less gently) to “stop being lazy” and that I should "get off the couch and go do something productive”. I love it all the same. I know for a fact Sig enjoyed watching my first swim session. I bet he was howling with laughter. Slowly, to my surprise, I have come to enjoy the training. The miles seem to be getting easier and I no longer fear for my life when I see the number 1600 on my swim schedule.
To be honest, I have always felt like a bit of a poser while promoting at triathlons. Something didn’t quite sit right that I am a partner in a company that caters to triathletes, yet I’ve never done anything longer than a sprint. It’s fitting that it’s Sig who's forcing me take a giant step towards putting my money where my mouth has been. The training process has sparked a competitive fire that I haven’t felt since retiring from competitive rugby in 2010. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m really looking forward to toeing the starting line of Lavaman. I'm anxious to see what I have in the tank. Thanks, Sig. I’ll be cursing your name the entire way.
On April 2nd Sig will have no shortage of comedic material while watching us slog our way through the course, but I know he’d be touched by the effort. While as a group we may not be built for distance, it won’t matter. We have Superman on our side.
So, if you are going to Lavaman this year please come find us after the race. We will be the oversized guys at Kona Brewing who look like they know their way around a beer or five. First one is on us….because Sig would want it that way.
This one’s for you, Siggy. You grumpy German.
Oh.....and this one's for you Rhabdomyosarcoma.