Long-time volunteer adds warmth to SLO Triathlon

Bryon Barkley, back, swims alongside Margaret Walker during the 32nd Annual SLO Triathlon at SLO Swim Center in San Luis Obispo in 2011.
Bryon Barkley, back, swims alongside Margaret Walker during the 32nd Annual SLO Triathlon at SLO Swim Center in San Luis Obispo in 2011. The Tribune

Chances are if you’ve ever participated in the San Luis Obispo Triathlon, you’ve already come across Nancy Roberts, the wisecracking self-described one-day-a-year drill sergeant of the Sinsheimer Park pool.

But whether you’re one of the multitudes who come back to the event every year, one who’s participating for the first time in the 33rd annual triathlon Sunday or have never experienced it at all, know that she has become an institution — a volunteer organizers feel personifies the tradition and spirit more than any other.

She’s certainly seen it all.

“I’ve now seen generations of families,” said Roberts, 62, who started as a coach and lap counter at the first SLO Triathlon and soon became the organizer for the opening portion of the course, the half-mile swim. “It makes me feel very old, but it’s also fabulous that the young people have taken on after their parents and now their grandparents.”

Though she moved away from the Central Coast to settle in Fresno 24 years ago, Roberts returns every year to help make sure the event stays on schedule and things run safely and smoothly in the water.

Over more than three decades, the triathlon that prioritizes completion over competition, has become a family event thriving on repeat business, both volunteers and participants — a good portion of which come from out of town.

Either teamed up or solo, there are 1,200 participants registered for 1,000 starting slots for the course that also features a 15.3-mile bike stage and finishes up with a 3.1-mile run, City of San Luis Obispo Recreation Sports Supervisor Rich Ogden said.

Team Rhino, a club based out of Temecula is bringing dozens of members and has been sending delegates for more than 20 years, Ogden said. The Visalia Triathlon Club has also become a perennial visitor.

Ron Santore, an executive of Coastal Computers who now lives in the Central San Joaquin Valley, has participated in almost all of the SLO Triathlons and is the longtime provider of the timing technology.

Keith Schmidt of K-Man Cyclery in Atascadero is another longtime participant and provider of the distinct blue and yellow Superman-styled racing apparel.

Every one of them is greeted at the race by Roberts, a former 27-year swimming instructor who does whatever it takes to help participants through their 36 laps at Sinsheimer’s Olympic-sized pool.

“These people see the same person on the front line year after year after year,” Roberts said. “Number one, they’re probably surprised I’m still alive, and number two, they know I’m funny and I’m there to help them.”

Whether it’s motivating, instructing or maybe even bending the rules in certain extreme situations, Roberts gets the job done.

“There was a gal one year that had a broken neck, and she couldn’t turn her head to breathe, so we allowed her to wear a snorkel,” Roberts said. “It’s against the rules, but she explained her situation. I said, ‘Go ahead and do it. I’ll take the heat.’ ”

The event certainly seems better for the judgement calls of Roberts and the dedicated volunteers. She recalls the first SLO Triathlon lasting into the night with some participants hitting the pool as late 6:30 p.m.

The organization of the event has been streamlined since then. Sunday, the first flight is scheduled to take off at 6:30 a.m. with the final group scheduled for a 1 p.m. start.

More than 200 volunteers will be helping out the city-wide effort, which will receive support from between 50 and 60 staff members of the San Luis Obispo Parks and Recreation Department, police department, public works department and city office. In addition, the California Highway Patrol will secure the bike course on Orcutt Road. Roberts now operates Brite Pools and Spas in Clovis and serves as president of Central Valley Prospectors, a club dedicated to the modern-day search for gold that also focuses on teaching school children about the history of prospecting.

But if there is one thing she lives for, the SLO Triathlon “is it,” Roberts said. “I’m into the gold, but to watch these people suit up in every size, shape, form, attitude, color and ethnicity is absolutely a thrill. They’re all wonderful, and I tell them they’re wonderful.”