Long-Form Feature: How to Save a Life
This one was fun. Over the course of a couple of months, I worked in conjunction with UF Journalism Department head Ted Spiker to craft this feature: Phone calls were placed, interviews were scheduled and sections were (re)edited. A lot of time was poured into this article. Seeing it in its final form, though, was a truly gratifying experience.
This piece was published in issue 022 of Row360 Magazine.
Striding into the sun-drenched morning, Chris Tippin brimmed with confidence. He lived for race days, and this — on April 13, 2008, in Tempe, Arizona — was the biggest of his life.
Walking from his hotel, he joined the droves of endurance athletes descending upon the desert city for its annual Ironman triathlon. If all went as planned, Tippin, then 33, would be packing his bags for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Excitement and adrenaline flooded his veins. In mere minutes, 10 months of dedicated training would condense into 10-plus hours of blissful competition. He kissed his wife, Lin, goodbye. She wished him good luck. He knew he didn’t need it.
All he had to do was stick to a timeline.
As he and 2,413 others rumbled towards the shores of Tempe Town Lake, 140.6 miles of water and asphalt lay ahead, ready to dissolve the mettle of even the most seasoned athletes. An hour and 59 seconds in, bib number 517 emerged from the water, having breezed through the 2.4-mile swim. Feeling fresh, he bounded toward the staging area and clipped himself into the pedals of his bicycle.
Then the wind started whipping.
The 30 mile-an-hour gales harried him for over 112 miles. His pace dipped to a sluggish 12 miles per hour; he had planned, at a minimum, to average 25. On the sidelines, Lin worried: Traditionally, the bike was her husband's strongest event.
“He’s having a tough time,” she told her best friend, Mike. “It’s gonna be a rough one.”
Six hours passed before Tippin dismounted his bicycle and readied himself for the marathon. The desert heat had already exacted its toll on dozens of competitors, but as he set off on the Ironman’s final challenge, temperatures had soared to 112 degrees.
Hot air breezed past Tippin as mile after mile bled into one another. His typically expressive face bore the guise of a shell-shocked soldier — blank, unreactive. If he could just ignore the pain for long enough, he’d reach that finish line.
Then, a dot. And another.
A sickly feeling washed over Tippin as he worked to maintain his cadence. He knew the importance of in-race nutrition and hydration — years of racing necessitated it — but had he taken the Arizona heat into account?
With every step, the dots multiplied and grew darker. The illness intensified. Faced with a foreign dilemma, he needed to make a snap decision. “You have two choices: Either stop and reassess your hydration, or run faster,” Tippin says now. “I was feeling like crap, but ... I’m not stopping.”
Despite his resolve, his body decided for him.
Darkness came in an instant. Undone by the oppressive heat, Tippin blacked out, tumbling to the asphalt. When he came to, he heard the news: For the first time in his life, he had failed what he set out to do.
While the desert haze that plagued his mind lifted soon after, the weight of that new reality smothered him for years to come. He slumped into a depression. His relationship with Lin deteriorated. He considering taking his own life.
Things changed in that desert on April 13, 2008. And the road to recovery began some 2,000 miles away, along a nondescript dirt road in Gainesville, Florida.
Take University Avenue east — all the way east — and hang a left onto an unpaved driveway, just before plunging into Newnans Lake. Towering trees and dense greenery line the dirt road, masking any sign of human activity.
Eventually, though, you’ll happen onto a clearing, where the University of Florida’s boathouse — a long, squat structure made of sheet metal and timber — lies perpendicular to the lake. Park your car and make your way toward it through the overgrown grass and gravel. You’ll find him near the entrance, one of two warehouse-style overhead gates that protect the dozen or so racing shells within.
Christopher Tippin stands roughly 6 feet tall. A t-shirt and cargo shorts hang loosely over a body as seemingly thin as the shafts of the oars racked at the front of the enclosure. His face screams seriousness: A strong, stubbled jawline frames a pair of ice-blue eyes, set below a shock of blond hair.
His countenance, though, belies his personality. Barely raising his voice, Tippin speaks in quick, candid bursts. Family life, personal history, athletic exploits: No subject is too intimate to broach.
“I’m kind of an open book when it comes to my personal life,” he’ll offer. “There’s nothing I’m ashamed of.”
Six days a week, Tippin makes the half-hour drive to Newnans Lake to coach the university’s men’s and women’s club rowing teams. He’s been at it for the last eight years: flitting between the boathouse’s two bays; repairing outdated shells; singlehandedly helping roughly 100 rowers perfect their technique, motivating them to pour their soul into every stroke.
Over the course of his decades-long rowing career, Tippin has raced on the River Thames at the Henley Royal Regatta and was once among the world’s toughest lightweight rowers, setting the world record for the fastest 100,000-meter erg piece back in 2004.
To some, the compensation doesn’t match his commitment: One year of coaching the women’s varsity team nets him about $8,000. (He also works as a software programmer for Florida Blue.)
Old habits die hard, and the same applies to a competitor’s spirit.
Perched on his surfboard, Tippin paddled out into the milky darkness of morning.
Not much earlier, he had roused himself from his slumber, joined up with a friend and made a beeline for the coast. A hurricane — a good omen for any East Coast surfer — was creeping its way up the Eastern Seaboard, churning the obsidian waters of the Atlantic into eight-foot swells.
Big waves typically draw big crowds, but as he raced for the shore, he couldn’t believe his adolescent eyes. The lineup was empty. For a glorious half-hour, the surf break was his.
Surfing was a constant in Tippin’s life. Born in Pensacola, Florida, to a military family, he was uprooted from his hometown at the age of eight. Settling in the coastal city of Virginia Beach, he found his niche in the local surf scene. Gaining acceptance among his new peers, however, wasn’t easy.
“There was a set pecking order,” Tippin explained. “Every day was a competition. You had to earn your spot in the lineup. … That’s just the way life was.”
Nearly every day of his teenage years was spent waiting for the perfect wave. If conditions weren’t rough enough, he’d grab a skateboard, find some friends and head to his backyard to sharpen his skills on a homemade halfpipe.
Eventually, though, that unwavering focus nearly ruined him. He lagged in his studies, to the point where he almost flunked high school.
“I didn’t want to be like some of my other friends, who are just waiting tables during the night and surfing all day,” he said. “They’re happy with it, and that’s great, but I know I would not be happy with that.
“I had to reinvent myself.”
Jacksonville University is less than 15 miles — 13.9, to be exact — from the nearest beach. It’s hardly a 20-minute drive, but to Tippin, that seemed insane. A beach greater than a walk’s distance away wasn’t worth getting to.
Hundreds of miles from his family, friends and surfboard, at a school he was admitted to on academic probation, Tippin set out to create a new life for himself. One principle guided his decisions: Whatever you’ve done, do the opposite.
Walking across campus, he stumbled upon a flyer for the school’s rowing team. Team sports were a foreign concept to him, and wearing nothing but spandex? Around a bunch of other guys? No way. What a ridiculous idea.
Rowing crew became the linchpin of his college experience, its influence extending beyond the St. Johns River onto dry land.
Tippin’s freshman coach reined in his natural hypercompetitiveness and helped him apply it in the classroom. Within a semester, the former slacker transformed into an A-B student, parlaying his passion for history into a bachelor’s degree and staying behind a fifth year to explore an interest in computer programming.
Then, he met Lin Lim.
Or, rather, she met him, after seeing the same flyer he did four years prior. As an eager freshman, Lin stood alongside her friend Cindy in the Jacksonville University boathouse. Eager to get involved, she took in her surroundings, and was immediately off-put by the surly upperclassman standing off to the side.
“Immediately I was like ‘ugh, God, this guy is so annoying!’” she joked. “He just looked like such a jerk. … I was like, ‘really, what’s the big deal?’”
On their way back to their dorm, Cindy and Lin gossiped about the stranger in the boathouse. They shared a mutual dislike: Neither of them could understand why he was so serious. In their quarters, Cindy offered a sarcastic joke.
“(My friend) said ‘ooh, I think you guys are going to get married,’” Lin remembered. “It was literally the first day, and I was like ‘no way!’”
Six months later, she had broken up with her long-distance boyfriend.
Beyond her first impression, getting to know him was easy. Although he rarely hung out off the water, he’d tag along to breakfast with his teammates after Saturday morning practices.
“After a while, some people would show, some people wouldn’t,” Lin recollected. “It ended up just being Chris and I there every Saturday morning, having bagels and chatting about life.”
Over time, the seriousness that repelled her became an endearing quality, a manifestation of the care Tippin reserved for things he deemed important. Despite the distance at which he kept his friends and family, she was surprised by his sensitivity.
“He was always a loner, always so independent,” Lin said, “but those worries were washed when I saw him interacting with my family and wanting to do things with us all the time.”
As the calendar flipped from year to year, Tippin blended into Lin’s expansive Cambodian family with ease. He devoured history books, learning as much as he could about the atrocities of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. He voluntarily attended ballet recitals and gymnastics meets, and jumped at every opportunity to incorporate Lin’s little cousins into the couple's outdoor excursions.
“The kids, they’re all adults now,” Lin said. “One of them works for Lockheed Martin, one of them’s a pharmacist, one of them’s going through medical school.
"They’re all professionals now, but everything they ever learned in their childhood … everything they’ve ever done, they’ve done because of Chris.”
However, not much else was more important than competition, and she understood what it meant to him. As his interests shifted from rowing and running to cycling and triathlons, she shifted right with him. Lin travelled to every race, jogging between viewing stations to watch Tippin compete. She supported his buying new bikes with the extra money he brought in. Despite the strain, it gave her a glimpse into the commitment he was prepared to give.
“I noticed that even in the smallest, silliest things,” she said. “Whatever he wanted to do — if that meant competing in Ironman, if it meant wanting to marry me … — he was going to face all of that head-on.
“That was what he loved to do. He’s like a shark: If you don’t keep moving, you’re gonna die.”
But what happens when you have no choice?
The sinking feeling in Lin’s gut turned into full-blown panic when her Motorola Razr flickered to life. A single message filled its screen: “Emergency.”
Accompanied by her friend Mike and his fiancée, Lin hustled to the medical tent, worried sick over her husband’s wellbeing.
The sight that greeted her remains engrained in her memory.
The prone bodies of competitors, IVs jabbed in their arms, were strewn over makeshift cots. Everywhere she looked, the eyes of the fallen had glazed over, bearing the haunting aspect of the thousand-yard stare. To Lin, it looked like a warzone. And in the middle of the carnage, crusted in the white salt of evaporated sweat, Tippin lay in disbelief.
“It hit me when I was doing (the run),” he said. “I was like, ‘holy shit, I’m not going to fucking finish.’
“I was really pissed off … and I remember I was like, ‘I just want to get out of here.’”
Forcing himself out of his cot, Tippin managed a few feeble steps before collapsing yet again. Lin couldn’t bear seeing her husband so weak.
“It was excruciating to watch,” she recounted, “because I could tell it wasn’t the physical pain that was bothering him.
“He was just heartbroken. Heartbroken.”
The very next day, the couple hiked the Grand Canyon, and Tippin sprang from rock to rock like a mountain goat. But April 13, 2008, came and went, and part of him was left stranded on that jerry-built cot in Tempe, Arizona.
“You read stuff about endurance athletes who had a bad spell, and they’ve actually…” Tippin briefly slows. Gravely, the words stumble out of his mouth, like a wounded runner limping to the finish line.
Fueled by the Ironman debacle, depression wracked his mind. For over two years, suicidal thoughts nagged him. He lost his motivation to train, to move. This was a man who had once completed the Boston Marathon while battling strep throat, yet he struggled to get off the couch.
His malaise marred his relationship with Lin. After months of unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child, Lin rang home from Washington D.C. with the shock news that she was finally pregnant. Days later, she came home, expecting him to finally have turned a corner.
He didn’t. And the depression continued to trouble him, right through Lin’s maternity photoshoot.
Tippin calls it his worst memory. Standing on the beach, Lin was in the late stages of her pregnancy: She looked like she had swallowed a beach ball. The setting was picturesque, the type of day you could only hope for — shining sun, rolling waves. It made for an otherwise beautiful photograph.
Tippin couldn’t even muster a smile.
“He’s an immersive person,” Lin explained. “If something happens that is so important to him, he wants to get every single book. He wants to read every single article ever written. …. He didn’t do those things. He didn’t get ‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting.’ He didn’t say ‘oh, let’s go and do some research, or do this, and I want to go here and I want to go there.’”
She continued, tears welling at the corners of her eyes.
“I felt like, ‘if this isn’t going to make you happy, what is going to make you happy?’"
Eight-year-old Kirra Tippin strolled closer to the green metal bench where her father sat. In her hands, she held an orange frisbee, a makeshift bed for her newest pet, Emerald. She found him, a green tree frog, not much earlier: To say she was obsessed would be an understatement.
In the midst of outlining his mental recovery, Tippin stopped. Lowering his voice to a near-whisper, he got her attention.
“Hey, Kirra?” He spoke kindly, just sternly enough. “Go.” He didn’t want her to interrupt his conversation; besides, she’s never heard of her dad’s mental health struggles.
She’s also unaware of the central role she’s played in repairing it.
The first sign he was recovering came minutes into her life. Sporting an Astana cycling jersey and long “Farah Fawcett layers,” Tippin welcomed his daughter into the world, upset that he didn’t get a haircut beforehand. It irked him that his daughter would look back on these delivery room pictures and see her father so disheveled.
Lin spotted a noticeable change, too. From the first moment he held Kirra, she could tell he was obsessed. Any lingering traces of doubt were wiped away three days later, when Kirra had to get her first vaccinations and bloodwork.
The nurse followed standard procedure: They pricked her heel and had to squeeze the area to get the blood to let.
Kirra started crying. Tippin flew into dad-mode, berating the nurse and swiping his daughter away.
“There’s some video out that went viral recently — some dad with a baby doing the same thing — and I was like ‘how was that a viral video?’” Tippin said. “Every dad probably does that.”
“Yeah,” Lin responded, “but he was more like ‘you got this, buddy!’ You were just crying.”
Tippin conceded with little fight. “I was just crying. That’s true.”
The moments snowballed from there. Brooding sadness was replaced with tears of joy: He sobbed when he taught Kirra how to surf and saw the fun she had doing it.
“The biggest thing is he gets a stoke — that’s his word — he gets a stoke out of seeing somebody do something they thought they never could do,” Lin explained.
“Kirra ended up being our miracle baby. … She lit up his world. She was the sun and the moon, the stars, his entire universe.”
Six months after Kirra was born, a representative for the University of Florida rowing team reached out to him, asking if he’d like to coach them. He had coached crew before, but was initially hesitant. After all, he had an infant daughter to care for.
Eventually, though, Tippin cracked, agreeing to coach a four-oared shell for the men’s side during the spring racing season. After a few weeks, he was hooked: Injected with new energy and a sense of purpose, he returned the following fall, setting out to mold his new club team in the shape of a Division I rowing program.
“It helps me mentally,” he claimed. “I love being around good, genuine people. … I love being able to raise my daughter (around my rowers). Her entire life, she’s going to be around athletic women — smart, intelligent, athletic women. That’s going to be huge for her going forward.”
Pouring hour after hour into the rowing program, Tippin’s family and coaching lives quickly melded into one. Every day, Lin and Kirra tag along to accompany Tippin at the lake, offering a supportive presence when his days on the water bled into nights.
“The more he coached, the more he thought ‘this is more fulfilling,’” Lin said. “The less he ran and trained competitively for himself.”
Over time, he began applying the lessons he learned as a dad to his relationships with his rowers. Ultimately, he transcended his role as coach.
During the 2017-18 season, junior Kaylin Ingram was on her way to practice when her car broke down about a mile from the lake. As smoke poured from the engine of her Hyundai Elantra, she panicked: There was no way she’d make it on time.
Eventually, a friend rescued her from the side of the road and drove her to the boathouse. Having arrived late, she needed to explain her predicament. Approaching Tippin, she noticed how busy he was — fixing three boats, organizing lineups and getting crews out on the water — and, regrettably, added another wrinkle to the equation.
Tippin stopped. He thought. He gave her a big hug, and she broke down crying.
“He’s there when you need him as more than a coach,” she recalled. “Tippin was there, and, honestly, he didn’t have to be.
“He cares about each one individually, each one of his rowers.”
Tippin stood up from the thermoplastic-wrapped bench, standing on the red brick patio that spills from the yawning boathouse doors towards the murky waters of Newnans Lake. The sound of cars rumbling down the secluded dirt road slowly filled the air. Soon enough, members of the men’s varsity team would file into the boathouse, steeling themselves for a three-by-25-minute steady state row.
His rowers look up to him, and he responds in kind. He greets everyone, cracking an occasional joke as they strap into the dilapidated Concept2 ergometers lined up in two rows at the back of the boathouse. On his call, over a dozen fans will roar to life, filling the enclosure with the rhythmic whoosh of synchronized rowing.
For hours a day, Tippin trains his athletes in the fine art of pulling an oar through water with the greatest possible strength. What most of them don’t know is how they keep his mental health from sinking.
“I think I found something (that) I definitely want to have,” he pauses, “for the rest of my life.
“There’s never a practice I don’t look forward to … ever since the first day I started.”
Some of his athletes are friends with him on Snapchat, and jokingly refer to him as “Rippy Tippy.” Still others join him in online multiplayer games of Civilization.
Coaching is the one job he believes he can do for the rest of his days. If you were to ask him about his role, though, he’ll claim he doesn’t do much for his athletes. He has a self-deprecating streak nearly as big as his competitive one.
“I see how happy he is,” Lin said, “and I want him to get to a point where he’s happy doing it and also realizes how good he is at it. That’s the biggest thing.”
His rowers share that sentiment.
“He’s a good coach” Ingram stated, “but moreover, someone we can look up to.
“All of this is extra. It’s honestly above and beyond what he has to do.”
For him, it’s not. Without the thrill of raising his daughter, without the joy of watching his rowers succeed, there would be no Christopher Tippin.
So, how do you save a life?
It’s the same as anything else: “Never give up, dude.”