How did Scott Simpson go from being a self-confessed party boy and smoker to world-class triathlete? He had to learn how to swim, for starters.
Of the many hurdles Simpson, 43, overcame to win gold in triathlon at the Montreal Outgames in 2006, possibly the most eye-opening is that he could barely swim a length of the pool when he first tried the sport 11 years ago.
The victory was the culmination of a number of transformations for Simpson, who later became the first openly HIV-positive athlete to represent Canada at the Triathlon Age Group World Championships.
“I tell people that I went from being on the Canadian Drinking Team to the Canadian National Team,” Simpson jokes. “It shows how far I’ve come.”
A former York University student who grew up on a pig farm, Simpson said he’d never fancied himself a serious athlete. He attended the 1994 Gay Games in New York to play billiards, a sport he said appealed to him at the time. “I could drink and smoke when I was training.”
Four years later Simpson decided to try a more challenging at the Gay Games in Amsterdam.
“I looked at the program [and] I looked up what was the most difficult sport, since I’d already done the easiest sport. I saw triathlon and thought, ‘that’s what I’m going to do.'”
There was one small problem, though.
“I went to Amsterdam not knowing how to swim… I ended up vomitting twice in the water,” he confesses. He finished the race 20th out of 30.
Despite the setback Simpson says he was “instantly addicted” to multi-sports, opting to compete in duathlons (biking and running) for the remainder of the season.
Toward the end of 1998 Simpson learned that he was HIV-positive. The news had a devastating effect on his health and well-being for several years.
“After the diagnosis I sank into a deep depression. I withdrew from my family, my friends — from the world, basically,” he says. “Meanwhile I kept getting sicker and sicker.”
Four years passed before Simpson decided to start antiretroviral treatment. The medications gave him renewed energy and with it a renewed interest in life. He quit smoking and drinking, went on a scuba diving trip in Australia and decided to jump back into triathlon.
Part of that renewed interest was out of necessity. The first antiretroviral therapy Simpson went on was AZT, which is known to cause severe nausea.
Looking for ways to cope Simpson discovered he didn’t feel nauseated when he biked or ran.
“Working out became a way of dealing with the side effects,” he explains. The workouts also helped him manage his weight. The five-foot-nine-inch tall athlete dropped from a high of 240 pounds to 160.
Simpson also learned to swim at the YMCA in downtown Toronto, a slow and gruelling process.
“It took about six weeks before I could swim from one end of the pool to the other,” he says.
As Simpson’s fitness improved he started to climb up the rankings, winning several regional events. At the Sydney Gay Games in 2002 he placed 25th out of more than 70 participants. He reached the podium at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago, taking home silver in the Olympic distance triathlon, bronze in the bicycle time trial and silver in the team trial.
Two weeks later Simpson competed in the Montreal Outgames. Despite nursing an injury he won gold in the sprint distance triathlon.
“It was my first big win. It felt great,” he says.
Riding on his success Simpson placed fourth at the Canada’s Age Group Nationals later that year. His finish was good enough to qualify him for the Triathlon Age Group World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.
He made the national team again in 2008, competing at the World Championships in Vancouver. During the race he injured his hip after a downhill bike crash from which he’s still recovering.
Simpson, who is self-coached, says he’s in full workout mode in preparation for the World Outgames in Copenhagen, where he’ll compete in the Olympic triathlon, 1,500 metre swim, 10k run and bicycle time trial. Between work at a Toronto employment agency and his schooling (he went back to school last year become an employment counsellor), Simpson spends several hours a week in gruelling training.
A typical Saturday workout will see Simpson wake at 5am for a four-and-a-half-hour bike ride, followed immediately by a 90-minute run. After a lunch break, he’ll swim for another 90 minutes.
“My training philosophy is, make the hard days hard and the easy days easy,” he explains.
Simpson outlines two goals for his performance in Copenhagen: Defend his gold medal in the triathlon and attract the attention of a sponsor to help with the costs of training and competition.
“Maybe one of the big pharmaceutical companies that produce the ARVs would be interested in sponsoring me,” he muses.
As a humanitarian Simpson has also used his status as an HIV-positive athlete to advocate for those who don’t have access to the life-saving medications.
“I think it’s a horrific travesty that medications that cost about $150 a year to keep somebody alive, the majority of HIV-positive people in developing countries don’t have access to,” he says.
As part of his advocacy Simpson decided to ride his bike 13,000 km across Africa to raise money for ARVs. The plan was scrapped after he collapsed during an Ironman competition prior to the trip.
Not one to be discouraged, Simpson founded the Dignitas Race for Dignity in 2005. The annual fundraiser, which has teams symbolically retrace Simpson’s Africa route on stationary bikes, raised more than $270,000 for HIV/AIDS projects in Malawi last year.
Though he admits to feeling less resilient to the strains of competition than when he was younger, Simpson says he intends to continue being involved in sports as part of his new lease on life.
“I have three goals for the future: Keep my stress levels low, enjoy life make a contribution,” he says.
“If I can do all three things, I’ll be happy.”