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PICAYUNE PEOPLE: Triathlete, competitive angler, and retired firefighter Mario Gonzales always in motion

Mario Gonzales

Mario Gonzales stands in front of a wall of memories in his garage. The helmets from his triathlete and firefighting careers each represent different chapters in his lifelong love of service and athletics. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

It’s hard to pin down Mario Gonzales’ story in a simple sentence. He spent 30 years as a firefighter and decades competing in triathlons. He is a competitive bass fisherman, a former diesel mechanic, and a medical miracle. He’s also been married over 40 years to his high school sweetheart. 

The chapters of his life are interwoven through the years and bolstered by an undeniable zeal for living. 

A Marble Falls resident, Gonzales created the Marble Falls Triathlon and helped build the Faith Academy of Marble Falls track-and-field program. Somewhere in there, he survived an aortic dissection against one in a hundred odds.

Born in San Antonio, Gonzales grew up on peanut farms outside Floresville, where his parents were from. He spent his childhood catching rattlesnakes, playing fast-pitch baseball, and fishing out of tanks. He loved illegal street racing and sports at John Jay High School. 

The 6-foot-1-inch freshman played quarterback for the football team, pitched for the baseball team, and was a walk-on player on the basketball team. That same year, he also started dating wife Amy. They’ve been together for 44 years.

“We were living like a married couple when we were 14, 15 years old,” Gonzales said. “We knew we would be together forever.”

After graduating high school, he took a job as a diesel mechanic at Southwest Research Institute. This was an era of illegal street and drag racing. Today, a 1968 Mercury Cougar resides in his garage, the same model he used for burning rubber as a young man.

Mario and Amy were married in 1985, and, by 1987, he had become a cadet in the Austin Fire Department. The couple continued to live in San Antonio near family, while Gonzales commuted an hour and a half to Austin to work shifts at the firehouse, where he was introduced to long-distance athletics by Richard Moore, the godfather of the Austin mountain biking scene.

Gonzales spent a year grinding to become a full-fledged firefighter, and, on July 4, 1988, he met his goal then dove head first into mountain biking, road biking, and eventually triathlons.

“I put everything off for one year to get into the fire department,” Gonzales said. “In ’89, I unleashed it. If I wasn’t sleeping or firefighting, I was on a bike.”

He began riding hundreds of miles a week on the road. He quickly gained a reputation among Central Texas athletes and was introduced to Roger Soler, an Olympian from Peru who owned a running store in San Antonio. Now, it wasn’t just firefighting and biking; it was running, eventually joined by swimming. After commuting home, Gonzales would participate in organized runs out of Soler’s running shop.

The sport of triathlon was just gaining popularity when Gonzales first got involved. As an amateur, he was training 30 hours a week and competing alongside professionals at regional competitions. Soon, he was ranked second overall in the United States of America Triathlon’s Southwest Region. 

In 1990, everything changed. The same year that Mario and Amy welcomed their first son, Dylan, into the world, Amy was diagnosed with cancer. She was 26 years old.

“I had to make up my mind whether I wanted to be ‘Joe Fireman,’ ‘Joe Triathlete,’ or ‘Joe Dad,’” Gonzales said. “I chose ‘Joe Dad.’”

The early 1990s were a time of healing and consolidation for the Gonzales family. Mario cut back on training and worked to care for Amy and his new son. Luckily, Amy’s cancer went into remission and things settled down.

In 1994, the family moved to Marble Falls, where Amy’s grandmother used to live. They had visited before, but once Mario saw the steep inclines of the roads, the constant-level lake, and rolling hills, he knew it was a natural location for a marathon.

It took five years, but, by 1999, Gonzales and Soler opened a running store of their own in Marble Falls, RPM Sports. They founded the Marble Falls Triathlon soon after, mostly as a way to build up a customer base for the shop. RPM Sports closed in 2004, but the triathlon thrived. It was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it returned in 2022 for its 20th year with over 300 participants.

All this time, Gonzales continued with his firefighting career. By 2006, he was a lieutenant with the Austin Fire Department — managing to become a ranking officer without a college education — and, by 2008, was creating medical training curricula for his fellow firefighters. 

By his own admission, Gonzales was not a focused student, but his growing responsibilities pushed him to become more disciplined.

“People that don’t think they’re smart, if they apply themselves, they can do it,” he asserted. 

In retirement, Gonzales finally had time with his family, although he continued his athletic training. That all came to a screeching halt in September 2020 as he was preparing to go on a long walk with his wife. While waiting for Amy, he felt a pop in his chest and the sensation of hot coffee pouring down his legs underneath his skin. Within seconds, he told Amy they had to get to the hospital. 

Gonzales would spend the next nine days in a coma, fighting for his life after suffering an aortic dissection. A valve in his heart ruptured and eviscerated his aorta, internally spilling pints of blood. Six hours transpired before he was diagnosed and sent to surgery. He was given a 1 percent chance of survival, and, if he were to survive, the doctors guaranteed he would have extensive brain damage.

When Gonzales awoke, it took him days to understand who he was and what had happened, but he was alive and he was himself.

His cardiologists told him that he would have to live a quiet life on the couch after this because there was so little data on survivors of aortic dissections. That was not an option for Gonzales. He was back on his bike by December after recovering from surgery in October.

“Medically, I don’t know how I’m here,” he said. “It looks like a grenade went off in me.”

Gonzales still rides his bike but holds off on running for fear of jostling something loose or tearing an artery. His home is still a regular meetup for cyclists, and he continues to do 40-mile rides three times a week.

Long walks with his wife, bass tournaments, training the next generation of track stars, and being a stellar grandpa are the latest in a lifelong list of passions for Gonzales, who altered a universal saying to better suit his worldview: “All good things come to a little bit slower of a pace.” 

All good things do not come to an end — not for Mario Gonzales.

dakota@thepicayune.com