Meet Mike Neill: The only pro male Canadian going to Kona

Now that we have your attention, is pleased to « dig » the only Canadian male racing the Ironman World Championships in Kona as a professional.

This year, no other pro male from Canada will be racing the Worlds. This race will be very special for Mike as well, for a complete different reason.

Mike graciously accepted to answer a few questions from

[Trimes] Who are you Mike ?

Mike Neill, Ironman Canada (by David McColm)

Mike Neill
25 X Ironman (9 X Ironman Hawaii)

Owner and Head Coach – Human Powered Racing (Canadian Team)
First Race – 1994 Trent Triathlon (Peterborough, Ontario)
First Ironman – 1999 – Ironman Lake Placid (7th)
Ironman PB – 8:39 – Ironman Texas 2011
Best Ironman Finish – 4th – Ironman Couer D’Alene 2006
Best Kona Finish – 21st – 2006
5 X Champion – Gulf Coast Triathlon (Panama City Beach, Florida)
Hometown – Kingston, Ontario
Lives – Victoria, B.C.

I am a 39 year old athlete/coach living, training and coaching in Victoria, B.C.
I took up the sport in 1994 after a hockey career that saw me win a Provincial JR Championship and play varsity for Queen’s University in my hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

After a serious knee injury I took up cross training and saw the signs for the Tri Club at Queen’s University. I joined the club, learned to swim and that decision shaped my life more than my politics degree.

I knew that I wanted to go as far in the sport as I could given my limited prowess in all three sports at the time. I had the good fortune of meeting Simon Whitfield when he was just returning from Australia as a youngster and he gave me a big push in the right direction, encouraging me to join the Kingston Blue Marlins swim team. Once I made that decision my commitment to racing at the elite level was pretty clear.

I have been around quite a while, racing on the Ontario scene back in the days of the Presidents Choice Series (now the Subaru Series) back in the mid 90’s. I raced age group worlds in 96 in Cleveland, Ohio and the following year I was racing for a semi-pro club team in Aachen, Germany. That same summer I raced the World Long Course Championship in Nice, France (my first long course race). It was a great experience and the distance suited me so I made the decision to start racing Ironman. In fact, it was seeing Ironman on TV way back when that actually made me take notice of the sport. I started working with my coach Randy Zabukovec (IronStride) from Kingston in 1998 and he has been my coach my entire career. Randy prepared me for my first Ironman in Lake Placid in 1999 and I finished 7th in 9:18. This qualified me for Kona and I have made the trip to race the World Championship 10 times, finishing 9 of them and placing as the top Canadian in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009.

Mike Neil
Mike Neil

I moved to Victoria in 2002 to train at the NTC and this is where I also met Peter Reid and had the great pleasure of training with him for a couple of years. I learned a lot during those training sessions and consider that one of the real highlights of my career.

I currently coach and train with my team Human Powered Racing here in Victoria. This is an age group team with athletes of all ages and abilities. It is a very close knit group and they have definitely kept my passion for the sport high. I probably would have stopped racing long ago were it not for HPR. I also have a pretty good neighbour and training partner in Jasper Blake. He and I have become good friends over the years and I think our friendly rivalry and battles have kept us both enjoying the sport over the past couple of seasons.

Although I categorize myself as a Pro, my true profession is coaching. I spent a number of years as a starving athlete and while it definitely toughened me up, I got tired of living hand to mouth. This is when my coaching took over and Human Powered Racing became such a big part of my life and my true career (and you could say passion). Anyone who races as a pro in Triathlon knows that it is a very small pie and there are a few guys taking large chunks of it while there are hundreds of guys fighting for the scraps. This hasn’t changed much in my time, but at least there are a few more series out there where guys can make a somewhat decent living (ok, not really, but they can at least buy the next plane ticket to the next race).

[Trimes] The 2011 season, the last season, leading to the last race.

I went into this past season knowing it was my last. My goal after last season (which was a miserable one for me. 2 DNFs at IMC and Ironman Lake Placid) was to get back to Hawaii under the new qualifying process. The season didn’t start out all that well on the results front with two very average 70.3 races at Cali 70.3 and Galveston 70.3 (I racked up a whopping 40 points at these two races).

Although those races did not look good on paper they at least gave me the confidence that I could still finish a race. I took that positive and raced my fastest Ironman ever at Ironman Texas in 8:39 finishing 1 minute out of 10th and feeling like I was at least racing again. This race gave me a good deal of points so I turned my attention to Lake Placid. A solid result there should have been enough to get my into the top 40 before the first selection at the end of July. Unfortunately I raced OK, but it wasn’t great and I finished 7th (seconds out of 6th). I didn’t make that first selection and I was sitting on the bubble to take one of the final 10 spots at the end of August. My only real option was to do IMC. I went there knowing I would be tired (Placid was only 5 weeks earlier) but my body was actually feeling OK, so as long as I had a steady day and finished within the top 15 I would probably do it. I ended up in 13th place out of the pros and that was good for the final guaranteed spot to Kona. 3 Ironman’s in 4 months was definitely not part of the original plan but it was the only way. Luckily I have one of the best coaches (that not enough people know about) in Randy and he navigated these races extremely well.

[Trimes] Opinion on the new system to qualify as a pro.Mike Neil

So, what do I think of the new system? I do think that it makes for a very unbalanced playing field going into Kona. Some athletes won’t have raced very much and will be fresher than others, but they were (in most cases) just smarter in how they planned out their seasons. We all knew the criteria going into the year. I do think that if you win an Ironman you should go automatically. No matter which Ironman it is.

I think we could have a greater number of Canadian pros going if certain guys made it their focus. Kona means a lot to me, it always has. For me it is where I measure myself. Where this stacks me up against the best field in the world. I was lucky and had some financial help from friends and family in those early years which is what allowed me to get there. I can understand how a young pro could find it hard to justify going all that way for a 20th place finish. The catch is that I really believe you need experience in Kona to do well there so you have to check your ego a bit when you go there the first time (or the 11th). There are a lot of good guys out there and a top 5 or top 10 finish at any other Ironman does not mean you stack up the same against the Champions over in Kona. It is a different race and demands not only a fast athlete but an extremely tough athlete. Having said that we have some great guys on the way up. Jeff Symonds will be one to watch when he makes the jump.

[Trimes] The pressure ?

Do I feel any pressure as the only Canadian Pro? Not really. Anyone who knows me knows I will give it all I have on the day. I have been around way to long to worry about what other people think. Canada has a lot of history over there. Peter, Lori, Lisa Bentley, Heather Fuhr etc. They set the standard for the Canadian Long Course Athlete. Following in their footsteps is not easy but we will have another Canadian Champion one day. There are a lot of guys out there who probably think they could go over there and kill it. I say qualify and go do it. It takes a heck of a lot of work and a willingness to put the rest of your life on hold. I trained with Peter Reid in the lead up to his last win and I can tell you it takes a whole lot more than most people would ever be willing to sacrifice.

[Trimes] The supporters.

As for sponsors, I have a few great supporters. The Trek Bike Store (Pro City) in Victoria have supported me from the day they opened. I am lucky to have one of the best bike fitters in the business there (Bill Fry).  7systems has an unbelievable pro team and I am humbled to be a part of that group. Aqua Sphere (goggles and wetsuits) has come on board this year and I have a great therapy team at Synergy in Victoria, B.C.. My biggest supporters though are my team; Human Powered Racing (which is why that is the only Logo you will see on my Kiwami suit in this, my final race!).

[Trimes] The last word.

People have been asking me if this is really my last race. The answer is YES! I will continue to swim, bike and run, but NEVER on the same day!



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