News & Updates

Mike Neill tells about his Ironman experiences (and why all triathletes should have a physio)

Plus, how a love of team sports has translated to a career in coaching.

How did you get into Ironman?

It was a strange journey! I played hockey for Queen’s up until I was 20 but had recurring knee injuries. I’d always seen Ironman on TV and it intrigued me. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to try that one day,” even though I didn’t swim, bike, or run at the time. At Queen’s, I went to a ‘Clubs Night’ event and signed up for their Tri Club. There were some great people there, and coaches that inspired me to get into it. That was the beginning of what’s become 25 years of my life. I raced professionally from 1999 to 2011, and then I thought I would give it up and retire. But, I missed it! Now I do smaller races. It keeps me out of trouble! 

When I started, I did not know how to swim. Just as I was getting into the sport, Simon Whitfield had moved to Kingston (this was 1997, a few years before he won the Olympics). We got to know each other and he’s the one who motivated me to take swimming more seriously. So, I joined a local swim team comprised of kids half my age. I even had to get permission from the parents of the swim team to join! It was a good ego check for me, a very humbling experience. 

I like to say that while I have a political science degree from Queens, I also got a PhD in triathlon. And, training and racing in triathlons is what eventually brought me out to Victoria!

Mike Neill bikes through the countryside, wearing a red jersey, black helmet and reflective sunglasses, during an Ironman event.

How does racing professionally differ from racing for fun?

When you’re racing at that level, it has to be a singular obsession, 10 months of the year. It really does take over your life. Now, I still like to think that I train hard close to the race date, but only eight weeks before the race. 

I said I wouldn’t do another Ironman again, after my 2011 race, but then I turned 50 and Sandy turned 50, and she had never done an Ironman. So, we both signed up for the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt, Germany. It was fun to do it together!

Mike Neill and Sandy Wilson smile for a selfie wearing biking helmets and sunglasses as they hold up their race medals.

Do you have a favourite sport of the three in triathlon?

It depends on the time of the year, sometimes there are times when I really like swimming, although it’s taken me a long time to get to that point. But, running has always been something I’ve been naturally good at, of the three. And, I think it’s the easiest event: you just lace up your shoes and go.

Why is physio for triathletes so important?

When I started training for triathlons, I worked with a chiro who was my training buddy in Kingston. At the time, there was a real rift between the two worlds of chiro and physio, they didn’t mesh well. It wasn’t until I moved out to Victoria and injured my Achilles that I even considered physio. That’s actually how I met Sandy! She did shockwave treatment on me. 

The thing about triathlons, and being successful at the sport, is being consistent: consistently training, stacking week on top of week, month on top of month. If people get injured and they don’t know why it’s happened, and they also don’t get it checked out, they lose not only blocks of training but also their consistency. I’m big on preventative maintenance and I tell my team that whenever they feel anything off, to go in and get it assessed. Physios are so instrumental in getting on top of an injury before it’s a problem.

I think of physio as the first diagnostic tool and I still see a chiro and massage therapist. They’re all important.

Before experiencing physio at Arbutus, it didn’t occur to me that manual, hands-on treatment could be so effective. It’s totally changed my opinion of the practice.

Why do you coach?

It definitely wasn’t part of a master plan! I didn’t imagine myself a coach, but now, I love to do it. Part of it is that I grew up playing team sports (like baseball and hockey) and always had great coaches! While part of the Queens Tri Club, I had exceptional mentors. I eventually became a coach for the same Club, because I wanted to pass on all that I had learned from them.

Now, I am the head coach of Human Powered Racing and the lead coach of the Breakwater Masters Swim Club here in Victoria. It’s quite the full circle, considering I didn’t know how to swim until I was 22! I love coaching adult swimming because I started my swim journey as an adult.

Tell us more about Human Powered Racing

During my professional racing career, I went to help out Ironman World Champion Peter Reid at a camp he was putting on in Tuscon. There, I met Michael Brewer, one of Human Powered Racing’s (HPR) founders. He asked if I would be interested in joining their team as a Pro. HPR originated in Columbus, Ohio, so that’s where I went. I loved the philosophy behind it, so much so that eventually, I asked about bringing Human Powered Racing to Victoria.

Michael Brewer’s whole concept behind HPR is “athletes helping athletes.” It’s a team concept, not a club. You can’t just drop into workouts, so everyone progresses together. This was something I missed when I left hockey, and I was happy to have found it again in HPR. When you do well or have a victory (whatever that is to you), it’s nice having people to celebrate with, who have been part of the journey.

A lot of the physios at Arbutus are on the Human Powered Racing Team, which is great!

What does victory mean to you?

It doesn’t necessarily mean winning the race! In endurance sports, you get to define what victory is to you and everybody backs up whatever your idea of success is. It’s not just about winning one thing.

Any upcoming races you’re excited about?

I’ll be racing in the 70.3 Ironman here in Victoria and also in Penticton. And, I qualified for the 70.3 in New Zealand in December. Now Sandy just needs to qualify so we can race it together!

And, this spring, I’ll be joined by about 12 folks from Human Powered Racing for the Lavaman Triathlon in Waikoloa, Hawaii.

What’s been your best race?

One year, I finished in 20th place at the Ironman World Championships. It’s probably one of the most satisfying races I’ve had. I’d always raced Hawaii because I wanted to test myself against the best, and I had the opportunity to do that then. 

A close second would be a sprint distance race in Delta. It was a very low-key, grassroots event, but I got to race head-to-head against my training partner and best friend. He beat me!

The finish lines start to blur together after doing a lot of races, but the feeling of crossing that line is second to none. I’m never more content than the day after an Ironman. There’s nothing else to do! You can just read the paper and eat whatever you want.

What’s it like to watch your athletes race?

Honestly, it can be stressful at times! When you’re watching your athletes race, you’ve given them everything you can, but you can’t control what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. But it’s part of the job. Getting them to the finish line is a relief!

Outside of racing and coaching, what do you get up to?

We have two border collies, Boss and Piper. I’ll take them to the park or Cattle Point a few times a day for them to run around.

We also love going to concerts! 2023 was a big concert year for us; it was our post-COVID catch-up. It started with Bruce Springsteen and ended with U2 in the Sphere, which was an incredible experience.