The new star of New Zealand's long distance triathlon, Mike Phillips, heads into today's Tauranga Half as the men's division favourite.
Today's Tauranga Half elite men's race, which doubles as the NZ Mid-Distance Triathlon Champs, has drawn an outstanding field. It is the 30th Anniversary of the iconic event, which is the headline event for the Mount Festival of Multisport which includes a range of athletic and community events in Mount Maunganui.
Phillips finished second at last year's Tauranga Half in January, which was part of an outstanding 2018 season. He also finished 5th at Ironman NZ, 16th at the Ironman World Championship in his first crack at Hawaii's iconic Kona course, won the Challenge event in Melbourne, and the Taupo 70.3 in December.
Phillips starts as favourite in the men's division in what is shaping to be an intriguing battle against defending champ Dylan McNeice, and two-time runner-up, Mark Bowstead. Also due at this morning's start line are New Zealand long distance triathletes Simon Cochrane, Carl Read and Jack Moody. The men's event starts at 6:35am at Pilot Bay.
Today, he hopes to start the year with a win and beat his runner-up position from last year - but it won't be easy.
"Dylan McNeice is highly experienced and a crafty competitor. Mark Bowstead was pretty strong at the Taupo 70.3, and always performs well in Tauranga. There are also some good young guys such as Jack Moody who are getting better with every event."
He said since the Taupo event in December he had put in a lot of training and having improved his fitness since then he hoped to better that impressive performance, winning in 3h 52 minutes 56 seconds.
Phillips comes from a background in short course ITU racing, transitioning to long distance triathlon in 2015. He made the triathlon community take notice in September 2017 when he came a close second at Ironman Barcelona, with the world's quickest Ironman debut time of 7:52:50. This was also the second fastest Kiwi Ironman time recorded.
He spends his summers in Christchurch, where he is coached by the highly regarded John Hellemans. During New Zealand winters Mike heads overseas to Europe for three months of intensive training and racing.
The elite women's race has also attracted an impressive line-up, including rising star of the sport Teresa Adam.
Adam has had a remarkable sporting career which saw her represent New Zealand at a young age in water polo and triathlon, before injury forced a break from sport for a few years. After letting her body heal, she tried some long distance triathlon events, leading to a remarkable year in 2018 which included victory in the Ironman Cairns Asian Pacific Championships, smashing the course record in the process.
Adam returns to Mount Maunganui this Saturday for her third appearance in the Tauranga Half and is eyeing a win. In 2017 she finished third behind Amelia Rose Watkinson and Julia Grant and last year she was runner-up to leading Australian long distance triathlete – Melissa Hauschildt.
Adam faces strong competition for the title from two-time race winner – Amelia Rose Watkinson, winner of the 2018 Rotorua Half – Rebecca Clark as well as Tauranga's own Hannah Wells.
"It is a very strong and competitive start list, so anyone can have a great day. I try to focus on my own race, and hope to go as fast as I can on the day," Adam said.
Today marks the start of Adam's 2019 racing.
"ever since I started triathlon I had heard of the Tauranga Half and knew of the history and prestige it carried. I am super-excited to come back for my third year and get to race over the famous course against the best long distance triathletes in New Zealand.
"The previous winners list is stacked with the best names in the sport and I would love my name to be amongst those."
As the iconic Tauranga Half celebrates its 30 years at Mount Maunganui this weekend the competition's inaugural woman's winner and record entrant for the event – Karen Williams - will be among the competitors on the start line at Pilot Bay.
It will be her 29th tilt at the Tauranga Half, missing only the 2017 event following major surgery.
Williams, who has become somewhat of an event icon, still fondly remembers the inaugural race on January 2, 1990.
She arrived in Tauranga late on New Year's Day, due to her husband working late. She stayed in a tiny tent on a sloping property, and recalls getting "next to no sleep" before the event.
Despite her less than ideal preparation, determination kicked in once the starters' gun went off, and Williams emerged from the swim on Pilot Bay in second place. She quickly took the lead on the bike leg, and was never headed from this point, winning the inaugural Tauranga Half in a time of 4h 53min 53 secs.
From there, she rushed back to Auckland for work as a flight attendant, to catch a flight to Los Angeles.
One of her main memories from the inaugural event was the incredible support from locals. Karen Williams said "from day one, the local support made it my favourite triathlon event".
Williams has made an annual excursion to the Mount each January for the Tauranga Half, saying "the people and the atmosphere drag me back each year". In recent years, another attraction had been - "catching up with some of the 'original' hardened triathletes from the early days of this event".
Since the inaugural win in 1990, Williams has been on the start line of the Tauranga Half more than any other athlete, missing only one year in the event's history. This was the 2017 event following surgery to her right shoulder.
"It broke my heart not being able to compete that year but I felt that my shoulder needed extra time to heal," she said.
Her determination to complete every Tauranga Half was to the fore in 2009 and 2010 when Williams overcame major injuries and extreme discomfort to complete these events.
In 2008, she was hit by a concrete truck while out cycling. This meant that she did the 2009 Tauranga Half unable to use her left leg effectively. She did the swim kicking with one leg only, and wore a full leg brace to walk the 21km run.
She had major surgery to realign and rebuild the left leg. Weakness in her left leg resulted in a fall which dislocated her elbow and broke bones in her arm three weeks before the 2010 event. She ended up doing the swim leg using just one arm, and getting special dispensation from race organisers to swim with a sleeveless wetsuit to make it easier to pull off the wetsuit, with the use of one arm.
With only one arm functional while riding meant she was unable to change gears, so stayed in the same gear for the entire 90km bike leg. Having use of only one arm also meant that she didn't have a spare hand to be able to eat or drink on the bike journey. She even struggled to get her helmet on with one hand, and required assistance to do up the helmet strap.
Williams says she will continue to be at the event each year due to "the support from people on the sideline or competing".