Racing across the Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand finish line alongside his Newshub colleague Ryan Bridge and Six60 rocker Chris Mac, Mike McRoberts felt jubilant relief. The event marked a belated celebration of the TV star's 55th birthday and unexpectedly placing eighth in the race was yet another sign of how life couldn't be better as he sails into the second half of his sixth decade on this planet.
After finding new love following his marriage break-up, McRoberts has recently moved into a new West Auckland home and is proud to say his two children are studying double degrees. And this month, he'll mark 20 years of presenting the news with Three – a milestone that would've been unthinkable to a teenage Mike, whose stutter led to him spending years hiding away in the library, "the only place talking was discouraged", and pretending not to know answers in class to avoid speaking aloud.
"If you'd said to me or my family that one day I'd read the six o'clock news, they would've fallen about laughing," McRoberts tells Woman's Day. "Your voice is so important for expressing yourself and if you're a creative person, it's torture. I became good at hiding and trying not to talk, which was a killer. And we had no money growing up, so I just learned to deal with it myself by slowing things down and getting control.
"In retrospect, it made me who I am. I became a good listener and formulated things in my mind before saying them – which is great for live crosses."
Having started to stutter at age 11, McRoberts struggled with the speech disorder until he was around 16 and today he still stammers when he's tired. He says it instilled in him a humility that has helped when covering Aotearoa's biggest news stories, including the Christchurch mosque attacks and the Whakaari/White Island eruption.
During both tragedies, he was joined by Newshub reporter and Magic Talk radio host Ryan Bridge, 33 and, despite their 22-year age difference, they've become close mates. "Often we're under huge pressure, particularly with stories like the mosque attacks, so it's great having Mike there to support me," says Bridge.
Together with Six60 bass guitarist Chris Mac, the friends became more active after 2020's coronavirus lockdowns. Bridge even tackled a Hawke's Bay triathlon after going on a health kick.
"He didn't drink," says McRoberts. "That's when we knew it was serious!"
Completing the event felt "euphoric", so Bridge was keen when McRoberts suggested entering a team in Taupō's Nutri-Grain Ironman. "I thought it'd be good inspiration to get into shape for turning 55," says McRoberts, who took on the 90km bike ride. Bridge swam 1.9km and Mac ran 21.1km.
When their team – named Fast Times in Taupō, after the Elemeno P hit Fast Times In Tahoe – was preparing for the event, Bridge felt nervous during his 10-15 hours per week of training.
"If you're anxious in the water, you sometimes go faster than a sustainable pace, wear yourself out and might need help," says Bridge, whose triathlete mum Mary encouraged his training. "But it's like when we go on air – it's natural to have anxiety, so we just have to calm our nerves and do our jobs. I use the same principles in the water, but there's still pressure. If you're running and get tired, you stop, but if you do that in the water, you drown!"
"You'll be fine," insisted McRoberts, who had previously completed the New York City Marathon – and he was right. Bridge says that after ecstatically finishing his leg, "I could've swum all day".
"If you'd told us beforehand that we'd finish eighth, we wouldn't have believed you," admits McRoberts, who says his "bum was sore and legs were screaming" 75km into his ride. "We all pushed ourselves. I joked that it'd be a pivotal day in our friendship – and it was. Completing an awesome challenge and supporting each other was the best."
But teamwork hasn't just helped them through the Ironman – the pals also support each other through life's trials.
"I had a lot of stress with work last year, so it was great to chat with Mike, go for a swim, then leave feeling like I'd forgotten my worries," tells Bridge. McRoberts also spent late nights helping Bridge paint his new house. "There's also relationship and family things we've helped each other with."
"We've all had lots happening professionally and personally, so to have someone to lean on, apart from our partners, is fantastic," says McRoberts.
Bridge says the beauty of their bromance is that his partner gets along fabulously with Mac's' wife Mel and McRobert's partner Heidi Ettema. "That's another layer of our friendship. The three of us sit and chat while those three sit and chat."
As well as sharing a strong passion for their work, the trio love to "take the piss" out of each other, like chuckling about old promo images of McRoberts that Bridge uncovered.
"He keeps telling me I looked like Kim Jong-un because I had dark hair and was chubby," says McRoberts. "Hey, I had young kids, so fitness wasn't a priority!"
Of course, Bride is only joking. He's well aware of the scrutiny that comes with fronting TV news and although it's female celebrities who often spearhead conversations about body image, he's faced many mornings where he doesn't feel like appearing on TV or beats himself up about what he's been eating. Presenting the weather has been most jarring.
"You get more comments reading the weather than with anything else," he says. "Your full body's on screen for four minutes. Viewers have said my pants are too tight and my belly's sticking out. They watch the 20 seconds of weather they care about and the rest of the time, they're judging."
McRoberts adds that being in the public eye is another motivator for staying in shape, but maintaining his fitness is harder at 55, which was evident during a recent game of touch rugby with his son Ben. "It was fun, but it was tough."
Still, there are advantages to ageing – like understanding "the cycle of life" and using past experience to get through the tough times, knowing they won't last. "You push through them if you've got perseverance," says McRoberts. "Likewise, when you have good times, enjoy them!"
In full reflection mode, he continues, "My kids are grown up now. Ben just had his 21st and Maia's 19 this year. She was a founding member of the students against climate change and won a scholarship to Auckland University, where she's doing global studies and law. Having adult children is the best. We go out together and have fun, and I'm incredibly lucky that they get along well with Heidi."
McRoberts split with their mother, Paula Penfold, after more than 20 years of marriage in 2017.
"It was a tough time, but Paula's doing great," he says. "I'm really pleased for her."
After becoming friends with Ettema, who works for music and entertainment company Mushroom Group, the pair started dating 18 months ago, although she tends not to join him on his Ironman adventures.
"I don't train with Heidi, but she'll make me coffee when I get home. We've got e-bikes now, so at Easter, we're going away with the bikes.
"I feel really lucky to have a job I love, fantastic friends, kids doing well and a really good relationship," McRoberts continues. "I just did a news story about stuttering and my brother rang me afterwards to say, 'It's awesome you talked about that. Wow! You must be in a really good space.' I said, 'Yes, I really am.' It's true!"