Phil Taylor’s neighbour Melanie Burke works full time but is soon to take on the world’s best triathletes at Kona

Let me tell you about my neighbour but be warned, you'll probably need a cuppa and a lie down.

Melanie Burke is a force of nature. This is how she spent a recent weekend. Saturday she drove to Thames and rode a 200km loop around the Coromandel Peninsula. Sunday kicked off with a three-hour run, followed by an afternoon swim which was topped off with a 90-minute heat session. Done in a heated room on a stationary bike, the latter is to help her adapt to the heat of Kona, Hawaii, where she lines up next weekend in the World Ironman Triathlon Championships.

Burke is in the professional race, having qualified among the top 38-ranked pros in the world. Two things to note about that are that she isn't a professional - she is a fulltime power company "billing specialist" who fits more than 20 hours training a week around work - and the other is that until a few years ago, she could barely swim.

While those factors probably make her unique among the field, it is only a tiny bit of what makes her story remarkable, inspirational and exhausting. Choose a word to sum her up and it would be "undefeated". It is an attitude as much as results on a score card, though her achievements speak for themselves.


Burke has been either a national champion or New Zealand representative in rowing, road running, cycling, duathlon and Ironman triathlon. She was invited to trial for the Olympics in rowing and in 2009 became World Long-course Duathlon Champ, a shock result for the Europeans, not least for the seven-time champion and favourite, Erika Csomor from Hungary. Known as the Powerman Zofingen, it is over a hilly course of a 10km run, 150km bike and 30km run and is rated alongside the Hawaii Ironman in terms of difficulty. Burke put the opposition away on the bike leg.

Burke has a simple answer to questions about her success in so many sports. "I was just trying to make the top." She does it with minimal sponsorship and fanfare.

But that's getting ahead of the story. Burke, 34, was eight years old when she watched her first Olympics on television and was inspired.

"I tried [to make it] in a few different sports but it didn't quite go my way," she told the Herald On Sunday before flying to Hawaii.

By the age of 24, she had placed fourth and fifth in the coxless fours at consecutive world championships and been invited to trial for the 2004 Athens Olympics. But with Sonia Waddell already secure in the single scull and future world beaters the Evers-Swindell twins in the double, and Nicky Coles and Juliette Haigh in the pair, the boatshed doors seemed closed.

"There was no four at the Olympics and they weren't taking an eight."

Having spent half her life in a rowing boat (her car still sports the personalised plate "0 ARSOM"), Burke turned to running.

"Because I'd been a runner growing up, I thought I could go back to it. I thought the selection process was a bit clearer within athletics."

At school, she was the sprint champ and would win the cross country held on the Burke family farm in Whanganui where her father, Brian, worked Lady who won him the 1984 New Zealand Sheepdog Trials.

It didn't matter that Burke is not the typical whippet shape of most distance runners. After training on her own for six months, she placed second in the Rotorua Marathon. Two years later, coached by 1960 Olympic marathon bronze medallist Barry Magee, Burke won the national title. Hampered by shin splints, she ran London and New York but was minutes off a time that would gain her selection to the Olympics.

About this time, Bike New Zealand was searching other sports for talent, a programme it called "power to the podium" that unearthed another former rower in Jaime Nielsen who later rode at the London Olympics.

Burke borrowed a mountain bike and, wearing running shorts and sneakers, rode a stationary bike while technicians measured her power output, oxygen transport system and ability to handle lactate build-up in her muscles.

Her results were among the best and she was invited to a week of track trials at the Invercargill velodrome.

"So I borrowed cycling clothes and a road bike - I'd never ridden a road bike, let alone a track bike - and I went for one bunch ride which scared me. A couple of days later, I was down in Invercargill getting on to a track bike. That was very, very scary. I had to remember not to back pedal or you would flip off."

Steep banking, stiff bikes with no brakes, motor-pacing - there was plenty for a newbie to get used to.

"We did time trials from a standing start ... in a really high gear and I would wobble a bit before I got going. Because I'd had no practise, it took me a wee while before I got speed up and got down [into the aero position]."

Burke missed the cut for the track squad and turned to the road, guided by coach of six years, Aaron Strong. Her power made her an immediate threat and she quickly won a national club road race championship. Developing further would have required racing overseas and having just bought a house with partner Grant Erskine, quitting her job for cycling penury wasn't an option.

She next turned to multisport, outdoing all expectations by becoming 2011 World Long Course Duathlon champion.

What couldn't she do? The answer back then was swim. "I could only swim 25 metres very badly."

"She is one of those people who rises to the occasion," says Burke's swim coach, former world champion triathlete and national swimming rep, Rick Wells. "It's her dogged determination. She's not a natural swimmer, not at all, but she is one of the toughest athletes you'll meet and she keeps on surprising.

"Mel has a very unassuming way about her. She will do everything you ask and then look for more work. If some of those with more talent had her toughness and commitment, they'd be world-beaters."

That, he says, is reflected in her road to qualify for Hawaii which has seen her contest five Ironman events this year. "One Ironman would be enough for most people."

Her coaches predict Burke will surprise some of the world's best professionals.

"She is a big race competitor," says Strong. "When she is up against the best, that is when we see her at her best and often rising above her ranking - and Kona really is the pinnacle of Ironman."

Then Burke will return to her job and relentless training programme.

A varied career

Rowing: World championships fourth and fifth in the coxless four, (2002, 2003), three-time national champion, Maadi Cup winner in the double sculls.

Running: New Zealand marathon champion (2007).

Cycling: New Zealand club road champion (2010); New Zealand team, Tour of New Zealand (2011).

Duathlon: World champion (2011), New Zealand champion (2009, 2010, 2011).

Triathlon: Qualified for pro race, World Ironman Championships (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km marathon run) in Hawaii next weekend.