Or so it would seem.
In 2014, Canadian Michael Latifi signed up for his first marathon. The Toronto resident was 21 years old then and had no running background. In fact, he really hadn’t participated much in sports at all. So imagine his surprise when he ran a 2:51:44 off of a three-month plan he downloaded from the internet—a time that nabbed him sixth place overall at the Niagra Falls International Marathon.
His foray into triathlon in 2017 was equally blessed. With about nine months of swimming—ever—under his race belt, he placed fifth in his age group at Ironman Mont Tremblant with a 10:36, then immediately signed up for another Ironman in an effort to qualify for Kona. Two months later in Florida, his dream came true when he won his age group with a 9:21.
So here he is now, in Kona, ready to rock. His success might make you curse your genes, but it’s only part of his journey—the icing on top of a story that is entirely his own but also a little bit Lionel Sanders-esque in that it involves a gifted Canadian who turned to triathlon to help battle his demons.
“I suffered from anxiety and depression my entire life,” Latifi says. “Anxiety controlled my life, it controlled my mind. It was not easy to play sports when you have zero self-confidence. I was stuck in my own head.” After developing an addiction to MDMA and marijuana while at university, he left because he wanted to get healthy; he realized his lifestyle was not sustainable.
“The scariest thing I had to do was go to my parents for help, to say, ‘I want to change. Please help me,” he says. They set him up with a therapist who suggested rehab. Latifi signed up for the marathon in Niagra Falls instead. Then, in an admittedly all-or-nothing move, he jumped straight into World’s Toughest Mudder right after that, making it through 14 hours of the grueling 24-hour obstacle race before bowing out with a stress fracture in his foot.
“That led to a massive depression. I was not able to run or train for about six months,” Latifi says. He gained 40 pounds over the course of 2015 and 2016, returning to his unhealthy ways. Then he set his sights on Ironman, and success came quickly. He was instantly hooked on triathlon. With his parents’ blessing, he quit his job selling meat to grocery stores to train full-time leading up to Kona this year.
Learning to be consistent in his training is a gift that’s helped keep his demons at bay. “I don’t suffer from anxiety anymore,” he says. “I’m so grateful to do swim-bike-run.” He had dinner in Kona with one of his heroes, Sanders, where they discussed the importance of hard work, consistency, and repetition as the key to success. And Latifi is internalizing those lessons now, with his sights set high; he wants to become the next Jan Frodeno, winning Kona, 70.3 Worlds, and the Olympics.
But first, there’s this year’s 25-29 age group on the Big Island.
“A few years ago, it seemed an unfathomable thought to even do an endurance event,”he says. “I’m beyond grateful to be here where I am right now, in Kona.”