Though Mike Plant might not be as familiar to tri fans as the “big four”—Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Mark Allen, or Scott Molina—without him, the world may have never known their names.
There’s something full-circle about this moment, sitting on the back of a small stage, looking out onto the San Pedro Bay in Long Beach, California, and talking to Mike Plant. We’re both here for the announcement of Long Beach’s newest triathlon, the Legacy Tri, a race that symbolically marks a long 46-year orbit that began in 1982 when Long Beach hosted the second iteration of the U.S. Triathlon Series and will swing back around in 2028 with the first-ever Summer Olympic Games triathlon hosted on U.S. soil. Between now and then, the Legacy Tri promises to serve as the herald of the sport, promoting triathlon and educating the world about it. But in those early frontier days of tri, that herald was Mike Plant.
After volunteering for the Army Infantry and serving in Vietnam, Plant came to San Diego in the late ‘70s, right as triathlon was crawling out of the primordial sporting ooze. He rode his bike to work as the editor of the San Diego Track Club Newsletter, which eventually became San Diego Running News—the first national publication to cover triathlon. “Running was exciting, but triathlon, well, there was stuff going on all over the place,” says Plant of those early days at Running News. “So I shot, I wrote—hell, I even designed the ads. I did everything. I used to have 10,000 issues sitting in the back of my van.”
“People didn’t think it was worth documenting, but Mike saw something, and he started to collect it and curate it, and develop it,” says tri icon Scott Tinley, who met him in 1975 when Plant was the editor of the San Diego Track Club Newsletter. “Nobody else really saw that.”
Later, Plant “hooked up” with the Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series—the series with a major money sponsor that finally took tri to the masses. “We didn’t realize this at the time, but we were creating a sport,” Plant says of his efforts to promote the USTS alongside his wife Cathy. “We were actually educating the mass media about tri.
“Back in the early days, we would pack a pickup truck with media people,” says Plant, of those USTS races. “The more people in the back, the less would roll around.” Plant would ride that truck right next to the athletes (legally, he’s sure to note) and explain blow-by-blow to reporters from Time, Sports Illustrated and other major media outlets exactly what was happening. “They walked out of those events wide-eyed and understanding the sport,” he proudly says. Without that understanding, the sport would have undoubtedly wallowed in obscurity.
Today, Plant still occasionally writes— both for his and Tinley’s website, Trihistory.com, and for this magazine—but he’s mostly busy running his graphics company that produces event signage. Ever the multisport multi-hyphenate, he’s also working on a new business making a high- caffeine coffee marketed to athletes called Blast Radius Coffee.
Back in Long Beach, as we talk about the history and the direction of the sport today, sitting between two flapping flags that Plant’s company created, it can feel abstract connecting the dots between a Vietnam vet, a track club newsletter, Bud Light, and the upcoming Olympics, but in true form his longtime friend Scott Tinley crystallizes Plant’s contribution: If anyone were to create a family tree of the sport, “at the very root, there is Mike.”