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“We were conflicted. We philosophized, pontificated, grumbled and groused miserably, bemoaning the state of an upstart sport that seemed at times destined for self-destruction. And yet we knew, somehow, that triathlon might appeal to an audience beyond off-duty Navy SEALS, just-off-work-lifeguards and retired executives with nothing better to do but train. Triathlon as it turned out, had something for everyone.
Who knew?” Mike Plant, TriHistory.com 2015.
Some people didn’t like Mike Plant. And that’s why I did.
“Say what you mean,” he’d remind me as we started writing together 35 years ago, “develop that necessary thick skin.” I’ve been thinking about Mike a lot. Not just because he’s recently passed but that his contributory art and honest-to-a-fault ideology has never been more alive. In our multisport world shot through with Valhalla thoughts of immortality-through-Ironman, we are rarely reminded that our founding fathers ain’t winning their age groups. Their bodies are breaking down, betrayed by passing time, tide, and pathologies. And—all apologies for the cliché—we stand on their journalistic shoulders.
Mike Plant was drafted in 1969 and sent to the Vietnam War as an infantry journalist. Like many returning soldiers during that period, he felt lucky to come home 13 months later, outside of a body bag. Ready to suck the marrow, ready to tell the stories he had not yet lived, Plant headed to California from his Connecticut home.
“What’d you do when you came home from the war?” I asked him in 2018; just the two of us sipping Guinness, swapping tales we heard before. “Tell me the goldrush story again.”
“Hell,” he laughed, “I did the only thing a kid from the east coast could do—I bought a ’63 Ford Econoline van, loaded it up with two cameras, one sleeping bag, and drove my ass out west.” And that’s where triathlon’s original journalistic history begins.
Plant landed in Pacific Beach, California, the nascent capital of SoCal running. It was spring 1972 and the 25-year-old vet had looked west because that just what you did. A few months later, Frank Shorter would win the Olympic marathon in Munich and everybody went gaga over jogging. Mike, with his in-country experience capturing images and crafting war narratives, found a gig editing the newsletter for the San Diego Track Club News. He’d been a springboard diver in college, wrestled a bit, and had taken up running because after surviving the Nam and then, newly-surrounded by scantily-clad, San Diego fitness buns and bums, that’s what you did.
For two years, Mike chronicled all things running in San Diego. And on September 25, 1974, modern triathlon was born on the boggy shores of Mission Bay, less than 1500 meters from Mike’s funky apartment with the velour-green couch on Pacific Beach Drive. He was there with his two war-weathered Nikons draped over his shoulders.
“Who’s the dude with the cameras and the pad of paper and the little voice recorder?” We’d ask each other, wondering why anyone would care about this little gathering of beach lifeguards, Navy SEALs, and SDTC expats. But if that dude had not been infatuated with the unfolding stories of this unfolding sport, there would exist no early history of triathlon. Consider this: within three tattered cardboard boxes inside a back room within a small home in San Marcos, California lies the only photographic history of 1970’s triathlon. Black and white prints and negatives and microcassette recordings of finish line interviews. Cooperstown in a closet.
Mike Plant would go on to myriad journalistic platforms and positions within the exploding multisport market: founder of Running and Triathlon News, Ironman Kona announcer between 1987 and 1990, Director of Marketing for the United States Triathlon Series, VP Marketing for Quintana Roo, and more recently as founder of MPA Graphics. For Plant, however, those were more vocation than vision. What called him out and what kept him up at night was his writing; the pen his rightful place, his stake in the ground. In the late 80s, as triathlon was wrestling with an identity crisis steeped in questions of global legitimization, Mike produced a 60 Minutes-style newsletter grounded in hard-edged, investigative journalism. The Plant Report was an eight-page, bi-weekly look at triathlon as it ran up against the ever more politicized decisions that would shape its future. Mike’s published words during the period lost him friends and jobs. But they endeared him to a handful of fans. Loreen Barnett, VP of the International Triathlon Union, said that Mike was one of the only people who “had the ability to go head to head with (ITU President) Les McDonald.” Jim Curl, co-founder of USTS and one of Plant’s most committed friends, co-workers, and confidants offered this. “We disagreed on a weekly basis but we just walked it off; 10 minutes to get coffee, 10 to talk, 10 to come back to a peaceful neutral.”
Curl, for his part, spent more than 10 minutes talking to Mike, unconscious in an ICU hospital bed, telling him that his argument had potential. After all, Mike, I think your work has paid off.
“He knew he was right in whatever he wrote,” said Mike Reilly, self-styled Voice of Ironman, who worked under Mike as an announcer in Kona between ’89 and ’90. “He ruffled a lot of feathers but in the end, he was usually on the side of truth.” Plant’s Ironman contract was not renewed in 1990 after the event was sold. And there were some things penned in the Plant Report.
The sport of triathlon was founded on the backs of characters who stood for something, even if they had no idea what it was; nefarious do-gooders and ne’er-do-wells who had a passion for mixing up sports. Or perhaps, as eclectic as they might’ve been, sought solace in the sport’s ambiguity. Mike Plant appreciated this ball of confusion better than most. I think he found a home in triathlon during the mid-70s. The kid wasn’t going back to Connecticut.
But there was a sense of purpose Plant sought; maybe to make sense of it, explain it to the world. Or as every writer knows, to make sense of your own story by telling those of others.
Mike Plant passed of lymphocytic leukemia in early May of this year, leaving a wife of 33 years and two grown children. He was 71 years old and currently resides in no triathlon-related halls of fame or cover stories. He has not been awarded honorary degrees or free trips to Kona. And with the stroke of a life, has many new friends. And that would make him happy; knowing that he’d ruffled a few feathers; caused a few people to think about how they’d tell their own story. If they knew…
For a look at Plant’s recent work for Triathlete.com, head to our Mike Plant archive.