Tim Don on his sporting legacy, today’s stars and exciting plans for the future

Tim Don started his multisport career all the way back in 1992, aged 13, just three years after 220 was born. Here he tells his favourite tri mag – copies of which he still has up in his garage rafters – about those heady days, his thoughts on the current crop of athletes, and some exciting plans for 2022

Tim Don about to break the world Ironman record at the 2017 Ironman Florianopolis in Brazil on May 28

London-born Tim Don, 44, is one of the sport’s most beloved characters. A three-time Olympian, four-time world champion, two-time Ironman 70.3 worlds podium finisher and one of the fastest Ironman athletes in history, he’s also widely known as ‘The Man with the Halo’.

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The odd moniker stems from his near-fatal accident while training for the 2017 Ironman Worlds in Hawaii. Coming off worst in a bike versus truck collision, Tim broke the C2 vertebra in his neck, which led to the fitting of said ‘halo’, a contraption that literally screwed into Tim’s skull. Four years on, we’re chatting with ‘The Don’ over Zoom from his home in Loughborough… 

220: We’ve been celebrating 400 issues, Tim, and over the years you’ve featured in, and on, a fair few.  

Tim Don: Yeah, I was getting the Christmas decorations down in December and came across one of my boxes of 220. It was 1993. I’ve still got all of them. I think I had my first cover in 1998, I’ve got it framed.

When I was younger, the mag was the Holy Grail. You lived for the magazine to come out. You wanted to see who’d done what and where, and wanted to know about the latest technologies. And then as I got a little bit better, I just wanted to be in the mag. It’s just a real staple in our sport.

Tim Don (GBR) during the mens Triathlon cycling at the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing China 19th August 2008. (Photo by David Ashdown/Getty Images)
Tim Don during the men’s triathlon at the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China, on 19 August 2008. Credit: David Ashdown/Getty Images

 220: What would you tell 1990s Tim now? 

TD: Believe in your dreams, try hard, and listen to people who are older and wiser than you. ’Cause you don’t know it all. Also, less is more. When you’re young, you just want to go fast, you want to go further, you want to push yourself. But you see so many talented athletes at the moment, in February they’re flying in and then they’re injured come the season. So yeah, listen to your body and enjoy the journey. 

220: In 2017, that truck struck you three days before the Ironman Worlds. How’s the injury now?

TD: I’ve always got stiffness there and I don’t have as much mobility through my neck, but it’s manageable. I just need to stay on top of it. I’m sure it’ll get worse but I can’t complain. I think age is slowing me down, not my neck!

220: What are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in the sport over the last 30 years? 

TD:  Everyone’s getting faster, younger. When I got into the sport at 13, I was quite young to be a triathlete. Now, at that age, you’re already a talent ID athlete!

My daughter is 11 and when we lived in America she was already doing triathlons. When I was at school, my PE teachers genuinely didn’t know what triathlon was. On a global scale now, it’s just so big. It’s just such a fulfilling sport, you know, everyone on their own journey. It’s not just about winning, we’re all on our own path. I love to see that.

CHATTANOOGA, TN - SEPTEMBER 10: Tim Don of Great Britain comes down the finish chute en route to his 3rd place finish during the Men's IRONMAN 70.3 St. World Championships on September 10, 2017 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Tim Don heads down the finish chute en route to third place at the Ironman 70.3 St. World Championships on 10 September, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Credit: Donald Miralle/Getty Images

220: Would you prefer to have been a junior now? 

TD:  If I could know what I know now, a hundred percent! Juniors now are almost robotic, they don’t race. It’s all, ‘you’ve got to do a time trial’.

When I was younger, we raced so much. When I was 17, the junior distance was a non-drafting Olympic distance. Now you don’t do an Olympic until you’re 20 and it’s draft-legal, which is considerably, I wouldn’t say easier, but less stressful on your body. I loved it back then. I wouldn’t have changed my career.

Tim’s top career highlights

 

September 2000 

Represents Great Britain in Sydney, in the first-ever triathlon event in an Olympic Games. He finishes 10th. 

 

October 2002 

Wins the ITU Duathlon Worlds in Alpharetta, USA.

 

September 2006 

Wins the ITU World Champs in Lausanne, Switzerland.

 

May 2017 

Breaks the Ironman world record by 4mins with a time of 7:40:23 at the Ironman South American Championships.

 

April 2018

Six months after his accident in Hawaii, he runs the 2018 Boston Marathon and finishes in a time of 2:49:42.

Tim Don crosses the finish line to win the Men's Elite Triathlon World Championships on 3 September 2006, in Lausanne. Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

220: Being a three-time Olympian, what did you make of the Tokyo Olympics?  

TD:  Oh, they were fantastic. The GB squad really lived up to expectation. But that relay, Jonathan Brownlee. I swear, that’s one of the best triathlons he’s had in that relay leg in the last four or five years. He just executed it perfectly. And then for Alex [Yee] to bring it home like that, going toe to toe with Vincent [Luis]. Oh yeah, I loved it. Awesome. 

220: And you went out with the paratri squad for the Paralympics? 

TD: Yeah, that’s right. I was out for three weeks in Japan, on a training camp with [PTV1 paratriathlete] Dave [Ellis] and the rest of the team. And then I flew to Tokyo and I was able to watch the race. So that was amazing to be a part of. I train with them still; I see them four or five times a week here in Loughborough.

220: So, Kristian Blummenfelt. Should his Ironman world record stand? [The Olympic champion posted a 7:21:12 winning time at Ironman Cozumel at the end of November. However the swim took place in a down current.] 

TD: No! It should still be 7:40:23, ha! [Tim’s then Ironman record at the Ironman South American Championship in 2017]. I was watching him in the men’s race in Tokyo and [with him] it’s not so much speed, but rather a belief in his own ability that ‘I am the best. I will do this.’ 

He said a couple of years ago that he was going to win an Olympic medal and he was going to go really fast in an Ironman. And he did, hats off. Next year I know he wants to try and win St. George [the postponed 2021 Ironman Worlds] and then Kona [the 2022 Ironman Worlds]. And the sub-seven challenge [an invite-only race to try and break 7hrs over an Iron-distance].

That’s tough. But if he says he can do it, I won’t argue with him. He’s a new breed of athlete, you know. They’re taking it to the next level. But Kristian is definitely the man to beat at the moment.

KAILUA KONA, HI - OCTOBER 13: Tim Don of Great Britain celebrates after finishing during the IRONMAN World Championships brought to you by Amazon on October 13, 2018 in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Tim Don celebrates after finishing the Ironman World Championships on October 13, 2018, in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images for Ironman

220: What are your 2022 race plans?  

TD: I’m hoping to do Lanza 70.3 in March. And then in April, Ironman South Africa, hopefully. I’m also working with the Zwift Academy so I’ll be at the St. George World Ironman Champs. I’ll carry on working with Emma Pallant, too. I love coaching her, she’s just at the tip of the iceberg of what she’s capable of. She really is a truly amazing athlete.

220: How would you like to see our great sport develop over the next 30 years?

TD: I think professionally, I’d love to see more diversity within our sport. I think we can really try and encourage more countries to be part of it and that’s from junior professional level.

In terms of age-group, ah man I would love it if Ironman, Challenge and the PTO [Professional Triathletes Organisation] would just stop arguing. Just work together. Don’t have [Ironman] Frankfurt the same day as Roth! I would love to see the [Super League Triathlon] Arena Games in the Olympics. That’d be brilliant. Maybe a mixed team relay arena games. 

I think we’re so cutting-edge when it comes to technology, we’re way ahead of cycling. I think we’ve done pretty well over the last 30 years, so I just say, yeah, let’s
keep things rolling. 

BOLTON, ENGLAND - JULY 04: Tim Don of Britain competes in the bike section of Ironman UK on July 4, 2021 in Bolton, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Tim Don competes at Ironman UK on 4 July, 2021, in Bolton, England. Credit: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for Ironman
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Top image: Tim Don breaking the then world Ironman record at the Ironman South American Championships in 2017. Credit: Wagner Araujo