Neil Cooper Athlete Ambassador
Neil discovered triathlon after injury ended his rugby career. He talks to Sundried about training and racing.
Have you always been into sport?
Yes, sport has always been a big part of my life. My first sport was swimming and I had the honour of racing in the Olympic pool at Munich in a European final for NATO military children at the age of about 10. Breaststroke and butterfly were my strokes. As a teenager my main sport was athletics. I was a 100m, 200m, and 400m runner. I came 3rd in the English schools at 100m and was in the same training group as Roger Black, Kris Akabusi, Ewan Thomas and Todd Bennett. After a series of hamstring injuries I concentrated on rugby for the next 15 years. In 1991 I started coaching sport and have now been involved in coaching sports ever since, but the main focus is now triathlon.
What made you decide to enter the world of triathlon?
After breaking my arm playing rugby I was told I wouldn't be able to play again. I then started to get unfit and needed something to motivate me. Our village outdoor swim pool organised a mini triathlon to raise money so a few friends and myself entered. I was awful, having not swum for years and using a borrowed bike that was far too big for me. However, I loved it and soon started dreaming of doing an Ironman.
What’s been your favourite race to date and why?
I think my favourite race has to be the Lakesman in 2016. It was the first Lakesman and is local to me so I had so much support. A few of my friends were doing it as well, including some who had done the first triathlon with me. The banter, rivalry, atmosphere and the event itself were all fantastic. It was great to then coach the winner of the race in 2019.
And your proudest achievement?
That's a tough one. I think from an athletic point of view it is probably to have completed an Ironman. I don't think many 100m sprinters go on to complete one because physiologically we are adept at short distance but not long distance. Having spent years racing Ewan Thomas on the track, and then raced him twice at the London Marathon, I think it shows how we have both gone from being focused on winning to then just focused on finishing. My proudest coaching moment was coaching the winner of the European Long course championship in Madrid.
Have you ever had any racing disasters/your toughest race yet?
Helvelyn triathlon in 2014 was one of those races I hated. I did it shortly after doing my first Ironman. Since the Ironman I had been away and hadn't trained or eaten well. The race is one of the toughest in Europe and it was a hot day. Half way through the swim I realised I hadn't recovered from the Ironman and the whole day was just a massive struggle. Sometimes, having the ability to finish the race when you have such a tough day are the most rewarding as it showed I had the mental strength to keep going. When I got home I told my wife I was never doing another long event again. She then informed me that she had entered me into another Ironman for my birthday!
How do you overcome setbacks?
That's very relevant for me now. I have just had surgery on my shoulder due to old rugby damage which was affecting my swimming. I have taken it as an opportunity to refocus my short term goals. I have spent the time focusing on improving my power, range of movement and strength. I think that after any setback you need to reflect on why it happened and work on making sure it doesn't happen again. There is a saying that athletes are masters of failure because we turn failure into positives by constantly learning lessons and improving.
What advice do you wish you'd been given before you started competing?
I think the best advice would have been to get the balance right. There needs to be a balance between life and sport. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in sport we let other things fall by the wayside. I think having someone to look over what you do to make sure you are getting that balance and making sure you rest, eat well and keep everything in perspective is important. Whether that is a coach, friend or family member, I believe it helps your performance and happiness. It is something I try to do with all my athletes.
What are your goals?
For me the goal is to recover from the surgery and to become a stronger and more flexible athlete for 2021. In some ways the cancelling of races might be a blessing as it will be an opportunity to work on more long term goals.
Who do you take your inspiration from?
My father was a great athlete and had abilities across lots of sports. I definitely got my passion and determination for sport from him. From a coaching perspective I was lucky to have had some great coaches in Tony Fern and the great late Mike Smith. Both were really approachable, friendly, knowledgable and created a successful but enjoyable culture. It is hard not to have been inspired by the achievements, personality and drive of Chrissie Wellington. She is an amazing character. I met her before my first Ironman and she was so encouraging.
What do you like about Sundried and what’s your favourite bit of our kit?
Firstly, the kit has to be top quality and it is. The kit is top spec kit but at an affordable price. In addition, the company has a great ethical approach and is environmentally responsible. For me the trisuit is brilliant. I have so many suits but the Sundried suit is the best of the lot for the advanced design and comfort.