One could say 2017 was a busy one for Mike Mendoza.
The triathlete from South Chicago was competing in tons of Ironman 70.3 events. Tons. Some earned him wins in his age group. A few earned him qualification to the 70.3 World Championships. Week after week, month after month, he was stacking finishes. 24 of them to be precise (27 if you count the races that had the swim canceled). 24 complete Ironman 70.3 events, in eight months. Some back-to-back. Lots of drives. Flights. Hotels. Massages. So. Many. Races.
He’d achieved so much in a year’s time—more than he ever dreamed. But it was the last race of the year that really got his goat.
“My last race of 2017 was at 70.3 Cabo in Mexico,” Mendoza recalls. “I had my Marine friends and family there to celebrate—it was Memorial Day, a special day for me, and it was the end of an amazing journey.”
When you’ve completed a total of 24 official 70.3 races in a span of eight months—a total that earned him an official Guinness World Record—losing a recovery tool, namely his massage stick to overzealous airport security…it smarts.
“I couldn’t believe it; I went an entire year with that Ugly Stick keeping me going from race to race, flight to flight but the last race, airport security confiscated it!” he said with a laugh. “I was like c’mon, it’s a massage tool, a medical device,” but they said it was longer than 12 inches and I couldn’t fly with it.
Now 42, Mendoza continues to spread the world of sport for injured or service-retired military men and women. In his estimation, it’s the least he can do; sport—specifically triathlon—provided the structure that he so needed when an injury from his service overseas placed him on the sidelines.
“Triathlon was it for me; a way to recover emotionally and physically,” he says.
In 2006, Mendoza was on a mission in part of a Marine platoon serving as a sniper in Iraq before being hired as a private contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in Al Anbar Province, his team was ambushed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by the enemy, disabling the vehicle. It was Mendoza who help lead his injured commander out of harm’s way. The act earned the Silver Star, which was upgraded to the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor.
A year later while on assignment in Afghanistan, Mendoza took shrapnel to the chest from the enemy, sustaining a severe injury that took him out of the fight, but got him home alive, and earned him the Purple Heart.
Home in Chicago, Mendoza recovered from the injury but was looking for the structure that the Marines provided him. Enter the Semper Fi Fund.
“What really got me into doing triathlon was the Semper Fi Fund,” Mendoza says. “I first started it doing golf, but then learned about an entry-level clinic for triathlon and it was pretty fun."
“Triathlon was a totally different atmosphere than golf; playing 18 rounds vs four to seven days of training a week is totally different,” he added with a laugh.
He not only found out he enjoyed triathlon, he learned he was pretty good at it. “I took sixth and won my age group in my first triathlon,” he recalls. “I was like ‘well, let’s see what else I can do.’” He did his first Ironman 70.3 race at Steelhead in 2016, and his first Ironman in Louisville, later that year. “I surprised myself finishing in the low 10 hours.”
But he had bigger plans.
“That winter I read about reasons why people do an Ironman, and one was to raise money. Some guy had a record for 70.3s complete in a year, and my dumb ass was like ‘I can do that!’”
And so he did.
“I wrote it all out on a piece of paper; I could do this race, then drive to this one the next weekend, then fly here and do that one,” he recalls. “It came together. And I decided to do it for the Semper Fi and American Fund. They assisted me when I was hurt. When I was at the hospital in Germany, my wife was calling and our cell phone bill skyrocketed—the Semper Fi Fund took care of it, along with things like an air ticket for my wife and son so they could come to see me.”
He bought a Quintana Roo PRsix with a Stars and Stripes paint job—an apropos motif for an American hero. “ I started with a goal of raising $100 each race but quickly upped that to a few hundred. I had great support from people like QR; I called asking if I could get help, tires, brake pads, whatever I could because I was going through it all so fast.”
As races segued one to another and the races stacked up Mendoza collected a race sticker from every event; one for his bike box, one to be saved for levity.
At the beginning of the challenge, Mendoza targeted raising $50,000 for the Semper Fi Fund/America’s Fund. He ended up bringing in $71,754—well over his goal.
Today, he has a few races on his docket for 2023, including two Ironman 70.3 races, along with the Boston and Tokyo Marathons. For him, the chance to find structure was for him. But the chance to help give back and raise awareness for the group that helped him so much when he was in need was the greatest gift.
“You know, I accidentally found triathlon,” Mendoza says, “At first it was a curiosity, a chance to go see Florida at a race or whatever. But these races became my mission; I was working toward something. And with any mission, I'm not gonna do it half-assed."
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