Phil Keoghan Flies High and Bikes Hard

Phil Keoghan stands next to a fully functional WWI era aircraft.Smithsonian Channel

Phil Keoghan’s 16-year-tenure as the host of The Amazing Race means he never spends too much time in any given place. But in his off-time from jet setting around the world filming the show’s upcoming 30th season, he’s taken a moment to slow things down and travel through just one country: his homeland of New Zealand. His new special “Flying High with Phil Keoghan” on the Smithsonian Channel is meant to showcase the human side of the land of the Kiwis, rather than the rolling hills and fields of sheep the country typically conjures up. “We make ordinary people out of extraordinary people,” he says. “Celebrities like Peter Jackson or Sam Neill, and then conversely we’re making celebrities out of ordinary people, like the farmer who rounds up sheep with a drone.” 

Keoghan himself is a heavy-hitting Kiwi celebrity, one whose influence extends far beyond his high-profile years as host of the show that has won ten of the fourteen reality competition Emmy’s ever awarded. He caught up with us to share a few key facts about his life that you might not have known. 

1. He’s made not one, but two, cross country bike tour documentaries.

“When I turned forty, I decided to take on one of the biggest physical and mental challenges of my life and I rode from Santa Monica to New York on a bicycle 100 miles a day. By the time we reached New York we had raised almost a half a million dollars for multiple sclerosis research. We made a film documenting the journey called The Ride and in the end that film raised over a million dollars, and we gave 100% of the profits away. Now my wife and I were looking for anther story to do after the success of the first one, so we found a story about the first English-speaking team to ride the Tour de France, which was one New Zealander and three Australians who rode it in 1928. And we really wanted to tell this story from the inside, meaning actually retracing the 1928 route on a 1928 bicycle. They rode an average of 150 miles a day, 3,338 miles in only 26 days, on heavy steel bikes that weigh twice as much as a modern racing bike, with no gears and marginal breaks. So we trained up and set out from Paris following the exact schedule, through the same roads and towns to tell this story and juxtaposed our modern story with the 1928 story digging up old footage and photographs. So that documentary is called Le Ride and it’s playing in theaters now.”

2. He reported on the ground after a devastating earthquake hit his hometown in 2011.

“When the earthquake hit Christchurch I thought, ‘What’s the best thing I can do right now?’ And I called up Andrew Shaw [New Zealand television executive] and he said the best thing you can do is tell the world that Christchurch is hurt and damaged but the country is still up and running. So I jumped on a plane did a piece for CBS News to show how resilient the people of Christchurch were. It was a little bit like the aftermath of the Rodney King riots in LA because right after you saw people out in the streets sweeping and cleaning up because they took pride in where they’re from. And people pulled their tools out of their sheds and rallied together, tens of thousands of university students got out and started shoveling and cleaning. The city really rallied together as one.”

3. He’s fit — ridiculously fit. 

“I workout every day. I run about four miles of soft sand right out where I live in Santa Monica, which I find is a really good work out. I did that originally as part of some rehabilitation on my hip from riding around France, which really jacked up my hip. It was a real tough physical challenge. Once I started doing it I realized how much it was strengthening all of my supporting muscles so I’ve just continued doing it. It’s very low impact because you have to work really hard in the soft sand and you’ve got to use all those stabilizing muscles. I also do stairs, so I run about 8 sets of 100 stairs and I wear a weighted vest with about 30 pounds on it. It takes about 40 minutes and it’s one of my shorter workouts but it’s really tough. It’s a beautiful mix of aerobic and anaerobic and really works the core and the legs. Then once a week I’ll do a mountain bike ride- like a three hour ride with a lot of climbing. I love getting away in the mountains because you get off the road and you don’t have to worry about cars. And every day I do 100 pushups. I haven’t missed a day since I turned 40 and I just turned 50 so I’ve got, I guess, 365,000 pushups. Now the idea of not doing those every day seems impossible.”

4. He’s just as comfortable behind the camera.

“Straight out of high school I did a television apprentice program that taught us every facet of the business. Before the year was out I got into the film camera section- back in the day we were still shooting some television in film- and I had a huge interest in photography. I had a great boss and before I finished the apprenticeship he offered me this job to be a film camera assistant. I absolutely loved that job. Eventually I was asked to be a host on a long running show on New Zealand called Spot On, which led into other work and then over the years I’ve combined my knowledge of photography and shooting with my hosting skills. I never wanted to be just a host so, for instance, I write the scripts with another producer for Amazing Race and sometimes I do jobs where I’m just a director or a producer.”

5. He’s a kiwi first and foremost. 

“Part of the reason New Zealand people are so innovative and resourceful comes from the challenges of living in a very tough environment where a lot of times you have to be in survival mode. It’s this incredible isolation where we’re the last habitable place on earth to be populated. We are at the bottom of the world, literally, and that resourcefulness has come from necessity. My grandfather’s generation for instance couldn’t just go to the store to buy a part to fix something because they’d have to order it from America or England and it would take weeks and weeks to get there so they come up with a fix. The guy who split the atom is a New Zealander, Sir Ernest Rutherford, and he came up with one of my favorite quotes ever which is “We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.” But what makes that statement in New Zealand so unique is the environment that people have to apply that mindset to because we’re a country of fire and ice and extremes.”

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