Athlete of the Month: Tom Helpenstell

I was lucky to meet Tom Helpenstell last summer through a friend. He was nice enough to let a group of us gather at his home and practice swimming with him for an upcoming triathlon in the lake in his neighborhood. I was immediately inspired by his athletic accomplishments and drive. Due to some joint issues I was having, I had given up on my bucket list item to complete an Ironman at some point in my life; and meeting him gave me a renewed sense that I can physically accomplish that goal.

Name: Tom Helpenstell, MD
Hometown/Currently Living: Olympia, WA
Age: Just turned 58 (and just about to do his annual birthday workout of 5800-meter swim, 58-mile bike, and 5.8-mile run)
Sport/How Long Competed: Diving, 8 years (currently a runner, triathlete, skier, mountain climber)
Current Occupation: Orthopaedic Surgeon at Olympia Orthopaedic Associates
Favorite Healthy Food: Tofu stir-fry, Seafood
Favorite Physical Activity: Swimming in the lake outside my house almost every morning in the summer. I love all the things I’m doing, but I look forward to summers the most.
Biggest Sport Honor/Athletic Accomplishment: Winning NCAA Division II Nationals
Where Played: Nampa High School in Idaho; Grinnell College (NCAA Division III)
College & Degree: Bachelor of Arts at Grinnell College; Medical Degree from University of Washington School of Medicine; Internship at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle; Residency at University of New Mexico Hospitals

I knew I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon from 5th grade because Dad did it, and everyone wants to do what their dad did. I knew I needed to get out of Idaho to go to school, because otherwise I would have skied every day and flunked out of college. I happened to go back with my parents to a college reunion when I was in high school, and Grinnell College had built a brand new swim and dive complex. I was accepted early, committed, and never applied anywhere else. I knew it would be a good avenue to get into medical school.

Later I was pushed to go Division I after a diving camp by Bob Clotworthy (Olympic gold medalist), and for a brief period I waivered a little. But I didn’t like the pressure of Division I, and I also didn’t want to attend a huge school. He said I wouldn’t be an Olympian, but could be top 12 in the country. I’m glad I chose the path I did. I won nationals in 1980 on the 1 meter, and was also five-time All-American; but more importantly, I focused and got in to medical school, and probably wouldn’t have if I went Division I.

How old were you when you started playing sports or exercising?
When I was young I tried some sports like little league and wrestling, but wasn’t really into those sports. I even tried football for a day. But when I was in 6th or 7th grade, I tried diving lessons with the local lifeguard, and really got into it. At the time there wasn’t a team to join, so I got a group of kids together and coached us through AAU and into high school. We went to local and state meets, and made it to the regional AAU championships in Albuquerque. (That’s when I first met Greg Louganis.) Diving wasn’t a popular sport at the time, and I ended up winning state every year.

I was also involved in the amateur freestyle skiing circuit in high school, as well as a gymnastics team in Boise. I didn’t compete seriously in gymnastics, but rather saw it as a way to train for diving. In the summer I saved money and bought my own trampoline to practice back flips, and in the winter I would do them on the skis. I traveled through Idaho and Utah to compete as an amateur in that.

Did you have support from friends and family throughout your journey?
Absolutely. When I was coaching through high school and college (he coached the high school team when he returned from college as well), my mom was the driver. She would load up her suburban with all of us and drive around the state. She would also film me diving with a Super 8 camera, and we would have to wait a week to watch and see what I was doing wrong.

How do you view your health throughout your athletic career?
I’ve been very fortunate—I’ve felt healthy for my whole life. When I lived in Seattle in the early 1990s, we lived in an old house where I developed some sort of breathing problem that affected me for a year. When I moved to Olympia it went away. I’ve had sprained ankles and broken wrist, but all minor and temporary.

Who was your favorite coach, and what qualities did your favorite coach have?
Ray Obermiller, my college coach, was my favorite by far. He was incredibly supportive as a mentor and helping me become not just a better diver, but better student and better person. He was far beyond just a coach.

What issues did you have with your least favorite coach?
When we were in high school, Mom was always looking for an adult coach. We had a guy show up who was an alcoholic who would show up drunk or hung over in the mornings. He coached us for a summer. He was nice enough, but it wasn’t a good experience.

We had another guy who was a pathological liar, and good at it. He showed up on the scene, and faking a British accent said he was an Olympic champion from the 1968 Mexico City games, and that he grew up in a castle. He also said he was a concert pianist. He even came to our house and could play a little bit. He would never get on the board and show us how to dive, but he would coach from the side. We thought he was the coolest. He disappeared before state and we never heard from him again. Turns out he was an employee at Simplot potato company in Boise and had come up with this whole story. He would work at Simplot by day and would come out and be our English royalty coach in the afternoon. It was a fun summer, we all laughed about it. It was harmless.

Were you ever provided with nutritional information during your athletic career (childhood, high school, college)?
No. I read a fair amount on my own. My dad did a lot of running and was interested in nutrition, so I read some of his books. I remember one called “Food For Sport” in 70s and 80s, and I think it was a pretty new topic. People weren’t really writing about sports nutrition much. Over the years I’ve read a lot out of triathlete magazines. I’m not very knowledgeable on the nutrition. I‘ve always felt like the carb approach works for me, and have goo during long workouts and races. I’m intrigued now about the ketogenic diet and am interested in learning more about that.

Were you ever provided with exercise information, other than for your sport, during your athletic career (childhood, high school, college)?
Not really. I remember there was a stretching book that was big back then. I was very interested in stretching, especially with diving because you have to be so flexible. I bought my own books on diving and skiing, and I remember buying Jeff Galloway’s book on marathon training back in the 80s.

Do you feel like this information helped you after you finished competing in your sport?
Yes, although I’m not as consistent in stretching now and I need to take time to do that. I sometimes stretch while reading and eating.

How was your transition out of your time at Grinnell, and out of diving?
I was burned out on competing, but continued to dive on my own in medical school. That’s also when I got into running and triathlons at a non-competitive level. I always exercised, and I realized I liked long-distance running. It was also a nice outlet for me in medical school.

Then I got away from diving (residency was very time-consuming) until I moved to Olympia and co-coached Capitol High School and Olympia High School, and then Evergreen State College students as well (1996-2000). It was a really fun experience.

Transitioning from swim to bike in Ironman Arizona

How do you feel about your sport now?
I love it. I think getting into medical school is very hard because there are plenty of students who have 4.0 grade point averages and are qualified academically, but what med schools want to see is people who have done something outside of class work. I think I’m in my career now because of diving.

Now I’m active for personal enjoyment. I have little competitiveness in me at this point. I like to push myself, and enjoy seeing how fast I can finish a run or race, but more importantly I want to keep doing this for a long time, so I don’t want to push so hard that I’m injured and out. When something starts hurting, I change what I’m doing, or stop and walk for awhile. This is a long-haul thing.

Enjoying the bike portion of the Ironman

How do you feel about your health now?
Almost every day I can’t believe I’m still doing what I do. People come to me at work and complain they are too old, and they are only in their 40s. I feel healthier and stronger as an athlete now than I did in college. In college I was more powerful for diving, using fast twitch muscles back then, but I could never exercise for 10-15 hours at a time as a college kid. I’m now able to enjoy 50k runs and full Ironmans—I’m comfortable doing them.

Finishing the marathon portion of the Ironman

What is your current exercise regiment? Are there any activities you can no longer do?
I can’t do back flips on skis any more. I don’t think about diving any more, but for a lot of us as we get older it’s a sad thought to think I’ll never be able to do what I could when I was younger. For me, the hard dives (back and reverse 2 ½, front 3 ½), I would love to be able to do that. I loved the feeling of doing handstands on a 10-meter platform and looking down. I wouldn’t even jump off that now.

I also really try to avoid running on hard surfaces. I do a lot of treadmill workouts and trail runs. I have my flat screen TV and I’ll get 10 miles in while watching YouTube trail running or triathlon videos or people running across the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t run on a treadmill in a gym with headphones, but I’ve learned a lot about running across the Grand Canyon from watching those guys. I’m running a 40-mile run around Mount St. Helens in July, and now I know a lot of the course because of the videos I’ve watched. Next year I’ll be doing the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in the Alps, a 103-mile run. Many run through the night and do it straight through. I’ll do it over four days on my own – but I now know that whole course. I want to do it during the day when I can enjoy the scenery. Those are the things I watch that give me ideas and keep me motivated.

Can you tell me about your mountain climbing goals?
I would like to climb some of the seven summits (the highest peaks of the seven continents). I have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mount Elbrus in Russia. My goals are to climb Aconcagua in South America, Denali in Alaska, and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. I know I don’t want to do Everest. I have climbed Mount Rainier seven times, this year will be the eighth. I have trouble saying no to other people who want me to do things with them. I wasn’t going to climb any more up there, but I got talked into it. I like the fact that I can say yes to things.

How would you describe your current diet?
I think I eat very healthy. Most of my dinners I make at home on the wok with olive oil and garlic, onions, and veggies. I don’t eat much meat, and no red meat unless I’m at someone’s house and they’ve offered it. I’m not very good at having breakfast. My food throughout the day is a little unpredictable. I don’t have dessert ever – I don’t miss that stuff.

Do you include anything in your routine for “mental” health? (i.e. meditation, affirmations, playing logic games)
I think that comes with the workouts. In college I did more regular meditation/visualization. Mostly with stretching, sit quietly, think things through. Diving requires more mental focus.

Do you feel like your job allows you to have a good work/life balance?
My work/life balance was awful from the beginning of residency until about five years ago. I got way too little sleep. In residency, I was often working 120 hours per week, and unfortunately got addicted to a feeling of being so tired. I know it’s not healthy, but I could work Friday morning to Monday night with barely any sleep, and I loved it. It carried over a bit to my job in Olympia until five years ago. I would get into work kicks where I would be on-call all weekend, then work week after week with little time at home. It’s like a runners high, but it means I don’t work out much, and I don’t like that imbalance. Fortunately our orthopaedic group added more doctors, and we feel like we have a better balance now. I’ve changed my schedule now to go in later so I get a workout in the morning routinely and I’m not on-call as often.

Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself as a young athlete, or that you would want to share with other young athletes?
Don’t give up. Never ever quit.

Posing for a photo after just finishing Ironman Arizona

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3 thoughts on “Athlete of the Month: Tom Helpenstell”

  1. Katie, This article is very flattering and more than I deserve. Thank you for all of the nice things you have written about me. Tom

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Tom! 🙂 You are such an inspiration to me, and I knew others would be inspired from your story as well.


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