Chris Helwick stands on the track at Heath Middle School in Greeley. After coming out of retirement, he’ll
kick his training into high gear in January as he seeks to make the 2020 Olympic team in the decathlon. (Jordan Reyes)
Chris Helwick is an economic
developer for the city of Greeley. It’s a solid job, a potential career springboard for the 33-year-old Greeley Central
High School and University of Tennessee graduate. Yet he is walking away from it after Christmas to become a volunteer — volunteer — track coach at Colorado State and train full-time in the on-campus
Glenn Morris Field House.
goal is to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic team and represent the United States in the decathlon at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
He is not delusional.
He realizes the chances of
him following Glenn Morris’ lead — the one-time CSU student body president and football star from tiny Simla,
who won the decathlon gold at the notorious 1936 Games in Berlin and became a world-wide celebrity — are just about
nil. This is not going to be a Disney movie, ending with Helwick on the top step of the medal stand and wearing the gold around
his neck as tears trickle down his cheeks.
He is doing this because …
Well, because he wants to.
During his career at Greeley Central High School, Chris Helwick breaks from the starting blocks in the 400 meters.
(Photo courtesy Chris Hellwick)
Helwick, the son of one-time Greeley Central principal Jon Helwick, intends to give it one last shot. If he doesn’t,
he’d regret it. He’d always wonder.
“When I retired in 2012, I knew for sure I was done being an athlete,” he told me. “I
was done with competitive sports. I really didn’t think I would be in the arena again. I didn’t want to be a coach,
I didn’t want to be a trainer, anything like that. I was really ready to move on and develop as a human being. I had
been so incredibly focused on athletics my entire life. I was ready to experience some other interests.
“So it is amazing that I’m back doing
this again. On the one hand, it feels a bit crazy to be back in the decathlon at the age of 33. But at the same time, it feels
exactly right. I can’t not do this.”
At Greeley Central, Helwick fit the prototype
of the decathlon man. He was terrific all-around athlete, best known in track and field as a high jumper with the Fosbury
Flop technique down pat, and good enough in all 10 decathlon events to not have an Achilles’ heel. That’s the
formula for decathlon success, and Wildcats track and field coach Marty Neibauer encouraged him to try it. Helwick ended up
at Tennessee in part because it was one of the few schools that treated the indoor heptathlon (seven events) and outdoor decathlon
as an all-in part of the track program.
Chris Helwick runs the high hurdles in the decathlon during his 2004-07 career at the University of Tennessee.
(Photo courtesy Chris Helwick)
During his collegiate career for the Volunteers, Helwick’s top placings were second in the NCAA heptathlon
and decathlon as a junior at the 2006 national meets. After leaving Tennessee, he moved to Winston-Salem, N.C., to train,
managing (barely) to scrape out a living.
“I would work quite a bit in the offseason at a couple of part-time jobs and I would try to save money
so I didn’t need to work as much during the competitive season,” he said. “If there were odd jobs you could
do, I did them. I got some grants from USA Track and Field and I got donations from friends and family that believed in me
and supported what I was doing. That was humbling.”
He was seventh and fifth in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials, respectively, both in “Tracktown”
— Eugene, Ore. — as he came up short of making the three-man U.S. decathlon entry. Americans won the the decathlon
Olympic gold both years, Bryan Clay in 2008 and Ashton Eaton in 2012.
Helwick had planned to retire after the 2012 Trials and stuck to it.
“I had considered hanging
it up the year before,” he said. “I was battling some injuries. I didn’t perform very well. I was 26. At
the end of that (2011) season, I had a heart-to-heart with myself and asked myself, ‘Do you want to do this one more
year?’ I decided I did and I knew going in 2012 was going to be my last season.”
He had started a digital media and advertising business, InSpot
Media, with a partner in Knoxville. He moved back to Knoxville and dived into the business world full-time. Unfulfilled, though,
he soon sold out to his partner and took off – to Adelaide, Australia.
“I just knew that I needed a fresh start, but I wasn’t sure
what else I should do,” he said. “I wanted to go to a place where I didn’t know anybody and see what happened.”
Chris Helwick throws the javelin in the decathlon at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. (Photo courtesy
did freelance copywriting to support himself and decided after a year it was time to come home. At least to the United States.
“I really got a hankering
for something that was familiar again,” he said. “I never expected to move back to Colorado.”
He moved in with his mother in Greeley, thinking
it would be temporary until he found a new career, perhaps in Denver. But the opportunity to do economic development work
for the city came along and he took it.
“That specifically was what I was looking to do,” he said.
Yet the decathlon sirens kept tempting him. He wasn’t seriously
training, but he became obsessed with analyzing his athletic movement, noting he often was asked about his energetic gait.
“I was obsessed with
trying to understand how I moved,” he said.
Soon, he was pondering whether the ultimate exploration of that might be returning to the decathlon.
In this group shot of decathlon competitors at the 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene, the soon-to-retire Chris Helwick
is in white at left. Near him in green is eventual 2012 Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton. Helwick finished fifth in the
trials. (Photo courtesy Chris Helwick)
“Toward the end of my career, I felt incredible pressure to be successful,” he said.
“That really shrouded this love of athletic and physical movement that had always been with me and was an innate part
of who I am. Through the years following my retirement, I got back to it as physical activity. I decided I loved being an
athlete and I loved being athletic. . . I thought, ‘Why not go back to the standard of measurement I was using for a
decade of my life, the decathlon, to compare my current self to my past self.’
“I was like, ‘I know I can be so much better than
I was before.’ I wanted to prove that hypothesis. It was in that moment that I knew I was going to do this.”
His final day on the job will
be Dec. 26, and his training partner at CSU will be former Ram Hunter Price of Arvada.
“This is about more than me doing the decathlon,”
Helwick said. “This is about me, talking about why I’m coming back to the decathlon, and why athletics are so
neat to me, and encouraging others to connect to that love of athletics.”
Chris Helwick will be training in the Glenn Morris Field House at Colorado State University. It’s named
after the former CSU football star and student body president who won the decathlon at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Here,
Morris shows off his gold medal in Denver on the state’s Glenn Morris Day after his return from Europe. The medal is
on display at CSU. ( Terry Frei’s collection.)
If Helwick sticks with this, he will have two competitive seasons leading up
to the 2020 Olympic Trials. He will be 35 at the time of the Summer Games, whether he’s there or not. He likely will
move to Fort Collins to be closer to CSU — that’s yet to be decided — and he again will be seeking sponsors.
“I think I’ve become
the best athlete I’ve ever been so the chances of making the Olympic team are as good now as they’ve ever been,”
he said. “I also have this frame of reference on what I did right, what I did wrong and everything in between. I think
age brings me some maturity and perspective. Track and field athletes can carry their career into their 30s.”
That’s his hope, anyway.
Story on Greeley Tribune site