Helle Frederiksen had a superb 2014 season in which she won $100,000 first place prizes at Hy-Vee and Challenge Bahrain, part of 10 podiums in highly competitive Olympic distance and half Ironman contests.
She had an equally consistent 2013 with 9 podium finishes despite suffering a stress fracture of her T4 rib and a debilitating bout with a pollen allergy. And certainly, 2012 was a triumph of making the Olympic team.
Slowtwitch: Growing up, how did your parents influence you and form your character?
Helle Frederiksen: My parents Ib min Far (my father in Danish) and Bente min Mor (my mother in Danish), raised Claus the oldest, Per the middle and myself the youngest – and we owe a lot to them. I'm the only sports-oriented sibling. Claus works in the Ministry of Taxation and Per is a Director for a major financial investment company. My father is a high-level accountant and his work ethic was immense and taught us what it meant to be disciplined and focused. While his working hours took him away from the home a fair bit, he provided a very stable upbringing for us all whilst min Mor managed well, which taught us to be organized and independent.
ST: What were some of the things you loved to do growing up?
Helle: I loved swimming and physical activity of all kinds. Having two older brothers meant I was more often than not the goalkeeper in their soccer games. Let’s face it, who wants their sister around when you’re trying to impress playing soccer? Per especially was tough on me in all the right aspects. I’m not so coordinated when it comes to sports that involve a ball and many a time I caught the ball in my face. Per taught me to suck it up and get on with it. He really stoked my competitive side.
ST: What led you to swimming?
Helle: My brothers and I had to learn to swim - we lived out by a lake, so my parents wanted us to be safe when playing around the water. I started when I was 5 and took to it quickly.
ST: How good were you?
Helle: I enjoyed it and began swimming competitively. At 12, I was selected to the national team and represented Denmark for 7 years and I won three Danish titles and one silver at the Nordic Championships and represented Denmark at the Junior European Championships.
ST: How did swimming set up your triathlon career?
Helle: My swimming career provided me with a very strong cardiovascular base. It also taught me discipline and the basics of getting out what you put in. During my days as a swimmer, once a year I did a local running race which I sometimes placed first woman overall despite being so young. After I did those 4.2k running races I couldn’t walk for a week. How things have changed! :)
ST: Why did you quit competitive swimming?
Helle: At 18 I wanted to feel young and do the things I had always said no to. So I took a break from swimming when I was 19 and never really started again. I needed new experiences in life. So I took time to backpack the world, then committed fully to education, acquiring a Bachelor Degree in Physical Education & Health and then a Master Degree in Nutrition.
ST: How did you become interested in triathlon?
Helle: I had been out of swimming for four years. I was 23 years old in 2004 and I was studying and earning some money as a spinning instructor. A group of my clients challenged me to take part in a local triathlon called Piger med Power (Girls with Power). I won it, but was not instantly hooked. In 2005, I did a couple races for my university team - Odense Triatlon Klub – but my studies came first.
ST: When did it get serious?
Helle: Not until the winter of 2005-6 when I spent some time in Australia. I lived on the Gold Coast which is the hub of triathlon in Australia, and it sparked my interest. Annabel Luxford was very good to me, taking me in and showing me the ropes. I also remember a very young Ashleigh Gentle was very impressive during some run sessions. When I returned to Denmark in early summer, I became a two-time Danish Elite National Champion and from there my triathlon career just developed.
ST: Have your studies helped your triathlon career?
Helle: My education has played a big role in my performance and development as an athlete. It allowed me to really understand how the body functions, what contributes to physical performance, injury management and the importance of nutrition in everyday life - especially in high performance sports. I also learned physical and mental recovery, mood control and overcoming illness. I am now extremely grateful I can apply it to my career.
ST: When did you to realize you could become a professional?
Helle: In my very first races, I found myself competitive on a national level. This gave me belief I could achieve something - but I wasn't quite sure what. In my first two years – 2005 and 2006 - I was elite national champion at both sprint and Olympic distance and I was profiled by my federation as a hopeful for Beijing Olympic selection. In 2008 and 2009 I won my very first international ITU Premium Cup races and gained confidence I could make a career in this sport.
ST: You’ve coped with several injuries and maladies in your triathlon career. How did they affect your will to succeed?
Helle: I have for sure encountered and overcome my fair share of injuries and maladies. It often surprises people when I say that experience of injury is not always a bad thing. And I stick by that. How I manage and care for my body now is a result of experiencing many injury issues, especially in those early years.
ST: Do you have any permanent conditions?
Helle: In 2008 I was diagnosed as both a chronic and sport-induced asthmatic. I hate it but I have to live with it. It’s common amongst swimmers due to exposure to pool chemicals.
ST: Any crashes and injuries?
Helle: During the 2009 and 2010 race seasons I had some pretty heavy bike crashes. I've received my fair share of wounds - chain ring puncture wounds to my neck, lacerations in my forehead and upper lip that required plastic surgery. And my back and coccyx have suffered heavily with road rash. I also suffered severe blisters – burns really - dismounting on hot tarmac at the ITU European Championships in Spain.
ST: Any close calls?
Helle: In a training ride early in 2012, Ben [Powell, her long-time boyfriend] and I were clipped by a fast-moving SUV. Ben took the brunt of the impact and incredibly, he only suffered a broken elbow. Only a few cm's closer and it would have been a dramatically different story.
ST: What is your most unusual medical issue?
Helle: In 2012 and 2013, I had two reactions to pollen bloom, one of which resulted in a stress fracture of the T4 rib due to excessive breathing and stress on the diaphragm.
ST: What has been your most serious medical issue?
Helle: Perhaps the most significance impact on my career was my spinal discus prolapse of the L5/S1 suffered in 2007. It was agonizing and left me bed bound and finishing my final Master Degree dissertation in horrendous discomfort. It still requires careful, daily management. Occasionally I suffer inflamed nerve issues during heavy training.
ST: How did you deal with it?
Helle: Thankfully I have one of the world's best osteopaths - Claudio Colombi. Claudio has been a massive contributor to overcoming this prolapse and leading me to realize it's never going away - but I can live with it. Claudio taught me that almost all skeletal, structural or muscular problems that deliver pain to the body can and, more often than not, should be fixed with limited, if any, use of medicine. Doctors advised me to have surgery and Claudio has proven over 6 years that it was not necessary. This was a big lesson and has made me incredibly sensitive to modern overuse of medicine - especially cortisone and epidural as a means of tackling inflammation and pain. Claudio taught me that the human body is an incredibly sensitive machine that requires great care in all aspects to achieve longevity within a career and in life.
ST: What have you learned from all this?
Helle: I'm 34 in March and I can get faster and I can be stronger and more tolerant of higher training loads. Physically I feel like I am 24 ;-) I thank Claudio for this. Overcoming all of the above makes you strong, but I could never do it without the support of loved ones, close friends and medical experts. The physiological and psychological traumas I’ve suffered make you question if this is all worth it, make you appreciate good health and make you really aware of just what the body is capable of and what are the best practices to recover and make it strong. During my ITU years, my parents feared that this sport could cripple me or worse. All sports that require pushing the boundaries of the human body have this risk.
ST: Denmark is a small country but produced many excellent triathletes including Susanne Nielsen, Peter Sandvang, Torbjorn Sindballe, Rasmus Henning, Lisbeth Kristensen, Camilla Pedersen, Michelle Vesterby, Jimmy Johnsen, Martin Jensen, Rasmus Petraeus - and you. Why?
Helle: Denmark is an incredibly active nation. Cycling is a big part of the nation’s infrastructure and swimming is an integral part of the school education program. Sport as a whole is really embraced by the nation. We are a health-driven country and I this contributes heavily to our international triathlon success. Also Michael Krüger has had a big effect on Danish Triathlon. Of the names you mentioned, Michael personally coached at least 7 of the 10.
ST: Why did you choose to work with him?
Helle: When I joined the national team Michael was the head coach and he was hugely influential in the early stages of my career. Michael knew I had the engine and natural technique that could make me a fast runner and strong cyclist. He didn’t focus much on technique, but taught me how to ride well on a road bike, how to transition and how to position myself in bike packs. Having Rasmus Henning, Torbjørn Sindballe and Jimmy Johnsen on the national team helped me learn a lot and learn fast. I couldn't have asked for a better learning environment.
ST: Which Danish triathletes do you know best?
Helle: I have especially good relations with Michelle, Torbjørn and Rasmus. Michelle is on a friendship basis whilst Torbjørn and Rasmus have provided guidance and are role models. Torbjørn has been especially supportive guiding me as I moved outside the federation.
ST: What were your triathlon breakthroughs?
Helle: In 2006 I was thrown in at the deep end. Many people start doing local sprint triathlons or a splash ’n’ dash, but my first triathlon race experiences were ITU Premium and World Cup events. I was profiled as a potential Beijing Olympic Olympian, so this was necessary to stand a chance of qualification. It was a harsh environment to learn the basics but I am thankful for it. When I competing at international ITU races in 2008 and 2009, my 2nd place at the 2009 ITU World Cup in Huatulco was my standout performance. In my Ironman 70.3 debut in San Juan in 2013, I had been on a time trial bike just 3 months and I’d never run 21.1km. That race and that win ultimately committed me to being the best half distance athlete I can be.
ST: Your career rise has been slow and steady – true?
Helle: Absolutely. I have embraced the concept “10,000 hours to perfect a craft.” Hidden in that saying are patience, perseverance and dedication. It doesn't say if you hit that 10,000 hour mark you will be a world champion. But it does say that good things take time. When I declined to pursue my PhD in 2008 to become a professional, it was an open ended commitment to see where it would take me. In my career, there were many signs that success at the highest level was possible. There were other times when I felt like moving on. But I knew I had not put in my 10,000 hours so I could not satisfyingly call it a day. I learned to be patient and seek longevity and consistency.
ST: Why did you leave Michael Krüger?
Helle: By late 2011, Michael had taken me as far as he could. I was not performing to the level I was capable of. Initially I couldn't see that I needed a change and I was starting to accept that like swimming, triathlon wasn’t to be. Also I was afraid of upsetting Michael. I hate conflict of any kind and Michael and I were very close. He is an amazingly generous person, a great coach for the right profiles and had done a lot for me in and outside of the sport. Plus the Olympics were coming soon. If not for Ben’s expertise, persistence and support, I don't know if I would have made the switch.
ST: Why did you choose Joel Filliol?
Helle: Immediately after the 2011 Beijing ITU World Championships, Ben strongly communicated that things needed to change. I had DNF’d in the race and was on the brink of quitting. We had been through so much and it was becoming very tiring and stressful. After my flight home from Beijing, Ben felt Joel was a good fit and a Skype call to Joel gave me an incredible feeling that my ‘fight’ was not lost. Joel was excited about the prospect of working together, saw subtle changes that were needed and had approaches that intrigued me. Without his input, it’s hard to imagine my career coming as far as it has.
ST: Approaching the 2012 Olympics, how close were your run splits to the best?
Helle: Before London I always knew that if you could run 34 flat for 10k and combine that with a swim and bike that put you near the front, you had a chance to win a World Championship or Olympics. I also know getting down to 34:00 for 10km puts a massive strain on the system. ITU athletes carry a much higher risk of injury due to the intensity of run training. In 2010 I ran my PR 10km of 34:54 in at Tiszaujvaros. So theoretically I knew I wasn't far from the likes of Spirig, Moffatt, Snowsill and Norden.
ST: What were you aiming at in the Olympics?
Helle: Growing up I told myself I would be satisfied just getting into an Olympics. As my performances developed, I knew just starting an Olympics wouldn’t be satisfactory. I'd shown glimpses of my potential, but never achieved the complete swim, bike, run package. I vividly remember Joel Filliol told me that my times in training early in 2012 were achievable by no more than a dozen females. So I felt a top 10 was realistic.
ST: At London, many great triathletes had sub-par performances. Your 35:09 run was 1:28 slower than the medal winners and you finished 27th. Was that the best you can do?
Helle: My performance was not satisfying, but it was the best I had. I raced hard from start to finish so I have no regrets in that aspect. I know that on another day under another set of circumstances my run could have taken me into the top 10. But that is the beauty, or evil, of ITU racing. One element can be the difference between a good race and a bad one. The swim in London was brutal. From the start to the 1km point it was just a washing machine. I finally gained clear water and made a big effort to catch the front group entering T1. But by that time I was physically spent.
ST: Did London make you think you might never run fast enough to make an ITU World Championship or Olympic podium?
Helle: I always felt that one day, through perseverance and consistency, I could. Along the way, I was discouraged by many sub-par performances and many uncontrollable factors. Crashes also had a big psychological effect on my ITU races in the later years. Specifically after my 2010 Madrid ITU crash [in which she suffered a hip and back injury and a relapse of her 2007 spinal disc prolapse] I never fully recovered psychologically.
ST: After the Olympics, did you think your future would be in longer distances?
Helle: I didn’t envisage a future in longer distance racing in 2013. I planned for another Olympic campaign, but I knew in my heart there would be tough financial and psychological demands and I had to confront the fact that I was always struggling to show what I could do. Joel, Ben and I planned that 2013 was to be a year of some experimenting with some non-draft races and one half-distance triathlon. I was anticipating racing the ITU World Triathlon Series. But in February, the Danish Triathlon Federation announced they would allocate heavier financial support for athletes pursuing the Ironman championships. Most successful ITU member nations provide little to no funding for Ironman events. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to step away from the national funding program and finance my own career.
ST: How did your allergic reactions to pollen affect you?
Helle: They were agonizing. In the spring of 2012, I flew to Australia and Israel before returning home. The day I returned to Denmark was the highest recorded birch pollen bloom. I took no notice as I was not aware I was allergic. But in the following weeks, training was hugely stressful. Back in 2008 I was diagnosed as an asthmatic. So despite the breathing restrictions and tightness in the diaphragm, we believed it was asthma and thought it would subside over time. The London Olympics were fast approaching and as my training intensity ramped up, I was developing a substantial amount of mucus during hard sessions. As the days progressed, my diaphragm became incredibly tight and painful. During a morning swim session I had extreme pain on the left side of my chest. Stubbornly I completed the session. That afternoon, the pain in my chest was unbearable. I feared it was something with my heart because I had related pain down my arms. We rushed to the hospital for scans and doctors told me I was suffering a stress fracture of my T4 rib - a result of overuse of the diaphragm. The weeks that followed were horrendous. Tests showed I had become allergic to birch pollen.
ST: You recovered well enough to make the Olympic triathlon, and it seems you had an excellent start to the 2013 season.
Helle: The start to 2013 was very reassuring. I got a 2nd at ITU Clermont, a win and course record at my first Ironman 70.3 in San Juan, followed by a win in my first non-draft Olympic distance race at Life Time Tri in South Beach. I wasn’t in better shape than the Olympics but I was fresher mentally and feeling far more robust – a feeling I had lost touch of.
ST: Tell us about your second pollen allergy incident in mid-2013?
Helle: Just like 2012, it hurt me a lot. Instances like this don't just hurt physically but they shatter you mentally. For a few weeks, it was the worst of times. But ultimately they are bumps that need to be overcome to become successful. I know this now, but wow have I had some shit to overcome. It just comes with being an athlete pushing the human body to its boundaries. After the stress and uncertainty I went through to step away from the federation, it was a special feeling to finally hit winning form. But then getting knocked down was incredibly tough. Perhaps I was a naïve in not being more cautious. But I had made a commitment with Rev 3 and I flew to Knoxville for my first race with them. When we landed it was clear I was having an attack similar to 2012. Ben and I stayed one night to see if it would subside. But when I woke up the pain and pressure on my diaphragm was insane and we drive home immediately. We shut off all outside air circulation in the car to avoid contact with airborne pollen allergens. The coming months were even more exhausting than 2012.
ST: How did you recover?
Helle: I went through the same blood tests and we were dumfounded they came back negative for any allergies. Doctors could offer no real explanation. All we know is I won't be racing or training in areas high in pollen bloom. While there were no signs of allergy, I had all the physical signs of an asthmatic reaction.
ST: How did you finish the 2013 season with so many Life Time Fitness podiums?
Helle: I lost a lot of training time, but I had a large aerobic base. And I am fortunate that I don’t fluctuate massively in weight and I maintain a healthy eating pattern year round. Before long, I found my training rhythm again and I raced at Rev3 Wisconsin Dells. Doctors said it was amazing I was back racing so soon.
ST: What did these episodes teach you?
Helle: They taught me that if you put your mind to it you can come back. The body can always get stronger and, if you really want it, you can be more successful post injury than pre injury. The human body is an incredible machine that really does need to be listened to and respected.
ST: You started off 2014 with many second place finishes – to Heather Wurtele, Sarah Haskins and to Melissa Hauschildt. Were you discouraged?
Helle: Absolutely not. If my best delivers me a 2nd behind those ladies, you will rarely hear me say I’m disappointed. Maybe don't ask me immediately after crossing the line;). Of course I am always chasing the win. It is frustrating when your fitness is not in the same place as your head. But ultimately that is part of the build towards major wins.
ST: Did chasing those women make you better?
Helle: Defeat is needed in sport. It shapes us, it allows us to get better and yes, chasing those that are victorious is a mechanism for improving. Every race in 2014 I learnt something, whether it be how my competitors race, nutrition requirements of my own body, how hard I can actually ride for 90km or how hard I can run for 21.1km. I will continue to be defeated on the odd occasion and I will always learn from it.
ST: Why did you race Olympic distance Hy-Vee the week before Ironman 70.3 Worlds?
Helle: With Ironman 70.3 Racine the exception, I won every half distance event I competed in after an Olympic distance the week before. My history shows I can perform at my best at an Olympic distance one week prior to performing at my maximal over the half distance. It made perfect sense to continue what had worked so well. Plus I have always wanted to race Hy-Vee – it is such an iconic race in our sport’s history.
ST: At Hy-Vee your swim gave you a lead on Alicia Kaye and Jodie Swallow and your race-best run finished them off. Was this a breakthrough?
Helle: I think it was more the case that I was conditioned to run at my best off of a red-lining 40km bike effort. In almost all my 2014 races prior to Hy-Vee, I had not hit my peak run shape. I'm very fortunate that I can put out high end paces required in ITU racing. To win Hy-Vee I needed to access this speed. We had worked on that speed more so for 70.3 Worlds.
ST: You wrote a heartfelt blog post about your anguished reaction to your red flag at 70.3 Worlds. Why did this drafting penalty pain you so much?
Helle: I find it helps a lot to put a situation behind you to write openly with emotion. It's tough to communicate why I felt so strongly about getting that penalty. I was inside 12 meters and rules are rules. On that basis, yes it was deserved. But I think the context of the situation was not considered. If it was, the penalty wasn’t deserved. It says a lot when fellow racers in that bike pack express their disappointment that I was penalized. For almost the entire ride, our lead pack was followed closely. Many times some of us were communicating with the draft marshals to ensure we were at legal distance. A lapse in concentration and in an effort to get as aero as possible through a narrow, winding section, I slipped into Jodie's 12-meter zone for a split moment. All five of us in that leading group were on our rivet. When I was given the red card, it pained me so much – it crippled me. Honestly it just shattered me and I couldn't think rationally. I had trained to be up there with the best and challenging for a world title. I was in the mix preparing for a 21.1km battle. Then, something external took that opportunity away. [Frederiksen DNF’d the run]
ST: What did you take away from that experience?
Helle: I had let myself down and it was not the way I wanted to reward all those who commit to my career. It certainly fired me up for Bahrain. I had a point to prove and I wanted to redeem myself.
ST: Last year, all your 10k run splits were around 35-flat and your 70.3 run splits were right at 1:25 - until Bahrain. Was your race-best 1:17 run split there a breakthrough?
Helle: Finally I showed the run I was capable of. I'm still very ‘young’ in this half distance game. There was not one 70.3 race prior to Bahrain where I ran really well. In all those races, I suffered in some way, whether it was cramps, low nutritional intake or too conservative pacing. Past injuries and the fact that I am a low volume runner have limited my runs. Rarely do I get more than 4 hours a week. Joel and I know that over time I can regularly handle up to 6 hours of running a week. Then a run like Bahrain can become the norm.
ST: Did it surprise you?
Helle: Honestly the 1:17 did surprise me. I knew I was ready to run fast but perhaps not quite ready to run 1:17. Yes I felt I had it in me. In coming years even faster run times will become the norm.
ST: While you regret your day at Mt. Tremblant, what do winning two $100,000 first places mean?
Helle: It was a season that any triathlete would be content to have once in their career. I'd like to think it ranks highly in the bigger picture of the sport. It’s been really encouraging that sponsors have really stepped up and viewed it as equal to a win at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships. More than the money, I'm so happy that I have been able to show the world and all my supporters what I can do.
ST: Did you think you could do it?
Helle: I remember very clearly Ben and I were talking on a training run for Hy-Vee. We both said “Can you imagine if we win it?” Then we changed the subject, not tempting fate. The same thing happened on a training run before Bahrain. We were discussing the race and the same question came up. “Can you imagine we won the double?!” We just daydreamed in silence, then talked about something else.
ST: Why is it that you Danes – Rasmus Henning with two Hy-Vee wins and you with your $100,000 double - are clutch performers in big money races?
Helle: Mr. Henning is a clutch performer, more so than myself. I mean 2014 was the only year where I hit it big. But 2014 was also the only year I was on the start line of a big money race. Don't get me wrong, we all appreciate money coming into this sport. That aside, I live to race the biggest races in the world. I want to be a recognized champion, not by chance but because I trained and committed myself to getting to the top.
ST: What are your goals for 2015?
Helle: I will start with Challenge Dubai at the end of February. I'm really excited for what this new Challenge Triple Crown series will do for the professional arm of our sport. Afterwards, I’ll head over to the U.S. which will be my primary base. My focus will be on hitting top form at all Challenge Triple Crown races, Ironman 70.3 Worlds and hopefully Hy-Vee.
ST: Do you anticipate a step up in distance?
Helle: I will not sacrifice my performance at half distance events by stepping up. I’m only in my third full season of non-draft racing. It just wouldn't make sense. Full distance events do not complement half distance performances the way Olympic distance racing does.
ST: How much has your fiancé Ben Powell contributed to your success?
Helle: It is simply immeasurable. He is the man happy staying in the background, relentlessly making sure everything is as it should be. He is involved in all my planning, preparations, decision making, racing and everyday life. He manages me and all of this alongside his own full-time work. Most important, nobody understands me the way he does. He is able to make decisions and steer the ship in a way I wouldn't be able to do by myself. Every success I have in this sport is something we share equally. Me racing is Ben racing. I am very grateful and blessed to have him in my life.