Helle Frederiksen of Denmark had a hard time outnumbering her maladies with her remarkable successes.
Let's start with the troubles which left physical scars and mental hurdles to overcome. In 2007 she suffered a spinal disc prolapse that left her bedbound and in horrible pain for months while she toughed it out finishing her Master’s Degree dissertation. Long term effect – inflamed nerve issues during heavy training. In 2008 she was diagnosed as a chronic and sport-induced asthmatic which induced a career-long treatment. During the 2009 and 21010 seasons, she had several heavy bike crashes that gave her a chain ring puncture wounds to her neck, lacerations in her forehead and upper lip that required surgery. And then she suffered heavy road rash on her back and coccyx, as well as severe burns dismounting on hot tarmac at a race in Spain. Perhaps worst of all, in 2012 she developed an acute allergenic reaction to birch pollen. That may sound mild, but when combined with her asthma, the effects were brutal. While training for the 2012 Olympics, she developed tremendous amounts of mucus and her diaphragm became incredibly tight and painful. During a morning swim, she developed extreme pain on the left side of her chest and related pain down her arm. Suspecting a heart attack, MRIs revealed she had suffered a rib stress fracture. In 2013 she suffered relapse of her pollen allergy and had to endure.
Frederiksen may surprise, but she embraces her injuries and setbacks as an inextricable component of her wins. “The results are one thing, but the process of overcoming defeats, injuries and major challenges are what really makes big results all the more special," she wrote. "It's been an epic journey filled with the highest of highs and lowest of lows, but I’ve loved every minute of it. If an 11-year career as a world-class athlete has taught me anything it’s that we are capable of things far beyond what many people may believe. Early in my career I was told to stop. I was told to give up on my pursuit and start a family. I never wanted to give up and I never stopped believing in what I was capable of. We should never give up on something we believe in.”
All of which underscores if not outnumbers her triumphs during an 11-year career in international triathlon begun in 2008 and concluding this year.
With her Danish national swim background, Frederiksen started off in Olympic distance and won one ITU World Cup title, 5 European Cup wins, 6 Danish national titles and qualified for the 2012 Olympics but was disappointed with her 27th place finish due to asthma plagued preparation. After switching her focus to the middle distance in 2013 and 2014 and later, Frederiksen won 10 Ironman 70.3 titles. During her peak year of 2014, Frederiksen combined her old short course talents and new 70.3 excellence with $100.000 wins at the Hy-Vee Elite Cup and the half-distance Challenge Bahrain for a $200,000 double for the top women's prize purse for the season. To top it off, Frederiksen set a still standing women’s half-Iron distance record time of 3:55:50 at 2014 Challenge Bahrain – a mark which exceeds Daniela Ryf’s Ironman 70.3 brand mark of 3:57:55 set at Gydnia, Poland.
Since then Frederiksen had several more ups and down – she finished 16h at the Ironman World Championship last year – but saved some of her biggest highlights for last. In 2018, she won the ITU Long Distance World Championship (S 3k / B 120k R 30k) in a home country celebration at Odense, Denmark. And this June, Frederiksen won Ironman 70.3 Kraichgau.
Frederiksen had planned to bid farewell to professional triathlon with a turn at Ironman Copenhagen on August 18, but ironically yet another injury prevented a home country, fairy tale encore. “Some weeks ago, I picked up a stress reaction on my Tibia,” she wrote. “I’d been motivated and dreaming of putting on one final show, it just wasn’t to be. Whilst disappointing, it’s been important for me to look forward. I have no need to persevere on in search of more results. I’m at peace with my accomplishments.”
Frederiksen acknowledges the challenge of giving up, at age 38, the thrills that accompanied 11 years of pursuing perfection and overcoming her illnesses and injuries as a professional triathlete
“Champions rarely rest in our pursuit to become better,” Frederiksen wrote in her farewell address. “When we win, our celebrations are often short lived in favor of new goal setting. When we lose, we drown ourselves in analysis to identify what went wrong and how we won’t lose again. When we fall, we get relentless in our pursuit to rise to the top again. These traits are what contributes to champions becoming champions in the first place. But champions can also struggle to re-identify themselves, we can struggle to move on, and we can be afraid of losing our champion status when it is we hang up our racing suits. This won’t be any different for me, a life without professional racing will take time to adjust to but I feel my accomplishments in sport, the experiences I’ve gained and the feeling I’ve got nothing left to prove, makes me excited for what is now ahead.”
Frederiksen’s first goal will be to fulfill an autobiography book deal for Denmark publisher Linhardt and Ringhof (which incidentally is a European publisher for acclaimed U.S. novelist Lauren Groff, Sarah True’s sister) After that, Frederiksen vows to “give back to the sport and especially to those who have supported my career. I will commence work on my autobiography in the coming weeks, as well as initiatives that will bring me closer to the community that surrounds the sport.”