Never, Ever Give Up?: A memoir by John Hellemans

This is not a grand book. No swashbuckling themes. No pearl of wisdom that will unleash the potential hidden inside you. It’s a memoir. Why should you – why did I – spend precious hours on this man’s personal history?

I had a reason. Those whose tenures in triathlon arc back to the sport’s beginning remember the stories of mystery men. The Beast from the East. The Russian. Unvetted mythology hitting us like space radiation, shriveling our manhood. And, this fellow from New Zealand, with the Dutch last name, who seemed always to do better than he should, especially as he aged. He raced better at 40 than 40-year-olds. Better at 44 than 44-year-olds. And, he was – we heard – Erin Baker’s coach, and Erin was at that time the greatest all-distance, all-around athlete in the women’s field (not many men could beat her).

Who was this guy, who could make both himself and Erin better than anyone in the competitive set of each? So I got John Hellemans’ book, and it became one of my Bathtub Books.

I’m a Kindle reader. My nightstand is no longer set up with lighting and paraphernalia optimized for physical books. After a workout, my habit is to draw a hot bath and soak. I’ve always got 2 books in process: my Kindle book at my nightstand, and my physical, paper Bathtub Book. It’s a good book if the hot water’s gone and I’m still turning those pages as I’m starting to freeze. The quality of the book is judged by the temperature of the water when I exit the tub. Never, Ever Give Up? is about an 88° book; pretty good; the enjoyment of reading was inversely proportioned to relatively cool exit water (85° means Pulitzer-worthy).

But I had a problem with the title of the book. I didn’t care for the title.

John Hellemans grew up in the Netherlands, became a medical doctor, emigrated to New Zealand, and after picking up triathlon very early he experimented with Erin – “She became my guinea pig” – using techniques popularized by legendary New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard. When Erin liked and responded positively to workouts, “I put it into my own training programme.”

John wrote transparently about his relationship with his parents – in particular with his father, also a medical doctor, but with whom John did not share sensibilities that governed his personal, political and professional behavior. In his book – I don’t have the passage flagged – John describes the dichotomous Dutch, who wrestle with their conservative, Calvinist outlook juxtaposed with a liberal approach to public life. While John paints a picture of himself as a mainstream family man, he was clearly skin-sensitive to his father’s (quite Calvinist!) worldview. Later in the book, when John talks about his years coaching the Dutch national team, I suspect he felt a little the way his father, and fathers in general, feel toward the next generation. All good stuff.

But I had trouble with the book’s title. Why the question mark at the end?

One thing I always find interesting is one athlete’s view of how another athlete must be racing. As in, an athlete who sees a gaggle of riders a quarter-mile up the road and believes he’s spectating drafting when it’s simply impossible to do so. John wrote that Erin had to contend with “Paula’s protection squad,” consisting of Paul Huddle (he and Paula eventually married and are married today), and Mark Montgomery (Monty on our Reader Forum!). “They were known to form a protective shield around here during the swim and early part of the bike. This irked Erin greatly, but it was within the rules.”

Let’s look at some history. Paul Huddle was 7th in Kona in 1990 and 1992, and 6th in 1993. Only in that 1993 race did he and Paula swim similar splits. In 1990 Paula swam more than 3 minutes slower than Paul, and in 1992 the two were separated by more than a minute. It seems to me Paul was swimming his own swim, and from there on obviously racing his own race, as he finished well in front of Paula.

As for Monty, neither Paul nor Paula were ever in Monty’s class as a swimmer. Monty was never a breakaway swimmer – like Wolfgang Dittrich – but reliably out with the lead pack in Kona (usually around 51 minutes). So, no, Monty never swam anywhere around Paula. Yes, Monty knew that Paula would eventually catch him, and she always did. Every year he tried to ride her pace and every year he did. To his detriment.

After 6 or 8 times Monty finally realized even that pace was still too hot for him as, indeed – and ironically – both John Hellemans and Mark Montgomery were confirmed International Distance specialists.

Did I mention that I didn’t like the title of John Hellemans’ book?

John was an athlete, and a coach, while holding down his day job as doctor. Probably too much on his plate. John and I both suffer from over-committing. He gave Ironman one last try recently, while in his 60s, with the blow-by-blow, and things come together by the end of John's book.

If you read this book, hang in. By the end, the title... makes perfect sense!

When you read this book, two things may cause those with hair outrage triggers to jump out of their chairs. First, John talks about the dynamics of teams (he was the high performance coach at various times for both New Zealand and the Netherlands) and John bifurcates the group dynamic by gender. John describes how, in his experience, the genders differ as regards team enclave training dynamics. My takeaway from John's recollections: Men and women are equal; but they are not identical.

Secondly, John describes both times he got popped for drafting. He describes what went through his mind. In one case, if I understood right, he felt his infraction was unwarranted. In the second, warranted. I found those passages illuminating, and the transparency fascinating.

If you look back through the Slowtwitch archives, it's notable how often you see this fellow's name coming up. When we talk to Gordo Byrn, up comes John Hellemans. First name out of Brett Sutton's mouth when you ask him what coaches he admires, John Hellemans. When you talk to Erin Baker, Scott Molina, people whose opinions carry weight with me, this man's name is offered. If you want to know what the front of the sport looked like during the sport's formative generation, and whose advice was revered among most of the sport's first generation of superstar athletes, here you go.

Never, Every Give Up? is 240 pages, paperback, 6" x 9" with numerous period photos, from Canterbury University Press, US$26.95, first published in November, 2018.