Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re walking forward, intent on where you’re going, eyes trained on something in the distance, and suddenly you walk smack into a glass panel or a screen door, and down you go? You’re flattened to the ground, dizzy and maybe in a little bit (or a lot) of pain?
That’s how six-time All-American runner and former Nike pro-athlete Kristin Ihle Helledy describes one of the most pivotal moments in her career. It was her first time qualifying for cross country nationals. She had transferred to ND State University the year prior as a junior, and with her new coach developed a strategy that now had her looking at a top five finish with 1,000 meters to go.
“It was rainy and muddy from cleats pounding on the surface and tearing it up. I was focused on the final segment of the race and keeping my spot in the top five or even moving up when a competitor tripped me from behind. I fell on my face and proceeded to get trampled on by a bunch of the runners behind me. All I remember is getting up and feeling like I was carrying 10 refrigerators strapped to my legs. But I got up and ran as hard and as fast as I could.”
She crossed the finish line. Her legs were full of blood. She was angry. She felt humiliated. And then she saw her coach.
“My coach was jumping for joy because when I crossed the finish line, I earned the last all-American spot.”
It would be the first of six all-American distinctions she would earn over the course of the next 18 months. For Ihle, it validated yet again the importance in finding strength in adversity.
Ihle’s collegiate career had started in a wholly different direction, about 1,700 miles southeast of Fargo N.D. in Gainesville, Fla. As a senior in high school, after a coincidentally similar (yet different) race in which Ihle fell down at the end of a race (no one tripped her that time), Ihle found herself being recruited by the well-respected training genius and Olympic coach Lyle Knudson, who was also the head Women’s cross country and track coach for the University of Florida.
“Lyle saw me fall and he came up to me after the race and said ‘I don’t recruit the girls who finish in the top five. I want someone who falls down, and gets back up.’ That forever changed my outlook, not just with running, but across my life.”
Ihle didn’t know a lot about Knudson, but what she did know compelled her to want to train with him. “I knew that he took athletes who were good athletes, but maybe not the top three or five in the country. I thought to myself, ‘if he can take girls who ran slower than I did in high school and they become collegiate all-Americans, I definitely want to be a part of that. He coached international teams and too many All Americans and Olympians to count.’”
Ihle signed on with the University of Florida and spent the summer between high school and college training under Lyle’s program. It was different from anything she had done before. It was different and it was difficult. But she was focused and committed.
Until about a month before she was set to leave for Florida.
“I got a letter that said that Lyle Knudson had been let go. I didn’t know anything more than that. We didn’t have email and social media to track him down and figure out what was going on. So, I had a choice to make. And I decided to keep my commitment to the University of Florida.”
Helledy would stay with the University of Florida for two years. She always scored for the team. She set personal records. She qualified for SECs. She worked with the team’s sports psychologist to better understand the mental game and how it plays into performance.
“I was generally happy with college life. I was generally ok with the training. And then came the injury.”
At the end of her second cross country season she started having pain in her foot. She powered on and ran some track meets, which would unfortunately impact her eligibility in her fifth year. “We finally got the diagnosis right, after I had been competing on it for months, and I found out I had broken my navicular. I was in a cast and I was done competing. Somewhere during that timeframe, I started having second thoughts about whether the University of Florida was the right fit for me.”
Ihle talked with her coach, and she really took her time researching and looking for the right program for her. “I looked at Division II programs that were solid nationally and that competed in the Division I meets, because that’s what I really wanted. I found North Dakota State University. Let me tell you, Fargo is a far cry from Gainesville Fla., but I really found a home there. The primary adjustment was really the winter weather.”
The rest, you could say, is history. Ihle went on to earn six All-Americans – one in cross country, one in indoor track and four in outdoor track.
“That first All-American in cross country, when I was tripped, that was a turning point for me. Every single one was special, but that one was particularly remarkable. All of a sudden I was at that premier level. And what I’m really proud of is the fact that I didn’t lose myself in the process.”