Tom Helpenstell - All-American Diver Turned Orthopaedic Surgeon
Since he was a young boy, Tom Helpenstell knew he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps as an orthopaedic surgeon. Knowing this, he chose a Division III school to compete in diving so he could focus on getting into medical school, even though he was offered a spot in a Division I program. In his transition out of diving, he used triathlons and other outdoor endurance activities as an outlet in med school - which carries forward today as an Ironman athlete and avid mountain climber.
Biggest Sport Honor/Athletic Accomplishment: Winning NCAA Division III Nationals
Where Played: Nampa High School in Idaho; Grinnell College (NCAA Division III)
College & Degree: Bachelor of Arts at Grinnell College; Medical Degree from University of Washington School of Medicine; Internship at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle; Residency at University of New Mexico Hospitals, Sports Medicine Fellowship in Eugene Oregon, Foot and Ankle Fellowship at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor?
I knew I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon from 5th grade because “my dad did it”, and everyone wants to do what their dad does. I knew I needed to get out of Idaho to go to school, because otherwise I would have skied every day and probably flunked out of college. I happened to go back with my parents to a college reunion when I was in high school, and Grinnell College had built a brand new swim and dive complex. I met coach Obermiller and I was convinced that this was the right college for me. I was accepted early, committed, and never applied anywhere else. I knew it would be a good avenue to get into medical school.
Did you ever consider going Division I?
Later I was pushed to go to a Division I school after attending a diving camp run by Bob Clotworthy (Olympic gold medalist, 1956), and for a brief period I waivered a little. But I didn’t like the pressure of Division I, and I also didn’t want to attend a huge school. He said I wouldn’t be an Olympian, but could be top 12 in the country. I’m glad I chose the path I did. I won nationals in 1980 on the 1 meter, and was also five-time All-American; but more importantly, I focused and got in to medical school, and probably wouldn’t have if I went to a Division I school.
How old were you when you started playing sports or exercising?
When I was young I tried some sports like little league and wrestling, but wasn’t really good at those sports. I even tried football (for one day). But when I was in 6th or 7th grade, I tried diving lessons with the local lifeguard, and really got into it. At the time there wasn’t a team to join, so I got a group of kids together and I coached us through AAU and into high school. We went to local and state meets, and made it to the regional AAU championships in Albuquerque (that’s when I first met Greg Louganis). Diving wasn’t a popular sport at the time, and I ended up winning the State Diving Meet every year.
I was also involved in the amateur freestyle skiing circuit in high school, as well as a gymnastics team in Boise. I didn’t compete seriously in gymnastics, but rather saw it as a way to train for diving. In the summer I saved money and bought my own trampoline to practice flips, and in the winter I would do them on the skis. I traveled through Idaho and Utah to compete as an amateur in that.
Did you have support from friends and family throughout your journey?
Absolutely. When I was coaching through high school and college (I coached the high school team when I returned from college as well), my mom was the driver. She would load up her suburban with all of us on the team and drive around Idaho to different diving meets. She would also film me diving with a Super 8 camera, and we would have to wait a week to watch and see what I was doing wrong.
How do you view your health throughout your athletic career?
I’ve been very fortunate—I’ve felt healthy for my whole life. When I lived in Seattle in the early 1990s, we lived in an old house where I developed some sort of breathing problem that affected me for a year. When I moved to Olympia it went away. I’ve had sprained ankles and a broken wrist, but all minor and temporary. No other injuries or illnesses.
Who was your favorite coach, and what qualities did your favorite coach have?
Ray Obermiller, my college coach, was my favorite by far. He was incredibly supportive as a mentor and helping me become not just a better diver, but better student and better person. He was far beyond just a coach.
What issues did you have with your least favorite coach?
When we were in high school, Mom was always looking for an adult coach. We had a guy show up who was an alcoholic who would show up drunk or hung over in the mornings. He coached us for a summer. He was nice enough, but it wasn’t a good experience.
We had another guy who was a pathological liar, and good at it. He showed up on the scene and, faking a British accent, said he was an Olympic champion from the 1968 Mexico City games, and that he grew up in a castle. He also said he was a concert pianist. He even came to our house and could play the piano a little bit. He would never get on the board and show us how to dive, but he would coach from the side. We thought he was the coolest. He disappeared before state and we never heard from him again. Turns out he was an employee at Simplot potato company in Boise and had come up with this whole story. He would work at Simplot by day and would come out and be our English royalty coach in the afternoon. It was a fun summer, we all laughed about it. It was harmless.
Were you ever provided with nutritional information during your athletic career (childhood, high school, college)?
No. I read a fair amount on my own. My dad did a lot of running and was interested in nutrition, so I read some of his books. I remember one called “Food For Sport” in 70s and 80s, and I think it was a pretty new topic. People weren’t really writing about sports nutrition much. Over the years I’ve read a lot out of triathlete magazines. I’m not very knowledgeable on the nutrition. I‘ve always felt like the carb approach worked for me, and have used traditional sports gels/bars during long workouts and races. I’m intrigued now about the ketogenic diet and am interested in learning more about that. I believe it makes a lot more sense to train your body to burn fat and not rely on sugar/carbs.
Were you ever provided with exercise information, other than for your sport, during your athletic career (childhood, high school, college)?
Not really. I remember there was a stretching book that was big back then. I was very interested in stretching, especially with diving because you have to be so flexible. I bought my own books on diving and skiing, and I remember buying Jeff Galloway’s book on marathon training back in the 80s.
Do you feel like this information helped you after you finished competing in your sport?
Yes, although I’m not as consistent in stretching now and I try to take time to do that. I sometimes stretch while reading and eating.
How was your transition out of your time at Grinnell, and out of diving?
I was burned out on competing, but continued to dive on my own in medical school. That’s also when I got into running and triathlons at a non-competitive level. I always exercised, and I realized I liked long-distance running. It was also a nice outlet for me in medical school.
Then I got away from diving (residency was very time-consuming) until I moved to Olympia and co-coached Capitol High School and Olympia High School, and then Evergreen State College students as well (1996-2000). It was a really fun experience.
How do you feel about your sport now?
I love it. I think getting into medical school is very hard because there are plenty of students who have 4.0 grade point averages and are qualified academically, but what medical schools want to see is people who have done something outside of class work. I think I’m in my career now because of diving.
Now I’m active for personal enjoyment. I have little competitiveness in me at this point. I like to push myself, and enjoy seeing how fast I can finish a run or race, but more importantly I want to keep doing this for a long time, so I don’t want to push so hard that I’m injured. When something starts hurting, I change what I’m doing, or stop and walk for awhile. I’m in it for the long-haul.
How do you feel about your health now?
Almost every day I can’t believe I’m still doing what I do. People come to me at work and complain they are too old, and they are only in their 40s. I feel healthier and stronger as an athlete now than I did in college. In college I was more powerful for diving, using fast twitch muscles back then, but I could never exercise for 10-15 hours at a time as a college kid. I’m now able to enjoy 50k runs and full Ironman triathlons (and I’m comfortable while I’m doing them).
What is your current exercise regiment? Are there any activities you can no longer do?
I can’t do back flips on skis any more. I don’t think about diving any more. As I’ve gotten older, it’s a sad thought to think I’ll never be able to do what I could do when I was younger. For me, doing the hard dives (back and reverse 2 ½, front 3 ½)…., yes, I would love to be able to do that again. I loved the feeling of doing handstands on a 10-meter platform and looking down to the water 33 feet below and then doing flips on the way down. I wouldn’t even jump off that platform now.
I also really try to avoid running on hard surfaces. I do a lot of treadmill workouts and trail runs. I have my flat screen TV and I’ll get 10 miles in while watching YouTube trail running or triathlon videos or people running across the Grand Canyon. I don’t like to run on a treadmill in a gym with headphones, but I’ve learned a lot about running across the Grand Canyon from watching those guys. I ran a 50 Kilometer run around Mount St. Helens last July, and a 50 Kilometer Gorge Waterfall run in Oregon the prior year. I knew a lot about those courses because of the videos I’ve watched while training. I ran the Grand Canyon Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim after watching a Youtube video about doing it. Those are the things I watch that give me ideas and keep me motivated.
Can you tell me about your mountain climbing goals?
I would like to climb some of the seven summits (the highest peaks of the seven continents). I have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mount Elbrus in Russia. My goals are to climb Aconcagua in South America, Denali in Alaska, and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. I know I don’t want to do Everest. I have climbed Mount Rainier seven times, this year will be the eighth.
How would you describe your current diet?
I think I eat very healthy. Most of my dinners I make at home are on the wok and start with olive oil and garlic, onions, and veggies. I don’t eat much meat, and no red meat unless I’m at someone’s house and they’ve offered it. I’m not very good at having breakfast. My food throughout the day is a little unpredictable. I don’t have dessert ever – I don’t miss that stuff.
Do you include anything in your routine for “mental” health? (i.e. meditation, affirmations, playing logic games)
I think that comes with the workouts. I meditate while I am swimming around my lake. In college I did more regular meditation/visualization. Mostly now I do stretching, sit quietly and think things through. I suppose it’s a bit like meditating, but very unstructured. Diving required much more mental focus.
Do you feel like your job allows you to have a good work/life balance?
My work/life balance was awful from the beginning of residency until about five years ago. I got way too little sleep. In residency, I was often working 120 hours per week, and unfortunately got addicted to that feeling of being completely exhausted. I know it’s not healthy, but I could work Friday morning to Monday night with barely any sleep, and I loved it. It carried over a lot to my job in Olympia until five years ago. I would get into work kicks where I would be on-call all weekend, then work week after week with little time at home. It’s like a runners high, but it meant I didn’t work out enough or sleep enough, and I didn’t like that imbalance. Fortunately our orthopedic group added more doctors and things changed in my life, so I feel like I have a better balance now. I’ve changed my schedule now to go in later so I get a workout in the morning routinely and I’m not on-call as often.
Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself as a young athlete, or that you would want to share with other young athletes?
Don’t give up. Never ever quit.