Chris Helwick still hopes Olympic dreams come true in 2020

Connor Kane

At one point, Chris Helwick thought of his job as an economic developer for the city of Greeley as a lifetime career. But after years of reflection, the 34-year-old retired decathlete quit and moved to Fort Collins to be a volunteer track coach at Colorado State University.

This was just the start of his comeback journey to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. After missing the 2008 and 2012 Olympics by just a few spots, Helwick thought his time was up.

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But by 2018, Helwick’s dream of becoming an Olympian was more prevalent than ever, and there was no way that he couldn’t give it one more chance. Delusional? Maybe. Or maybe it was just pure determination.

Helwick’s journey began when he met the Greeley Central High Wildcats track and field coach, Marty Neibauer.

“He was always looking for athletes who he could usher into the decathlon just because he loved it so much,” Helwick said. “He was a big influence on me. He was really the reason I got into it. My high school coach was very instrumental in all of that. His foresight to see that I had the potential to be a decathlete was huge because I didn’t know much about it.”

man at a track
Chris Helwick practices at the Jack Christiansen Memorial Track at Colorado State University. (Matt Begeman | The Collegian)

Although the decathlon is not highly contested in Colorado high school track and field, Neibauer got him to compete in decathlons around the country between his junior and senior seasons at Greeley Central High.

This is what put Helwick on collegiate coaches’ radar. Helwick was still a very decorated athlete. He was a seven-time All-American while attending the University of Tennessee, won the SEC Championship three times and was a school record holder in the indoor heptathlon.

“As great of an experience as I had in Tennessee, sometimes we need a new environment and new stimulus to foster further growth,” Helwick said. “I needed new challenges, new coaching cues and ultimately to feel that (uncomfortable) again.”

He competed in two Olympic trials, one in 2008 and the other in 2012. Respectively, Helwick placed seventh and fifth but ultimately did not qualify for the three-man U.S. decathlon entry. Americans ended up winning the gold both years: Bryan Clay in 2008 and Ashton Eaton in 2012.

“I had considered hanging it up the year before,” Helwick said. “I was battling some injuries. I didn’t perform very well. At the end of the 2011 season, I had a heart-to-heart with myself and asked myself, ‘Do you want to do this one more year?’ I decided I did, and I knew going in 2012, this was going to be my last season without a question.”

After not making the 2012 Olympics, he decided that his time as a decathlete was coming to an end and retired from the sport.

“I remember very distinctly; I knew exactly where I was,” Helwick said. “I was sitting in the state library, in Australia, watching the decathlon 1500 (meter race) on my computer. All the guys are lining up. I had watched decathlons prior to this, and I never felt this way. They’re lining up on the line, and I’m feeling these very familiar butterflies in my stomach that I used to get before 1500, and I remember feeling like I had to be there.”

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This was the first moment that he started to seriously think about coming back to the sport. Helwick moved back to Colorado to begin training at Colorado State University.

“Chris (Helwick) has been an incredible asset to our team, helping younger athletes find a unique and right mindset prior to practice and competitions,” CSU head assistant coach Ryan Baily said.

Baily met Helwick a couple of years ago working in Greeley and was more than willing to help Helwick achieve his goal.

man at track
Chris Helwick, a former University of Tennessee graduate and track and field decathlete, is pursuing a goal of representing the United States in the decathlon at the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo. (Matt Begeman | The Collegian)

“He is probably the most mature guy when it comes to an emotional standpoint,” Baily said. “And because he is so mature, he was able to step away from the sport and come back. Age won’t be a big factor for him because he is so good with nutrition and his health.”

Helwick is not getting any younger, but he and others around him know that age will not be a factor.

“One of the biggest things I have noticed is the time it takes for my body to recover; after brushing off the cobwebs, the training exercises all felt natural again,” Helwick said.

“He uses all of his resources very wisely,” Baily said. “He has three or four different styles of training, and he knows exactly what is best for him.” 

Helwick finished his competition season this year, finishing three decathlons. The Texas Greatest Athletes meet held in June of 2019, where he placed third, qualified him for the U.S. national championships, where he placed ninth. This placement qualified him for an international decathlon called the Thorpe Cup. Now he is fully focused at CSU, training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“This is the crux of the whole story of me coming back into track and field,” Helwick said. “It was that during those last three years of competing, I was so fixated on reaching that next level of success. I’ve been to the Olympic trials, (and) I’ve been to national championship meets, but I had never gone to the world championships.”

“No, I never had gone to the Olympics,” Helwick said. “I was so fixated on reaching that next level of status and achievement that every minute I spent without it was miserable. Looking back now, that’s a really sad thing for me to realize because it really doesn’t have to be that way. The whole reason I got back into track and field was because I realized what a mistake that was to not be having fun.”

Connor Kane can be reached at sports@collegian.com