John Hellemans looks back on a life as winning triathlete, Olympic-level coach, and sports doctor.
The triathlon career of John Hellemans began in 1982, when he showed up for the self-styled “Les Mills Fitness New Zealand Ironman Championship,” a primitively ill-organized event with a field of one hundred on the Auckland foreshore, and won it. He was a tall, unknown medical doctor with a heavy Dutch accent, claiming to be from Christchurch. The Aucklanders were not impressed.
“Ironman” on that occasion, in those formative days, meant a 1km swim, 32km bike ride, and 15km run. Hellemans tells illuminatingly the back story of the sport of triathlon, from its precursive beginnings in 1902 in France as “les trois sports,” run, bike, kayak, through Hellemans the sports medicine specialist engrossed by the annual television coverage of the Hawaii Ironman from 1979 on.
After a high school career in water polo, Hellemans moved to New Zealand and became a good regional-class runner in the last years of that nation’s vintage running era. Having been born in Holland, and lived there until his mid-20s, he had bicycling in his DNA so he unusually came to the triathlon with a strong background in all three disciplines. At 29, he didn’t have time on his side, but managed to forge a professional career in those early days, winning six New Zealand national titles, becoming a world-class age-group competitor, and eventually coaching Olympians, the Dutch national squad, and the trail-blazing Erin Baker, one of the great legends of all sport.
Baker provides a foreword to Hellemans’ engaging and informative memoir, “Never, Ever Give Up?” (Canterbury University Press, New Zealand, 2018). The question mark at the end of the title reflects his late-life (and post-cardiac episode) insight that every endurance athlete needs to consider the significance of what we do, and decide whether the intense commitment it demands is truly justified. Never give up means hardly ever. Hellemans is as tough and uncompromising as they come, but he offers some self-criticism for his neglect of his role as husband and father through his dedication to triathlon in so many capacities.
It’s a forthright and personal book, full of sympathetic stories about such important triathletes as Baker, Kris Gemmell, Andrea Hewitt, and the tragic Laurent Vidal, great coaches like Roly Crighton, and creative movers and shakers like Canadian Les McDonald. It’s good on technical issues, too – the advent of low-profile bikes, the moral debate over skimpy apparel on public roads. At its best, the writing becomes compelling, especially in the story of the cut foot and shoe malfunction that denied Gemmell the Olympic podium place he was ready for at Beijing; and in Hellemans’ account of his fraught journey home to Christchurch after that city and his family house were disastrously damaged by the 2011 earthquake. Hellemans’ life story gains depth by touching on events and movements like the European Cold War, the 1960s Peace Movement, and the development of high performance professionalism in sport. The book’s publication by a respected University press reflects its intellectual content and value as eye-witness sports history.
It’s not a coaching book – Hellemans has written those previously – but it’s insightful and honest about the coach’s role, and its limitations. He communicates well, for instance, the frustration of dealing with a Netherlands national team that was almost disfunctional in its interpersonal hostilities. But no way is he embittered or vengeful. Hellemans is at his best in his admiration for the passionate dedication of athletes he has coached, is willing to take responsibility, and sometimes blame, for their disappointments.
In his self-deprecating Dutch/Kiwi way, under the combined pressure of two cultures equally averse to “skiting” (self-promotion or boastfulness), Hellemans ends his book with a painful narrative of failure, when he ill-advisedly took on the Hawaii Ironman for the first time at age 60. He is too modest. His lifetime achievements in competition, in coaching, and in sports medicine, by any measure have been outstanding, and his book provides an expert insider view of the first three decades of the sport of triathlon.