Meet Triathlete and Arthritis Activist Helgi Olafson

 

Helgi
Hel­gi Olaf­son at the fin­ish line of the 2013 Iron­man Cana­da with a time of 11:01:29

An Iron­man triathlon is no small feat for even the fittest ath­letes, let alone one who suf­fers from arthri­tis. For the past 13 years, Hawaii-born Hel­gi Olaf­son has been bat­tling the crip­pling effects of Anky­los­ing Spondyli­tis, an auto immune dis­ease that attacks the joints in the back caus­ing severe inflam­ma­tion. But that has not stopped him from tak­ing con­trol of his health and body and com­plet­ing around a dozen triathlons. In July 2014 he com­plet­ed his sec­ond full Iron­man in Whistler, Cana­da. The Clymb sat down with Hel­gi to talk about the chal­lenges he has faced and how he wants to change the per­cep­tion of what’s pos­si­ble with ill­ness­es such as Anky­los­ing Spondyli­tis and arthritis.

The Clymb: When did you first get diag­nosed with Anky­los­ing Spondyli­tis (AS)? 
Hel­gi Olaf­son: I was 19, so that was in 2001. I was an active teenag­er, but not to the lev­el that I am now. I tried to not let it affect my lifestyle but it was real­ly hard to deal with the pain, espe­cial­ly in the morn­ings. Luck­i­ly I start­ed my adult career as a chef, which was good for me because it required me to main­tain a ver­ti­cal posi­tion, ver­sus a desk job where I’d be hunched over or oth­er­wise strug­gling to main­tain good posture.

The Clymb: What prompt­ed you to found the Hel­gi Olaf­son Foun­da­tion?
Hel­gi Olaf­son: I was active and I was able to over­come (AS) and still main­tain my life, but I was­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly tak­ing the best care of myself dur­ing my younger adult years. My father passed away from dia­betes when I was 25, which he got because he did­n’t take care of him­self. A few years lat­er I real­ized it was time to real­ly take con­trol of my health. I end­ed up mov­ing back to Hawaii and joined the Waikoloa Canoe Club and one of the guys was look­ing for a relay part­ner for the Lava­man Triathlon. I said I’d do it. After that race I went out and got a bike and start­ed get­ting into triathlons. I nev­er looked back.

The Clymb: What are the over­ar­ch­ing goals of the Hel­gi Olaf­son Foun­da­tion?
Hel­gi Olaf­son: It’s real­ly to pro­mote “exer­cise as med­i­cine,” as I like to call it, to show peo­ple that they don’t have to be intim­i­dat­ed by exer­cise. It’s all about lis­ten­ing to their bod­ies and being hon­est with what they need to do to main­tain their health. AS is some­thing that peo­ple will live with for the rest of their lives. It’s real­ly just all about how they deal with it. I feel that I’ve had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to become a “bea­con of hope” for a lot of peo­ple around the world. About once a week I get a new email from some per­son who has AS about how they start­ed run­ning or just signed up for their first half Iron­man and they want some advice. It’s nice to be able to have a net­work that’s grow­ing like that and know­ing that what I’m doing is actu­al­ly inspir­ing peo­ple to take con­trol of their health.

Helgi with Tri Team PDX
Hel­gi with Tri Team PDX

The Clymb: What are some of the Mile­stones you’ve achieved since you began the foun­da­tion in 2012?
Hel­gi Olaf­son: Com­plet­ing an Iron­man dis­tance triathlon with­in my first year of start­ing this train­ing was pret­ty tough. As far as the foun­da­tion goes, we achieved 501(c)(3) sta­tus (fed­er­al tax exemp­tion for non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions) in Feb­ru­ary of this year. Since I’m affil­i­at­ed with Tri Team PDX—my tri team and one of my sponsors—one of the things I do is help with com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment. Last year I was a “race for free” ath­lete, rais­ing $2100 for the Iron­man Foun­da­tion. An upcom­ing mile­stone for me is my first role as race direc­tor for the Port­land Pud­dle Jumper on Sep­tem­ber 28, 2014. It’s a ben­e­fit for juve­nile arthri­tis so we’re part­ner­ing with the Arthri­tis Nation­al Research Foun­da­tion and Ran­dall Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal at Lega­cy Emmanuel in Portland. 

The Clymb: You also engage in com­mu­ni­ty projects where you race. Why did you choose Pem­ber­ton over Whistler for your project dur­ing 2014 Iron­man Cana­da?
Hel­gi Olaf­son: I want­ed do some­thing again in Whistler, but dur­ing my research I found that Pem­ber­ton real­ly was in more need of assis­tance. I also heard that there was kind of a bad vibe going for the ath­letes who take up the roads train­ing in Pem­ber­ton. I can relate to that because I train most of the year on the island of Hawaii where the Iron­man world cham­pi­onships are, and there are two sides to it—there’s peo­ple who think it’s real­ly great for the econ­o­my and there’s also peo­ple who think it gets in the way and it’s not nec­es­sary. I real­ly thought I’d have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a dif­fer­ence because Iron­man Cana­da is a new event in the area, and in the begin­ning is when you make a last­ing impression. 

For more infor­ma­tion on Hel­gi’s cause go to helgiolafson.org