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.
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