A Free T-Shirt, A Suspension And A Face Plant: Three Unexpected Events That Launched The Career Of 7-Time All-American Athlete And Psychologist Kristin Ihle Helledy
Most of us have defining moments in our lives that send us in one direction or another on our personal and professional journeys. For 7-time all-American athlete, former professional runner and sports psychologist Kristin Ihle Molinaroli, Ph.D., (who competed as Kristin Ihle and Kristin Ihle Helledy), her entry into the sports arena could be described as a comedy of errors.
But it is also a lesson in resiliency and strength in the face of adversity.
Winning isn’t everything, but it sure feels good
Running was not even on the radar for Ihle when she was a girl. She had dabbled at tap and gymnastics and ballet, but they were not her forte. She recalls that her parents thought she would be good at something, but the things they tried never really panned out.
“Then one day, I was in French class in middle school and the teacher announced a mile-and-a-half ‘fun run.’ I had never run before. We were poor, we didn’t have much money back then, and I didn’t have decent shoes. I had cheap canvas shoes. But you could win a Coke t-shirt, and I wanted that t-shirt. So I ran, and I won, by a lot. I beat all the girls and all the boys.”
What young Kristin Ihle didn’t know at the time was that the ‘fun run’ was also how the middle school coach looked for young talent and recruited for the middle school cross country team.
“I didn’t even know what cross country was. But I won that race, and I won that Coke t-shirt, and that’s all I really cared about at the time.”
Ihle went on to achieve a highly successful 8 thgrade cross country season though her strategy was quite simple, “I ran to the front with the lead runner until she fell back, then I’d run with the next runner who came up.” Clearly Ihle had a long way to mature. Her crown jewel in 8 thgrade was representing Ramblewood Middle School in the biggest track meet in Southern Florida — she went on to win the 800m in a photo finish. “I honestly don’t remember a lot about middle school. But I do remember how much I liked winning. We had moved around a lot when I was a kid, and as a result I got teased at my new schools. But when I started running track in middle school and I was so good, people stopped teasing me. That felt good. Sport was my safe place.”
The rest of Helledy’s running career nearly didn’t happen. She didn’t want to even go out for high school cross country at Coral Springs High School. She was completely unknown to the high school coach because she had only been at it less than a year. When she showed up for cross country practice in the fall of 1983, she experienced a lot of mentoring by the juniors and seniors on the team as she established herself as the #1 runner for the team. There was a cross town rivalry with Taravella High School where Kim Nelson, a junior, competed. During the 1983 to 1984 cross country and track seasons, Nelson and Ihle became keen opponents with both elevating each other’s performance. In the fall, they would swap beating each other in cross country meets with only a few steps of separation. In fact, that year was the first time that a sectional cross-country meet ended in a tie between these two. Ihle was the first freshman at Coral Springs High School to qualify as an individual for the cross-country state meet where she finished 14 thin the large school class. She went on to compete in the 800, 1600 and 3200m in track her freshman year. Again, she became the first freshman at her high school to qualify for the 1600 and 3200 and was one of just three athletes from Coral Springs High to compete at the state meet in 1984.
In the summer of 1984, Ihle’s mom and stepdad received an international assignment to Santiago, Chile. This resulted in Kris Ihle moving to Wisconsin to live with her father and stepmother for the remainder of her high school career. Ihle ran for Eau Claire Regis in Wisconsin (250 students), which was vastly different from Coral Springs High School with roughly 2,500 students. She won state in cross country as a sophomore in 1984 — this victory came as a surprise to many. Why this was a surprise is detailed in “Honesty is the best policy” below.
Honesty is the best policy
The groundwork was laid for a successful future, but Ihle unwittingly did her best to tear it up.
Fast forward to her sophomore year, across the country in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Another transfer, another team, more choices to fit in with new friends.
“We went to a big cross-country invitational meet in La Crosse early in the cross-country season. The meet was Saturday morning, but our coach decided to let us watch our football team that evening in Onalaska and then he and the assistant coach drove our vans home late that night after the game. We attended the game but before the game a bunch of us drank some beer. As we piled into the van the coach could easily smell alcohol. He asked, but no one would say a word. I couldn’t live with the dishonesty. The next morning, on Sunday, I called Mr. Allen and told him I had been drinking. I was the only person who came forward on the team; however, he eventually figured out who all the guilty parties were.”
Ihle was suspended. She couldn’t practice and she couldn’t compete in most of the cross country meets her sophomore year, the fall of 1984.
“My coach followed the suspension to a T. Fortunately, it ended in time for me to compete in the final two cross country races of the season. I won state handily, by over 5 seconds. Nobody knew who I was because I was a transfer and then I was suspended. Basically, I ran the first two meets of the season and the last two meets of the season.”
Ihle recalls being interviewed by a local sports reporter, who would go on to cover her races for nearly two decades. “He was a total running expert and he was confused because he didn’t recognize my name. I told him I had been kicked off the cross-country team for drinking. He then said, ‘okay, I will write ‘suspended for disciplinary reasons.’ With that experience I learned that I should be more thoughtful about what I’m going to say and how I say it. But what I really learned, in hindsight, is that I was able to hold my head up at the end of that season because I had been honest, and I had done it right.”
When you fall down, you have to get up
By her senior year, Ihle would go on to win nearly all her races in cross country and track. She trained with the boys cross country and track teams. She ran and won the 1600, 800, and 3200m at the state meet her senior year. She set state records for the 1600 and 3200, as well as her high school record.
“My senior year was really fun. I won some races I had no right to win, because I had developed a race strategy. I was undefeated my senior year. Well, undefeated during the regular season.”
The Kinney Regional l Meet was a 5k, which is more than a mile longer than the 2-mile races Ihle had trained for in high school cross country at that time. When her coach encouraged her to enter, she balked. The regional meet was highly competitive and the best qualified for Kinney Nationals.
“I had never run 5k and it was pretty scary. I had to pace myself. The course was hilly. But once I was there I was in my zone. I was focused on the people in front of me. I knew that I could pass at least five of them in the final stretch of the race. At this point I was in at least the top 15, so I was focused on what I needed to do to get to the top 10, when all of a sudden down I went. I fell, a complete face plant.”
Ihle got up and finished the race, nowhere near the top 10.
“I was so upset. I didn’t make the team. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then this guy walked over to me. He said he saw my race and he wanted to talk to me. I didn’t understand why he would want to talk to me, and that’s when he said the words that would forever change my outlook on sports; maybe even my outlook on life. He said, ‘I don’t recruit the girls who finish in the top five. I want someone who falls down, and gets back up.’”
That guy was Lyle Knudson, head coach at the University of Florida, where Ihle would go on to begin her collegiate career. That is, until adversity would strike again.
She did qualify for the TAC nationals, which was also a 5k. She qualified through the regional meet held in North Dakota on a very snowy, cold day. She went on to finish 3 rdat the TAC Nationals held in Los Angeles in 1986. A feather in her cap was going on to be one of a number of U.S. athletes selected to complete in a USA v. China road race held in early January 1987 where she finished in the top 6.
Stay tuned for the second article in this three-part series about 7-time All-American runner and psychologist Kristin Ihle Helledy, where we will look back at the college years.