You are the most important person in your life. It’s not a selfish statement, it’s the reality. When you don’t take appropriate care of yourself, nothing else is going to work. How can you pursue your dreams, take care of your family or simply be your best self if you are sick or depressed? You can’t. It’s something we often forget when we are taught to care for and give time to others and we often place ourselves dead last. In our society, that’s even more true when it comes to women. Helen found herself in that toxic pattern and found her way out of it. When you meet the energetic vibrant women she is, you have got to think she is doing something right.
As the youngest of eight siblings, she had a clear objective in mind. She wanted stability. Coming from a low income Aboriginal family raised by a single mother, there were lots of frustrations and difficulties.
“I remember thinking as a teenager; you have to have a stable life, a stable job, a stable income because growing up, we were really poor. I really felt the exclusion of not being able to go to birthday parties, not being able to play organized sports because there was no money for it. I remember really young thinking; I don’t want this life, I want a better life. I want some money to be able to do the things I want to do. That was the goal.”
With her goal set, she worked hard to make it happen. She moved from Garson, her Sudbury suburb to Toronto to pursue her studies. She stayed for ten years and when she moved back North, she immediately felt the relief of being close to nature again. However, it took a series of hard life events to make her realize that she needed more in her life, that she was not happy living the way she was. Within a year, Helen and her husband divorced, she had a severe car accident, she had to care for her son Mzhiikenh who was sick a lot at the time as well as her mother.
“I was kind of that sandwich generation taking care of a sick kid and a sick mom. When she passed away, I was not healthy, I was exhausted and wasn’t taking care of myself. That made me stop and think; You’re overweight, you’re not happy, you’re not healthy, you are a single parent with a two year old that depends on you. The combination of everything and mom passing away made me realize I couldn’t do this anymore. I’m sure other people are going to tell you I was happy at the time but I gained a ton of weight, I was really heavy, I was carrying a lot of responsibilities. At the time I decided to let it off my shoulders; feel free.”
It was the best decision of her life. In the years prior, Helen had enjoyed running and she would occasionally do half-marathons however, her car accident had damaged her knees and long distance running was out of the equation. What about triathlons? Swimming wouldn’t bother her knees, biking might strengthen them and it was hard to tell how the running would go, or at least that was her physio’s opinion. Her goal was set, Triathlons it would be.
“That year I got into the pool with the YMCA. I couldn’t swim one lap without being completely out of breath. Slowly, I built up my distance. I did my first race, a Try-a-Tri, 400m swim, 10K bike ride and 2.5K run. It wasn’t pretty. I remember flipping on my back at one point during the swim thinking; What are you doing here? You can’t swim! The only thing that kept me going was people behind me having just as hard of a time, but they were slower and I thought: If they can keep going, so can you. It was probably pride I guess. I finished the race and was exhausted. I thought: Ok, you had a good time, you did something you never thought you’d ever be able to do, you have got to work on your swim because you don’t want to feel exhausted like that every time.“
Over the following years, Helen slowly worked on her fitness level in order to improve her triathlons. Her son growing up, being healthier and starting school, she could also find more time to train. Being self employed also helped her to organize her schedule accordingly. She trained not to be faster and beat records but to just enjoy herself more. She learned the hard way that working for a time was not her thing.
“In a Half-Ironman, I came to that realization because I had set unrealistic goals. I finished it but I was crying on the finish line. It was’t good, everything hurt. It had a negative impact following the race because I was hurt. I told myself I was not going to put myself in a situation again where it’s going to have a negative impact on my life and on Mzhiikenh. The following year, I went back and did the same race. It was my mission to do better and by better I meant be myself and just have fun; and I did.”
Helen was 6 years into doing triathlons until she decided to give the off-road version a try. It was getting more and more popular and Ontario had the Xterra series with three events making it more accessible.
“I always enjoyed being on the trails even when I was not physically fit I would still be out walking in the trails in the woods. It just always felt better. I’d go sit by a waterfall, it would just be so peaceful. When I started triathlons and training, I would periodically go trail running and would really enjoy it. So I thought, Why not? Why not see if I like it as much as I like trail running.“
Did she ever. Helen can’t get enough of it. Both training and competing brings her so much joy that she can’t stop smiling. During and after races, she has a big grin stamped across her face. She has a photo her partner took of her after her first race and she has that amazing smile while they are bandaging her hand she fractured when she fell running.
“I remember just being out there and the squirrels and chipmunks were just running around. I could hear the birds singing. I had a deer run just in front of me on the trails and that was just the best thing ever. When I get back from being out there, I feel energized. I am physically exhausted but I am super happy. I feel at peace when I am outdoors. I love it far more than I ever did on the road.”
To be there today, Helen had to take a different approach to life and choose to take care of herself first. Even if it seems counter intuitive, she prioritize training over a lot of things. When people ask her how she does it all being a single mom, she is blatantly honest.
“I don’t know how I do it, I honestly don’t. People ask me all the time and they tell me how inspiring it is to see me do it all but I reply; Have you seen my house? The housework does not get done, the lawn does not get cut! That’s what it comes down to. At the end of the day, is my kid going to remember that I was neat, that I was a good housekeeper? He does not care. He wants to know that he is being taken care of. To treat him well, I need to take care of myself.”
Helen remembers her mom’s sacrifices and her disappointment towards the end of her life that most of her kids were not there to care for her and it’s something she doesn’t want to go through. That’s why she is making sure to life a fulfilled life while exposing her son to a healthy active lifestyle taking him everywhere she goes and giving him access to sports he enjoys doing, like kayaking on Lake Ramsey. This fall, while she goes to Australia for an Off-road Triathlon, Mzhiikenh will come along where they will discover the beauties of the Pacific Ocean together.
“I want to go to Australia and have a really good time and just enjoy the moment. The little girl that was growing up in poverty in Garson never dreamed of the life that I have. Everything I have accomplished was towards getting a better life and some financial stability but I have been blessed with so much more. I never imagined I would go to Colorado or Australia or take my kid to Vancouver or go scuba diving with him. It’s crazy that I can have it. People think it’s a normal life but to me, it’s wild. I know I made it happen but it’s all because of my mom always telling me: You can do whatever you want, all it takes is hard work.”