Southwestern cross-country coach Jim Helmer was kind enough to take some time out of his day to talk with yours truly about a bunch of different topics for our Q&A, including the appeal of Southwestern, loyalty to your school, vacations in Colorado, gardening and … going for his 30th straight KCAC men’s cross-country title. Go ahead, read it again. It’s not a misprint.
That’s 30, people. Like disco is dying. Like Terry Bradshaw is winning. Like The Empire Strikes Back came out. Like me learning how to walk and talk.
Here’s how it went down with Helmer, 59, who I’m thinking generated a massive amount of Sunflower Slate karma with this interview:
Sunflower Slate: Thanks for the time coach. I think any profession where you manage to stay in one place for over 30 years is pretty incredible, but to do it with the amount of success you’ve had is almost unheard of.
Jim Helmer: I’ve been around here for a long time. I also graduated from Southwestern, in 1971, and coached high school (ed. note: Winfield H.S. 1971-1978) for seven years before I became the coach here. So me and this place have gotten to know each other pretty well.
SS: Coaches deal with pressure in a lot of different ways; what’s the way to deal with trying to win your 30th league title in a row? It seems like a very unique situation.
JH: It really is, and we think about it a little bit … it’s out there so you can’t ignore it. It’s remarkable and it’s unusual, but you have to understand that streaks like that can’t last forever. You’ve got to just focus on the kids and the rest takes care of itself.
SS: You say focus on the kids, could you go a little deeper into that? What are the things that you emphasize for kids that come to run for you?
JH: Education. It’s the most important thing. To give the kids the opportunity to grow, to develop, to learn through their classes and activities … to watch them graduate is very gratifying, and we’ve had 100 percent of our kids graduate who’ve used all of their eligibility.
SS: What changes have you seen in the school itself, with the campus?
JH: Just the overall quality of the school. Our physical plant has improved, and we’re just getting ready to start work on the new football stadium and track … we’ve got alums that come back and marvel at the way things are now. It’s always been a good school, but the quality of freshmen we’re getting to come here is better now than it’s ever been.
SS: Do you still run quite a bit?
JH: I wouldn’t say quite a bit, and I don’t know if I’d really call it running. I think, though, someday, I’d like to get back to some sort of competitive-type running for my age.
SS: You say someday … do you ever think about retirement? Do you have a set time when you’d like to stop coaching?
JH: I think about it a little bit, but I haven’t got any set plans. A lot of guys, when they’re 30 or so, they think “Hawaii, retired by 50,” but I’m not like that. I feel like I’m doing something that I enjoy and I’m healthy so there’s not really a set plan. I will retire at some point, yes, but I don’t know when that’ll be.
SS: Winning so much must help. I’d think that it might have been a little harder without all the titles.
JH: It definitely has helped. Without (all the winning) I don’t know how long I would have lasted.
SS: I always ask people in the Q&A’s some non-sports related stuff, so I was hoping you could tell me about some of your hobbies, maybe what you do with your spare time or …
JH: I don’t have a whole lot of hobbies, but we’ve got a cabin in Westcliffe, Colorado, that we (ed. note, “we” would be Helmer and his wife, Deb) go to pretty much every summer. I really enjoy working outside so anytime I have a chance to work on my garden or to work on some project outside … I guess you could say that’s a hobby. I grew up on a farm in Lyons, so that’s kind of in my blood, being outside and working.
SS: I can see why you took up running, then. Out in Lyons, it must seem like you could run forever.
JH: It’s pretty wide open.