From illness to record breaker ‘I can face anything now!’

From illness to record breaker ‘I can face anything now!’

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How the determined mum swapped her pain medication for medals

Helena Dinissen is a force to be reckoned with. The busy personal trainer has just won gold and two silver medals on the world athletics stage. But it was a very different story just five years ago.

“I was clinically depressed, unhealthy, unfit and miserable,” admits Helena, 38, who had been a talented athlete as a teenager but gave up sport after leaving school.

Added to her woes were endometriosis, a broken vertebrae, two prolapsed discs and a lower-back fracture.

“My life was pain meds, antidepressants and lots of comfort eating to deal with what was going on,” confesses Helena, who despite living in “near constant misery” since her early twenties went on to have three children by the age of 32.

It was soon after the birth of her third child, Evelyn, that the Christchurch mum realized something in her life desperately needed to change – and her first step was to set a goal: she decided to run a half marathon.

Athletics has given Helena a new lease of life with her kids (from left) Imri, Evelyn and Kees. “They like to show off my muscles!” she says.

“It was a real turning point in my life,” she recalls. “I found it so hard and to be honest, I hated it, but I did it and I was proud because for the last 15 years I had never stuck with anything.”

While she vowed to never run a half marathon again, the experience did rekindle a passion for fitness and reminded her what she really loved – sprinting.

“I looked up Andrew Maclennan, the only sprint coach I could remember from when I was young, and said, ‘I have no idea if women over 30 do athletics, but I want to.'”

It took her on and Helena says making that call was the best decision.

“It’s really important to be vulnerable,” says Helena, who was told by medical specialists to stop running. “When I started training, I had terrible incontinence and it was mortifying. I was with this group of young people, my coach is an older male and I was leaking every time I tried to jump or hurdle.

“I thought, ‘There has to be a way,’ so I got passionate about learning about physiology and how I could strengthen my body to withstand the forces I wanted to put it through.”

Her hard work paid off. She now trains up to 16 hours a week in peak season without any major pelvic floor issues and in 2019, she took to the track at the Oceania Masters Championships.

“I entered nine events, won them all and broke quite a few records,” she enthuses. “Then I did my first heptathlon and I set the world lead for my age group. After that, I was determined to figure out
how to keep going.”

In June this year, Helena attended the World Masters Athletics Championships in Finland, which is the top level for athletes over 35.

She competed in six events and came home with three medals – a gold in the long jump, and silver in the triple jump and 100m hurdles.

“Getting to compete against other women my age is so amazing,” says Helena, who also competed in the 100m and 200m sprints, and high jump. “On the triple jump stage, we had eight kids between us!”

Back home, her husband Adrian and children Kees, 12, Imri, nine, and Evelyn, seven, were immensely proud of her achievements.

“My kids think it’s really cool. They like to show off my muscles,” she laughs.

After learning first-hand just how life-changing exercise can be, Helena last year became a personal trainer.

“I desperately want to help empower other women,” she says. “It’s hard with kids – they take priority. But being fit and healthy has given me confidence, self-discipline and the ability to engage with my family, and participate in my children’s lives in a more active way.”

And while she’s achieved more than she ever thought possible, Helena has no plans to slow down any time soon.

The medal winner in action.

“This year, I really want to break the New Zealand women’s 100m and 200m sprint records for my age group, and one day set a world record,” she shares.

“I want to be doing this forever. I’m still young, but I want to run and weightlift when I’m 70 – and I know that’s possible.”

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