Career

How I overcame my fear of failure to become NZ’s fastest mum: Helena Dinnissen shares her inspirational story

Helena turned her back on her talent as a teen, but there's no stopping the mother of three now.

By Karyn Henger
Helena Dinnissen has something to say: you can tell yourself you can't do it and turn your back on your hopes and dreams or you can put yourself out there and be the person you're meant to be.
Helena 34, is New Zealand's fastest mum, holding multiple titles in her age group. And if her grit, determination and training have anything to do with it, then in September she'll become Australasia's fastest mum when she competes in the Oceania Masters Athletics Championships in Queensland. The 2020 Worlds in Toronto call after that.
Sprinting is something the Christchurch mother of three feels her body was made to do. But as a teenager who struggled with depression - Helena was diagnosed and put on medication for it when she was 19 - she turned her back on her talent.
"I didn't have any self confidence and I was always scared about what everyone else would think of me. So I'd hide in the background and that fear would taint every decision I made."
At ages 15 and 16 Helena was one of the fastest female athletes in New Zealand. She could have teamed up with a coach to develop her talent further and carve out an impressive career, but instead she left school at the end of Year 13, started a jewellery-making business and gave up athletics altogether.
"Every two years when either the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics came along I would just get bottom-end depression," she admits. "I would stop functioning. I had this deep regret in me that I had never pursued it."
Helena Dinnessen returned to athletics in her thirties, after the birth of her third child. Photography: Hannah Thorne Photography
Then motherhood came at the age of 25 and, with it, an unexpected catalyst for change.
Following the births of Helena's first and second babies, who are now aged nine and six, she suffered postnatal depression. With her third child, who was born in 2016, she decided to do something different to deal with the feeling of "yuck".
She signed up to run a half marathon, roped in a friend and began training.
"The irony is I hate long-distance running," she admits. "I have never run further than 5km before - 50m is my sweet spot."
But she persevered because "that's what everyone does after they've had a baby" and made it to the start line. Six kilometres in "the magic" happened.
"In Hagley Park they had a 100m sprint race, the Hagley 100, set up as a fun event to do as part of the course and they were giving out prizes to the five fastest men and women. I did it, you were literally weaving in and out of the path of others who were not doing it, but that was the moment.
"I literally hadn't tried to sprint in 15 years and it was exhilarating. I had forgotten what it felt like and I never wanted to forget what it felt like again."
At the prizegiving Helena found out she had been the sixth fastest female, and was secretly disappointed.
"But when I saw the five who got the awards they were all teenagers. I thought 'oh I'm quite quick still then'. My heart leapt. I had forgotten this was so much a part of me and what I love."
Helena, right, jubilant after completing the half marathon that set her back on her course as a top-performing sprinter.
Helena sat on that thought for a few weeks before she summoned the courage to ring an athletics coach she'd known as a teenager.
"I said, 'Hey, do you remember me?'. I'm 33 now and I've had three children but I want to sprint again.'"
Returning to the sport more than 15 years later was confronting.
"You compare yourself to your teenage version and how fast you once were," she reflects. "My first time [training with my coach], if I had of been with my squad [from school] I probably would have burst into tears. It was the shock of going 'oh, I'm actually only that fast'.
"But it's been exciting to lean into 'I love this' and it doesn't matter that I'm not where I used to be. None of those things are important because I'm making these good choices for me and I'm getting healthier and stronger and also more confident.
"And I've been able to be this person for my kids."
Helena's first season was "up and down".
"One week I'd do okay and then the next week I'd be injured so it was very intermittent."
She learned she's had hip dysplasia her entire life but it hasn't been until now, with the extra stress from her dedicated training, that the condition has come to the fore. Helena has also had to work around old injuries: compressed vertabrae from a snowboarding accident as a teen, prolapsed discs in her back following the birth of her second child.
"Then of course your bladder is not as great after having babies," she points out.
Helena is fundraising to get herself to the Oceania Masters in September, and the Worlds in Toronto next year. To support her, check out her Facebook page, Healthy by Definition.
Now in her third season her form is stronger than ever. At the Oceania Masters Athletics Championships in Dunedin in 2018 she won five golds and a silver and set some new meet records. She has even beaten some of her teenage personal bests.
"I had thought, 'I'm too old now to compete at this level, the ship has sailed.'
"But when I sprint I feel like my body is doing the thing it was built to do."
When details about the next athletics World Championships came out Helena texted her coach her results from the last event she'd done, with the message 'have a look at this'.
"He said, 'I reckon you could win that.' I said, 'I reckon I could too.' So now we're aiming for me to come home from the Worlds with a medal."