BRISTOL, Va. – As Ron Helmer approaches his 50th year in coaching, the Indiana University track and field and cross country coach acknowledges that some of his best years were spent in Bristol.
All Helmer did from 1974-82 while at Virginia High was direct the Bearcats to seven state team championships, either on the track and/or trails, and also produced several individual winners, including five-time champ Maria Large and three-time winner Frankie Nunn.
“We started with kind of nothing and we got really, really good,” said Helmer, who has been the head coach at Indiana since 2007, having previously been at Georgetown for two decades. “It was just a nice mix of kids, it was a great time. They were kind of starved for some success and I don’t know if we were just lucky that some great athletes came along or rather we had something good going on and we attracted some great athletes, I am not sure.
“It is probably eight years of my coaching career that I have some of my fondest memories of.”
The “farmboy” from Kansas, Helmer had a “great” experience as a runner at NAIA Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. He got his coaching start at a Kansas high school before pursuing his master’s degree in physical education from East Tennessee State University, with a focus on biomechanics and human kinetics.
“It wasn’t something where I grew up as a young kid thinking I was going to [coach], but the more I got into contact with those high school teachers and coaches that I respected, it probably became something I would like to do,” Helmer said. “I don’t know if I was going to do it for 50 years, but that is what I have been doing.”
He landed at Virginia High in 1974, and started a lifetime of recruiting.
“At that time they were building the subdivisions on what used to be Exit 4,” said Helmer, who won three girls state track titles, along with two boys and two girls cross country crowns with Virginia High. He also won three boys cross country titles at Woodbridge High School from 1983-85, earning Virginia Boys Cross Country Coach of the Decade for the 1980s.
“There were kids that were coming from the subdivisions, and then there were Rice Terrace and Johnson Court kids that were just awesome, some really, really great kids who jumped on board.
“It was just a combination of personalities and ability levels. I used to recruit the Boys Club like crazy to get those kids out there. Then you would have a couple who would have success and they would bring the next ones and it was just a fun time where kids were getting to do things.”
They did more than just perform at the state level, qualifying for national competition as well.
“We would get on a plane and go to San Diego and there were some kids that haven’t been to too many places at all and it was just a big, big deal for them,” Helmer said. “To be a part of that, it was all pretty new to me too, having kids to perform at that level.”
Perform they did.
“I think we all grew together,” said Helmer, who has three children, including a son who is also a track coach, along with three stepsons. “It was just a very, very memorable and gratifying period of my life, that is for sure.”
Among his top performers was Large, who won three track and two state cross country championships while also setting school records in the 3200 and 1600 in track, marks that stood for nearly 40 years before rising Virginia High senior Kelsey Harrington broke both in winning state titles for the Bearcats in June. Other names from Virginia High’s past to shine for Helmer included Misti Jones, Elizabeth Hester, Nancy Rose and A.F. Barker.
(Harrington’s accomplishments will be featured in Sunday’s Herald Courier).
Helmer, who has produced nearly 450 college All-Americans, eight national champions and 28 top-10 NCAA finishes, understands what it takes to be a success on the track or trails. That includes simply wanting to be good, having the desire and being willing to live the lifestyle needed to accomplish those goals and understanding the purpose of all the work it takes to win.
Add all that up and no wonder Helmer isn’t ready to hang up the whistle anytime soon. The best might be yet to come.
“It kind of all runs together, but what is crazy is I am 72 years old now and more than likely we will have the best men’s team I have ever had,” said Helmer, who battled through illness six years ago, and plans to at least complete his current contract, which runs for four more years.
“It is a real exciting group of people that are incredibly talented. As we go into this next year, it could our best year in coaching, which is why I am still doing it.
“I don’t think I would do it if I couldn’t do it well, but things are still going really, really well. I still enjoy doing it, it is exciting. It is hard work, but it is definitely worth it.”