IOWA CITY — It was a rare and great feat.
John Helgerson was able to accomplish something in just one event that takes many years of training for some wrestlers.
In his first ever freestyle competition, Helgerson forced his way into a elite group of wrestlers by earning a berth in the 264.5-pound division at the men’s freestyle division of the USA Wrestling’s Olympic Wrestling Team Trials on April 21-22 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Wrestlers in men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman will contend for spots on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team and a chance to compete in the Olympic Games this summer in London, England.
Helgerson, 23, entered and won the Last Chance Olympic Trials Qualifier March 30-April 1 at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, beating Justin Grant of the Husky Wrestling Club in the finals. Helgerson, a West Union native, was a state finalist for North Fayette High School before becoming a three-time NCAA Division III All-American and two-time national finalist at Wartburg, winning the 2011 NCAA title at heavyweight.
He had no idea what to expect from freestyle, and applied the same ideas that made him a successful folkstyle competitor.
“I just went out and wrestled,” said Helgerson, a two-time medalist at the Ken Kraft Midlands Championships hosted by Northwestern. “I’m not surprised I did well. It was just wrestling and out-fighting people. It was wrestling as hard as I could.”
Wartburg co-head coach Eric Keller, a former University of Northern Iowa wrestler, was in Helgerson’s corner for the tournament. He praised Helgerson for the win, and was amazed by how he stepped on the mat in his freestyle debut and was so successful.
“It’s just not normal. It’s crazy,” Keller said. “That is what I’m trying to get through to him. Not very many people can just do that.”
Helgerson has been serving as an assistant coach for the Knights. He worked after the college season ended in early March, training with Wartburg’s three-time NCAA champion Byron Tate, Phil Hawes, Keller and Knights assistant Chris Ortner. Keller remembers the first time he proposed the idea to Helgerson, who was reluctant when they discussed while returning from his fifth-place finish at the Midlands in December. A few weeks before the qualifying tournament Helgerson informed Keller he had decided to compete.
“It’s such a small opportunity to compete, period,” Keller said. “Your college career and eligibility is over in the blink of an eye.
“Same with the opportunity to compete internationally. Obviously, he’s still young and he has years ahead of him but if you don’t jump on that opportunity while you have it. I don’t want it to be a situation where down the road he’s like he wished he gave it a run.”
Helgerson wrestled four matches in his title run, beating NAIA champion and former Iowa State wrestler Eric Thompson, an accomplished freestyle wrestler. He received a trial by fire, learning rules – such as the one-point for a push out – and adjusting strategy as the day progressed.
“As the day went on I felt a lot more comfortable,” Helgerson said. “After my first match, I did well in my second and then I felt I could do this.”
At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Helgerson used his length for leverage and an advantage against his foes. He gave up 25-30 pounds to his opponents. Bigger opponents may not have bigger hearts during a match.
“Helgerson’s biggest asset is the guy is just a warrior,” Keller said. “It doesn’t matter what the score is, and half the time I swear he doesn’t even think what the score is, he just goes one speed. He just goes and goes and goes.”
Keller would like to see him go on with a freestyle career. There might be cause for another talk on the drive back from Iowa City after the weekend.
“I think if he would, there’s a pretty high level he could get to and I think where he’s at right now is still scratching the surface,” Keller said. “The fact is that he’s never freestyled, doesn’t really understand the sport and didn’t fully understand the scoring when he was out there wrestling.”
Helgerson is not sold on wrestling after the Olympic Trials, but staying involved in wrestling seems likely. He has a desire to remain associated with the Wartburg program.
“I have no idea,” Helgerson said about continuing a competitive career. “I know I want to coach at Wartburg again next year so I’ll be around another year. I’ll be in the room training. I don’t have any future plans as of now, but we’ll see how it goes.”
That bridge will be crossed when he arrives to it. The Olympic Trials is his current focus. Helgerson realizes he is a huge underdog to win. He expects to be competitive in just his second freestyle event.
“I want to win some matches. I want to go up against some of the best guys in the world and see how I do,” Helgerson said. “I want to go there and have a good showing.”