Athlete of the Month – June 2020
Norwegian sculler Martin Helseth is as comfortable under the water as he is rowing on top of it. The 25-year-old is also a freediver. He may have put his Olympic dreams on hold because of the corona virus, but that's given him plenty of time to help clean up the ocean he loves so much.
World Rowing: How is 2020 going for you and how is it different to what you had planned?
Martin Helseth: 2020 is going well even if it’s not going the way originally planned. Ideally, I would be with my team preparing for the Olympic Games this summer. So, when we got the message of the lockdown, I went straight to my hometown of Ålesund. I sat through the quarantine at home and started wondering how I would make it financially. As a rower in Norway we are dependent on having other sources of income than just the federal funding. So I started a crowdfunding campaign where everyone could support me to clean the coastline. It is something I’ve been doing just out of self-interest for several years, the only change was that I would be paid for it by people who like the idea. I set a goal to pick five tonnes by doing beach clean-ups and picking trash from the ocean floor. It has been a great thing! The project is now funded well over 100 per cent and I’ve currently cleaned four tonnes while still training full time. So I guess I could say that during these difficult times, other possibilities have emerged and I get to put things into perspective in another way than I usually do.
WR: How are corona virus restrictions affecting your training?
MH: I am currently training with the national team on lake Årunge, near Oslo. Norway went into lockdown pretty early, so we are now reducing the limitations gradually. Now we can row in the quadruple sculls with fixed partners and use the facilities for training except for the showers. So everything feels like it’s almost back to normal. I’ve been lucky that my club (Aalesunds Roklub) has arranged for me to be able to train almost as normal through the entire period. Being able to row on the fjord has been great and I’ve been able to make progress on different aspects of my rowing. Where we live can be like a lottery in terms of training conditions and I’m sure it can feel unfair for the rowers in the worst affected countries. My hope is that everything opens again soon so that everyone can compete on the same terms without having lost to much training.
WR: Why did you choose rowing as a sport and what keeps you coming back?
MH: My fascination for the ocean lead me to the rowing club for the first time. Like many other rowers I grew tired of playing football and wanted to try something new. I had heard of the good social environment at the club, so I was curious to check it out. I felt very welcome from the first time and ended up training with some guys that were a couple of years older than me. My learning curve was very steep and my competition mindset was fuelled early on. I started training a lot from an early age and I think that has helped a lot with handling the ever-increasing load of training in the programme. I find rowing extremely challenging - even if it looks like a simple movement. I like the constant search for a better stroke and higher boat speed together with good friends and very competent coaches and support team. Working together for a common goal is a beautiful thing.
WR: You also freedive. Can you tell us about that and why you do it?
MH: I grew up spending a lot of time in the Norwegian fjords and I’ve always been fascinated by the big blue and what’s hidden under the surface. I find freediving (like rowing) extremely challenging. It’s all about relaxing and using as little oxygen as possible to be able to stay longer under water and be able to see more. I alternate between doing spearfishing, picking trash and just enjoy the feeling of being weightless and getting to know the limits of my body.
WR: Does it help with your rowing - and vice versa?
MH: Physically I do not think freediving will help me much as a rower. In rowing we measure how much oxygen we can consume, while freedivers conserve as much oxygen as possible because it’s a very limited resource. It might be some positive elements regarding the tolerance for lactic acid in the muscles, but I do not freedive to become a physically better rower. The mental aspect is much more important to me. As a freediver I must block the outside world out. It feels good and I think having that feeling can make me a better rower. Finding the right focus and calmness can be crucial in settings involving external pressure during the rowing season.
WR: What is your favourite rowing moment?
MH: It’s hard to pick one, but one that comes to mind is from 2017. After failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics we worked hard to build a stronger team. At the Poznan World Cup, we finally got some serious boatspeed. We were not used to being in final, so getting our first medal together, and setting a new Norwegian best time, was a fantastic experience. Olaf (Tufte) and Kjetil (Borch) were also on the podium during that World Cup, so it was a great experience to share some success with the guys on the team.
WR: What is your next rowing goal?
MH: My next rowing goal is to be really fast at the Olympics.
WR: What is your long term goal?
MH: I have plans to be in the sport for a while, so I’ll be looking for the Olympics both in 2024 and 2028.
WR: What do you do when you are not rowing or diving?
MH: I study a bit of economics in Oslo and I like to go hiking, fishing and generally be outdoors. I’m always searching for good experiences in the nature.
WR: What do you do to relax?
MH: My free space is in the ocean. I can spend several hours freediving at a time. While being in the water there are no distractions from being in the moment and that’s the closest I’ll get to inner peace.
WR: Which sportsperson do you most admire?
MH: For me, Olaf Tufte has always been my biggest rowing idol. I remember watching him in 2004 taking his first Olympic gold and that sparked my interest for the sport. To qualify in the same boat as him is extremely humbling and it certainly puts a bit of extra pressure on the youngsters in the boat.