Keeping a level head

Keeping a level head

Ryan Spitza

Editors note: This is the first of a two-part series highlighting Rachel Helm and Lajos Budai, two swimmers who have made great strides their freshman year.

NMU varsity athletic teams generally have a diverse group of athletes year in and year out. The hockey team has players from Canada, Finland, Poland and Sweden. The volleyball team includes a player from Spain, the ski team has athletes from Austria, Czech Republic and Norway. For the swim & dive team, it’s a very diverse roster that consists of 18 athletes from 13 different countries.

Five of those athletes hail from England and one of those athletes is freshman swimmer Rachel Helm.

Helm has had a successful rookie season. After winning four events at the GLIAC Championships, two of which set school records, the GLIAC Freshman of the Year is getting set to compete at the

NCAA National Championships in Birmingham, Alabama March 7 to 11.

The path to NMU wasn’t a hard one for Helm. She wanted to come to the United States to swim and after contacting several universities about swimming, the offers came pouring in. Helm received scholarship offers from Georgia Tech University, Florida International University, Long Island University Post and the University of Tennessee, but still chose NMU.

“Heidi [Voigt] and Matt [Williams] appealed to me the most,” Helm said of her coaches. “Heidi made me feel like I was ‘part of the team’ before I was part of the team.”

Helm, an English major with a journalism minor, is from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England which has a population of 250,000 people and up to 1 million people in the surrounding urban areas, so coming to Marquette was a change for her.

“It’s a lot different; I lived 15 minutes from a city and 15 minutes from a beach,” Helm said. “It’s very small but it’s very pretty here.”

Helm started swimming at the age of 4 and had to tell a minor lie to get there.

“From a young age I used to watch my cousin learn to swim, but you have to be 5 years old to get lessons,” Helm said. “I threw myself in the pool at the age of 4, so my mom kind of lied and said I was 5 so I could get some lessons.”

Helm comes from an athletic family. Her dad competed in triathlons while her mom was a national champion cross-country athlete. Her younger sister also runs and swims.

Along with swimming, Helm was also a gymnast for 10 years and said she enjoys watching track & field.

Like any foreign-born athlete, coming to the United States can be an odd change at first. Helm became accustomed to it, however, and she did it quickly.

“Food is a big difference here as well,” Helm said. “In the MP there’s no vegetables where if you go somewhere in England it’s all vegetables.”

Some of Helm’s favorite American cuisines include chicken alfredo and the pasta here.

Helm has also taken a liking to NMU and the city of Marquette, commenting on the local scenery the city has to offer. The mild winter hasn’t been bad for her either.

“It’s not as bad as everyone made it out to be,” Helm said. “I don’t know if this is just a good year or what.”

Her favorite swimmer is Adam Peaty, a 22-year old Olympian who took a gold and silver medal at the Rio games last summer.

While Peaty is her swimming idol, she looks up to her father as her main role model and inspiration.

“I think just because I watched him do his sport; he gave up his sport so I could do my sport,” Helm said.

On a typical day of competition, Helm follows a certain schedule that includes a wake-up swim, eating breakfast and listening to music. She also admitted to a few superstitions.

“I have to pack my swim bag in the same order, I have to touch my goggles three times and crack all my fingers and neck,” Helm said.

The success Helm has had in her freshman season has been all but a walk in the park.

“It’s been really overwhelming, but I think you just have to remain levelheaded,” Helm said. “Don’t let the success get to you or affect you too much.”

Helm said that her group of friends has helped her the most this season.

“Savanna Saunders, who took fourth-place at NCAA’s last year, has been a big help. Nicola (Pasquire) is another British girl I came with and the teammates I train with have also been a big help,” Helm said. Overall, Helm would call the season a success for both the men’s and women’s teams. The men are currently ranked ninth in the country while the women are ranked twelfth.

After college, Helm would like to work in journalism but her swimming future is uncertain.

“I don’t know if I’d still be swimming,” Helm said. “If I go back to England I’ll still swim but if I stay here I won’t be able to.”

Up next for the Wildcats is the NCAA National Championships in Birmingham, Alabama on March 7 to 11. While Helm knows she’s going, the rest of the women’s qualification list has yet to be released. Joining her in Birmingham on the men’s side will be freshman Lajos Budai and sophomores Renars Bundzis, Ryan Leonard and Janne Roovers.