February 2, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 32°F


Back in the swing of things

As if rooted to the spot, senior Paul Helm stands facing away from the throwing area, the bulging muscles in his arms relaxed. Then, with one swift kick of his left leg, he spins with the shot put pressed firmly against his neck, teeth clenched, and launches it into the air.

Senior Paul Helm throws the weight during practice Friday at Cornell University in Barton Hall. MICHELLE BOULÉ/THE ITHACAN

For every step Helm takes in the thrower’s circle, he strays further and further away from the original script of his college career. Becoming a member of the men’s indoor track team was certainly not what Helm anticipated when he first arrived at Ithaca College. Football was his future.

“I wanted to play, so I just pretty much fit any role on the team I could in high school,” he said. “The goal was to play football in college.”

Helm played a handful of positions on offense, defense and special teams for Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass. After he was recruited by the college, Helm played defensive end for the Bombers during his freshman year. But a freak play during his sophomore season permanently altered Helm’s football career.

“I was about to make a sack against [Hartwick College], and another teammate dove from the other direction and completely missed the quarterback,” Helm said. “He ended up hitting me right in the back with his helmet. And from there the pain never really went away.”

That pain turned out to be four consecutive stress fractures in Helm’s lumbar spine. The fractures were caused by large amounts of pressure and stress over a long period of time but was aggravated by the hit and eventually formed tiny cracks in Helm’s vertebrae.

“It felt like somebody put a wedge in my back and was pushing deep into my stomach,” Helm said. “And the best way for someone to make the pain go away would be to punch me in the stomach and send the pain back out the other way.”

Helm said the intense pain was affecting his ability to train at practices — to the point that he could only use weight machines — and after three different doctors’ opinions, Helm received the news that his football career was over.

“I’m kind of a stubborn person,” Helm said. “And the only way that I could not ever play football again was if the doctors told me ‘You cannot play’ in a concrete way.”

With his dream of playing college football suddenly brought to a halt, Helm said he was left without a sport and without a major.

“After the injury I said, ‘Well maybe I should start to refocus on the things that actually matter. I need to get a career and get an education,” Helm said.

Helm decided to major in health care management and began adjusting to life without football. With a career path finally chosen, Helm looked for a new sport to play. Seeking to replace the thrill of football, he chose lacrosse. His back was feeling better, and he found he could do almost anything on the field without pain.

However, the team’s trainers and doctors were still concerned about the chances of even further damage if Helm happened to suffer another major hit. They decided they couldn’t allow him to play.

Unfazed, Helm said his “don’t take ‘no’ for an answer” attitude drove him to pursue another sport.

“I’m self-motivated in general,” Helm said. “I just want to be the best I can be across the board. I love to compete.”

Helm, who was a track athlete in high school, decided to give the sport another try. Helm said the transition from the frenetic pace of football to  track and field has been tough.

“I’m used to football being play after play right in a row, and it’s fast paced,” Helm said “But in track you do one thing, and then you sit around for two hours, so it’s a completely different animal.”

Assistant Throwing Coach Jake Edelman said Helm came to the team with a great attitude and gave the rest of the squad a shot in the arm with his unbridled energy.

“At the first home meet last year, Paul was a little excited, to say the least,” Edelman said. “He was getting everybody up, and everyone honestly on that day was really cheering for each other because Paul more or less got everybody started, and it snowballed from there.”

Junior Spencer Barry, Helm’s throwing teammate, said Helm’s upbeat personality has rubbed off on the rest of the squad from day one.

“I actually thought he was a freshman just because of his attitude, and he was so bubbly about practice,” Barry said. “Whereas most times a junior wouldn’t be so pumped and excited for his first day of track. We actually gave him the nickname ‘Extreme’ just because of how he was always bouncing off the walls.”

Helm said his biggest goal is to give throwers juniors Barry and Jusan Hamilton a run for their money.

Helm currently has the team’s best distance in the shot put with a throw of 12.55 meters and is within 2 meters of Hamilton’s team-leading effort of 14.47 meters in the weight this season.

Though Helm said he doesn’t experience pain while throwing, training and strength exercises during practices can be painful. But he knows when to back off and will take it easy for a day or two.

Helm attends regular treatment sessions at the Hill Center for the pain that remains from his injury.

During sessions he does abdominal exercises and lots of stretches to maintain flexibility in his back. He also tries to realign his hips, which are naturally off balance and have caused atrophy in his lower back. Helm said while the sessions do help him feel better, the pain in his back is never completely gone.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like. So I just go day to day, and if I’m feeling good then I’m happy ,and if I’m not then that’s OK,” he said. “There’s no reason to feel bad about it.”

After he graduates in May, Helm said he hopes to find a job in the health care industry and get a few years of work experience before returning back to school. Helm said he’s disappointed about his football career, but the experience has made him stronger and more resilient.

“The injury turned out to be good because I made it good,” Helm said. “I’ve made changes in my life that I’m glad I’ve made. I didn’t let it defeat me; I wanted to beat it.”