Spielman, a ‘jewel’ at HHS, still sparkles in track & field

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
One of the most accomplished athletes to grace Hillsboro High School, Angie Helmer Spielman had the right mix of natural talent and a strong work ethic.

Twenty years after graduating from HHS, Spielman-she was married to Mike Spielman in 1991-still owns four individual track-and-field school records:

n 100 meters, 12.5 (1983);

n 200 meters, 25.6 (1983);

n 400 meters, 57.5 (1982);

n 800 meters, 2:22.4 (1984).

Until last Thursday, when freshman Hannah Marsh jumped 17 feet 111/2 inches at the Hesston Invitational, Helmer held that record, too, with a leap of 17-5 in 1983.

“I really am surprised those records have stood this long with the caliber of athletes there are today,” Spielman said. “And the training today is so much different.”

While at HHS, Spielman trained under the tutelage of 34-year Trojan coach Art Balzer.

“She was just a jewel,” said Balzer, now retired and living in North Newton. “You don’t get kids like her very often.

“She was one of the best I ever had the pleasure to coach,” he added. “She was a natural leader, but some of the other kids had trouble following her because she was so good.”

The daughter of Gary and the late Carol Helmer, Spielman was one of three children.

“Angie had a lot of natural talent, but she wouldn’t give up either,” Gary Helmer said. “She was a die-hard, make-things-happen type of a person.

“I was glad she was my daughter and I really felt proud when I’d see her out there on that track.”

As a Trojan, Spielman qualified for the state championships in Wichita all four years.

She found success there, too, earning 12 medals, including three gold medals for three years in a row. Included among her nine state championships was a Class 3A record of 57.5 in the 400 meters as a sophomore in 1982.

“I would say the 400 meters was probably my favorite race because I had a lot of success with it,” Spielman said. “A girl from Minneapolis finally broke that record in 1998.”

Balzer said Spielman’s success didn’t surprise him.

“Angie had natural ability, but she worked hard,” he said. “She was always asking, ‘Do you think I’m running enough?’ You’d always see her out running on her own.”

Spielman said training at Hillsboro was challenging in the days before the all-weather track.

“One year it rained the entire spring so we ended up going to Goessel,” she said. “We didn’t get to work out very often because it was just too soupy.”

Success didn’t come without sacrifice for Spielman and her teammates.

“We worked pretty hard,” she said. “Now, I know so much more about training, but the intervals we did made it a pretty tough workout.

“I didn’t do any distance training, so everything I did was based off my sprints,” she added. “So moving up to the 800 meters was difficult because I didn’t know how to train for it.”

Balzer said Spielman didn’t have much desire initially to run greater distances.

“I told her if she wanted to get into college she’d have to run that longer distance,” he said. “She didn’t run the half mile until her last year. She ran it, and she loved it and stuck with it.”

Spielman said she was a fast runner for as long as she can remember.

“I was pretty fast, just naturally, back in grade school,” she said. “The combination of that and running with the boys in high school brought me a lot of success.”

With nine state titles on her resume, Spielman was courted by numerous colleges, but she eventually chose a track and field scholarship at the University of Kansas.

“I was considered a middle-distance runner, which is anywhere from a 400 to the 1,500,” she said.

The transition from Hillsboro to Lawrence and a Big Eight university took some getting used to.

“Going from Hillsboro to KU was a big shock,” Spielman said. “But the nice thing about being a part of a team like I was is that you’re with a smaller group most of the time and you don’t get swallowed up by the large numbers.

“I wouldn’t say it was an easy adjustment, but it was exciting to travel around the country and compete at all those different colleges.”

While Spielman never lacked confidence in her athletic abilities, she discovered that when running Division I track, she truly wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

“It was intimidating in some instances because in track you’re not only competing against other college athletes, you’re competing against foreign athletes,” she said. “It’s international. You’re running with people who were the best in their country and represented those countries in the Olympics.”

Spielman not only held her own with the NCAA athletes, she thrived on the competition.

In four years of competition-indoor and outdoor track combined-at Kansas, Spielman achieved all-conference honors six times.

“Indoors, I still own the 880-yard record at Kansas University with a time of 2:12.1,” she said. “I also finished my fifth year in cross country because I red shirted one year.”

While at Kansas University, Spielman was noticed for more than just her athletic abilities. She met the man who eventually became her husband in 1991.

“My husband was a distance runner at KU, running the steeplechase, 10,000 meters and cross country,” she said. “Mike did his student teaching in Baldwin the spring before we got married, and they hired him out of college.”

Graduating with a degree in early childhood education, Spielman said teaching and coaching still dominate her life in Baldwin.

“I’ve been teaching for the Baldwin school district as a substitute teacher for the past couple years,” she said. “I also coach junior high track.”

Mike teaches math at Baldwin High and coaches cross country and high school. He’s earned Kansas “Coach of the Year” honors three times.

Spielman said her immediate family doesn’t include children, but “all of our athletes here in Baldwin are our kids.”

Reflecting on her time in Hillsboro helps Spielman identify the needs of her students and athletes in Baldwin.

“I can relate to the athletes that go through Baldwin because I know what it takes for them to compete here, but also what it takes to advance to the next level,” she said. “Athletes today have way too many choices.

“The kids aren’t very focused because they try to compete in too many sports at once,” she said. “You can be well rounded, but that doesn’t mean doing three sports at once.

“It’s hard to coach when you’re trying to get them to work on a sport and they have to leave practice for a tournament in another sport.”

Spielman said she and her husband keep busy away from school as official timers at various track-and-field events around the state and country.

“We’ve timed at the state meet for the past two years,” she said. “This summer we’ll be working the NCAA Division I meet at Austin, Texas, and we’ll go to the Olympics trials and work that, too.”

Keeping in good physical condition is still a priority for Spielman. Each fall, she runs with the Baldwin cross country team.

Spielman said she knows records are made to be broken and it’s only a matter of time before her records will be exceeded.

“I think it’s exciting when records are broken,” she said. “I try to go talk to the athlete who’s getting close to breaking my old records and wish them luck.”

In the meantime, Spielman offers a simple formula to athletes who want to improve their probability of success.

“You can’t substitute hard work for anything,” she said. “You have to be disciplined-just being able to practice every day and trying to be your best even if you don’t feel your best. You have to still push through it.

“You have to set goals, and those goals have to be realistic,” she added. “Then you have to figure out what it takes to reach those goals.”

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