Participating in the same sport with her twin — and constantly finishing just behind her — was a source of frustration for Hagerstown's Kirsten Helman. So much so that after eight years of serious training, Helman quit inline skating despite being one of the best in her age group in the nation.
But in her two years away from the sport, Helman discovered a few things she missed — the rush of flying around an oval, the friends she made in the sport, and, most of all, the hours spent training and competing with her sister, Kelsey Helman.
So at age 14, Kirsten Helman returned with different expectations and a fresh appreciation for the sport. Four years later, she is skating better than ever — well enough, in fact, to make the USA Inline Speed Skating World Team for the first time, joining Kelsey, a fixture on the squad.
In November when they compete in the world championships in Rosario, Argentina, the Helman twins will be the only pair of siblings on the 24-person U.S. squad.
"It's neat. I'm really excited for her," Kelsey said. "It's nice to be able to do this together."
The world championships have become routine for Kelsey. She has made trips to South Korea (2011), Italy (2012) and Belgium (2013). But this one will be special for obvious reasons.
Kirsten qualified for the team in June with her performance in the USA Roller Sports Outdoor National Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., and did so with an unusual strategy. Despite being eligible for junior competition until age 19, the 18-year-old Kirsten competed as a senior (unlimited age) against the sport's veterans.
"I saw more confidence in her," Kelsey said. "We weren't in direct competition. She skated seniors and I skated juniors. So I think there was less stress for her."
While Kelsey won the 500-meter junior sprint race in 48.07 seconds, Kirsten placed second in the 500-meter senior sprint race, just off the hip of Erin Jackson (47.54), a bronze medalist in the event at the 2013 world championships.
"Being right there with one of the best in the world gives Kirsten an enormous boost in confidence," said her coach, Patty Leazier. "Kirsten has always had a lot of ability, but she's not one of those athletes who thrives under the gun. If it was basketball, she's not the one who would want the ball in her hands at the end of the game. But she's really starting to overcome a lot of the mental aspects that have held her back. This year has been huge for her."
In July at the USA Indoor Speed Skating Championships in Lincoln, Neb., with Kelsey competing in the unlimited age group, Kirsten won her second straight junior overall championship. The overall champion is determined by points accumulated in three events — the 500 meters, 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters. Kirsten overcame a disqualification in the 500 by winning the 1,000 and finishing second in the 1,500. Meanwhile, Kelsey won the 500 and placed third in the 5,000 in the world class competition, placing fourth overall.
Competitiveness has always fueled the Helmans, both recent graduates of North Hagerstown. Leazier recalls when the girls were in primary school and Kirsten pushed Kelsey to her limit in a practice run.
"Kelsey picked up a cone and chased Kirsten around the rink," Leazier said.
The twins vividly recall the first time Kirsten defeated Kelsey in an official meet. It was 10 years ago and Kelsey ripped off her helmet, threw it and then punched her sister.
"I was excited for her, but I was mad at myself for letting her beat me," Kelsey said. "I went back home and I trained harder so she wouldn't beat me again. And she hasn't since."
It was a source of frustration for Kirsten when she dropped out of the sport at age 12.
"Kirsten's always been right there — one of the best in her age group," Leazier said. "But Kelsey's always been the one that people talk about. Finishing second to the same girl for years and years is tough. But when it's your twin sister, well, it wore and wore on her."
When asked why she left the sport, Kirsten takes on a pained expression and her voice changes, as if recalling a tragedy.
"I just didn't feel like I was good enough," she said. "I always felt like my sister came before me and all this other stuff. It just got old."
The training is a grind. In the morning, the Helmans practice outdoors at Fairgrounds Park or the Hagerstown Regional Airport, skating long distances mixed with sprints and grueling uphill runs. Then they are off to Gold's Gym for bicycle workouts (Monday and Friday), legs (Tuesday), plyometrics (Wednesday), or arms and core (Thursday). After a few hours of rest at home, they work out at Turner Skating Palace, where they also hold part-time jobs.
"We haven't had a summer, but I love skating," Kirsten said. "It gives me my friends."
And this summer, skating has given her much more — a sense of equality with her twin sister.
Kevin Dunleavy is assistant sports editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.