Hi everyone! This interview with Scott Helsley, the first American Master of Sport in Long Cycle, is the first in a series of posts about U.S. Kettlebell Sport history. While many of us are only a few years or just a few weeks/months into lifting kettlebells, there is a small group of American lifters that were competing back in the early 2000’s who were the real trailblazers of the sport.
These posts are meant to educate and inform about the roots of Girevoy Sport in America.
Shoutout to John Wild Buckley for sparking the idea!
What is your athletic background?
I played football and soccer in grade school, and golf in high school. I always lifted recreationally and have always been into fitness.
What do you do for a living?
I’m an anesthesiologist.
How did you get into Kettlebell Sport?
I always had problems with back injuries and sometime around 2004 I was surfing the internet and came across Clarence Bass’s website. Then I found some of Steve Cotter’s stuff, and I contacted him for workouts. I taught myself the sport lifts based on videos, and as I got more into the sport I decided to do a workshop led by Steve Cotter and Ken Blackburn in Michigan.
When did you do your first competition?
My first competition was one that Blackburn hosted in Michigan in 2007. I did Biathlon and Long Cycle – I really thought that I was going to be able to get close to Master of Sport numbers, which proves how naive I was at the time. I think I got around 30 reps in 32kg Long Cycle. At 30 seconds left, one of the bells flew out of my hand. I had too much grip fatigue going!
How long did it take you to get Master of Sport?
A good three years after my competition. It was three years of repetitive failure. You may be able to hit some number in your basement, but that’s not with someone judging you and no counting you – competition is a whole different deal. You travel someplace, you’re all spiked up with adrenaline, and then it just doesn’t happen. I remember Marty Farrell went through the same thing.
When did you get your Master of Sport?
I got my Master of Sport at one of Valery Federenko’s certifications in Cincinnati. Marty and I were both trying for Long Cycle Master of Sport, and I happened to get it that day. I had made up my mind that I was sick of trying and failing, so I convinced myself that failure was not an option. I really disciplined myself during that set; I knew how many reps to do every minute and I stuck to that program without any deviations. I knew I needed 54 reps and that’s what I got.
How did you feel after obtaining your Master of Sport?
Tired… no, I felt pretty good. The worst set I ever did was a 24kg Long Cycle set at 10rpm. I felt absolutely awful – the lighter bells were much harder for me because there was no rest.
Who was your coach?
I worked with Cotter and Blackburn at their seminars, and I worked with Federenko when he was forming ground roots in the states. My coaching came from a mix of different influences and people. I didn’t have someone I would call a “coach”. There were no resources at the time.
Did you have any idea you would set an important milestone in U.S. kettlebell history by becoming first Master of Sport in Long Cycle?
Not really. I had more of a blind obsession with getting Master of Sport for myself, so I could get the number out of my head. It was so annoying to me that I missed MS so many times!
Did you travel internationally to compete?
Never. I couldn’t because I didn’t have the time and I just figured I could get the same amount of torture stateside.
Why did you stop competing?
The main reason I stopped was because I was starting to get problems with a bruised tendon in my left hand, probably where the bell was resting. I still do the lifts when I train now, but I have to use a heavy duty baseball wrist guard.
What do you do now for sport?
I’ve done a lot of indoor erg races, rowing on the water, marathons and half marathons. The conditioning from Kettlebell Sport carried over quite nicely – there’s nothing harder than kettlebells!
Do you keep up with the sport now?
A little bit. Every once in a while I’ll talk to Blackburn. I keep a peripheral eye on the sport. It got too confusing with all the different organizations that were always at war with each other.
How has the sport changed?
It’s gotten more popular, which is good. The big problem is there’s too many different organizations and everyone wants to do their own thing instead of working together towards a common goal. Kettlebell Sport has the potential to be in the Olympics if everyone started working together. Instead of working together there have just been a lot of people with strong personalities that made it hard for everyone to join forces.
Do you think you will compete again?
Maybe, just for fun. Who knows!
What did you like best about Kettlebell Sport?
One, the physical challenge was great; great exercise, great motivation, great mental discipline. Two, the people in the sport. I met some really great people: Ken Blackburn, Steve Cotter, John Buckley, Nazo, Jason Dolby, Mike Sherman, the Ice Chamber crew.
What did you not like about Kettlebell Sport?
Nothing really. The fact that the federations couldn’t get along was the only thing “wrong” with it.
Looking back now, what do you wish you had known when you were lifting?
I wish I would have spent more time on lighter weights. I wish I would have started younger because I would have been more flexible and been able to acquire better technique. If I could have focused on getting better technique with lighter weights and then progressing, I would have achieved my goals quicker. If I had local instruction that would have helped too. The journey was fun.
Any advice to lifters that are just starting the sport?
Don’t rush the heavier weights, work on the flexibility and just enjoy it because it’s all fun.