Looking at Helgi Olafson it is impossible to tell he has a potentially debilitating disease.
The 30-year-old endurance athlete has ankylosing spondylitis — a form of autoimmune arthritis that causes vertebrae in the spine to fuse together.
“Most people are shocked when I tell them I have the disease,” Olafson said. “If you look at me you would have no idea. On top of that, I would say 95 percent of the people do not know what it is”
Olafson was diagnosed in 2001, after consulting a doctor because of chronic back pain and discomfort in his hips. Initially, the diagnosis came back as sciatica, but a series of further tests revealed his condition was ankylosing spondylitis.
“I thought my life was over,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. Was I going to grow together in one piece and not be able to move? Was I going to be able to run or go to work like a regular person?”
Instead of dwelling on his diagnosis, Olafson used it as a wake-up call.
“After I was diagnosed I did as many things as I could to live a normal life, which included not focusing on the disease,” Olafson said. “A few years before I moved to Hawaii, my dad died of diabetes. Everybody loved my dad and he was a great guy, but he really did not take care of himself. I did not want to end up like that. I made a decision to take control of my health and turn over a new leaf.”
Olafson cut all of his bad habits out of his life and got in touch with his body. He spent a lot of time outside and got active by joining a paddling club. It was not until 2012 that he ran in his first event — Lava Man Waikoloa.
“There was a guy on my paddling team looking for a relay runner, so I volunteered,” Olafson said. “I did a little training — not as much as I should have — but I enjoyed the race and the experience was infectious.”
Immediately following the race Olafson enlisted the help of coach Rick Rubio, a fixture on the Kona triathlon scene and four-time Ironman World Championship competitor.
“Helgi really keeps the disease at bay by listening to his body,” Rubio said. “He has developed some good core strength and has great endurance.”
Olafson has traveled across North America participating in triathlons and uses every stride, stroke and pedal of his journey to raise awareness for ankylosing spondylitis and all forms of arthritis, which affects as many as 2.7 million Americans.
“In my travels I’m connecting with all kinds of different people, but it is getting to a frequency where every week I get an email, Facebook message or tweet about someone with the disease reaching out to me,” Olafson said. “It is great to see some proof in the pudding.”
Most recently, Olafson completed his first full Ironman triathlon in Canada, finishing with a time of 11:01:29.
“Helgi is a great example for someone who has arthritis or something they feel is holding them back,” Rubio said. “If you start working out, eating healthy and getting out there, people would find they can do a lot more than they think.”
Olafson has set the bar high for his personal goals, hoping to be a sponsored, professional triathlete and qualify for Ironman by 2015. However, his goals for the Helgi Olafson Foundation is what he may put even more importance in.
The foundation is seeking Big Island residents interested in training, racing and fundraising with the Racing for a Cure Triathlon Team at Lavaman Keauhou on Nov. 24.
“We are trying to attract beginners and athletic-minded individuals alike,” Olafson said. “This dynamic will be for the purpose of building a strong team that will both be successful in achieving fitness goals and create a lasting impression in support of the Arthritis Foundation of Hawaii and the Arthritis National Research Foundation.”
Lavaman Race Director Gerry Rott is excited to be partnering with Olafson.
“People like Helgi are what Lavaman is all about,” Rott said. “He is really an inspiration and stories like his are what keep me putting on the race. To see people take on their challenges and do things they never thought possible is amazing.”
For more information on the Helgi Olafson Foundation and upcoming events, including the Race for a Cure Triathlon team, visit helgiolafson.org.