In honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, this is the latest entry in a GWsports.com series highlighting exemplary alumni who remain connected to the Buff and Blue reflecting on the past, present and future. future of their programs.
Surrounded by dozens of former GW Gymnastics students spanning the three decades of the program under the guidance of Head Coach Margie Foster CunninghamKristie (Gackenheimer) Helfrich rode a familiar roller coaster March 19 during the EAGL Championship at the Charles E. Smith Center.
“There’s something so special about going back to the Smith Center for a competition,” said Helfrich, who represented the Buff and Blue from 1993 to 1997. “I still have the same emotion, the same butterflies and the same excitement than when I was competing.”
When it was over and Buff and Blue had won the title in thrilling fashion while competing on the podium in their home arena, Helfrich and the rest of the alumni joined in the celebration to cap off one of the most memorable days ever. of the program’s history.
“For us, it was just pride,” Helfrich said. “I think I can speak for everyone: when we come back and watch, we’re so happy to see the success of the program. I think part of all of us are out there competing with those girls.”
A member of GW’s Athletics Advisory Board, Helfrich values the continued connection with her alma mater as much as ever, and she’s thrilled to see the gymnastics program continue to progress under Foster-Cunningham, who remains a trusted mentor as she navigates a busy schedule as a mother of four and chief operating officer of a beauty and personal care product research company, The Benchmarking Company.
“I think it really prepared me for life,” Helfrich said. “It sounds a bit cliché, but what Margie is doing with her program is building the tools in your toolkit that you need to be a great professional, a good partner in a marriage, a good parent. J feel like it helped me become the person I am today.”
Looking back, Helfrich feels lucky to have found her way to the Buff and Blue.
The Massachusetts native fell in love with gymnastics watching Olympic champions like Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comăneci, but halfway through high school she wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue her college career.
Ultimately, she joined Foster-Cunningham’s program as an extra, convinced of the combination of top academics and the coach’s vision for a championship program.
Over four years, Helfrich grew with the program, becoming captain as a senior in 1996-97.
Working hard alongside talented teammates like Lori Chaitman, Tracey Ackerman, Lisa Gruber, Shari Doulman, Siobhan Haney, Meena Lakdawala and Alexis Hrynko, she helped lay the foundation for a streak of five consecutive A-10 titles from 1998 to 2002 while forging friendships that will stay strong.
“I feel like they’re teammates for life,” Helfrich said. “Even though we don’t talk to each other because life is very busy, when we get together it’s like time hasn’t passed. We always talk about road trips or the time we had to take the fitness test and we reminisce about all the blood, sweat and tears that went into it.”
Lessons learned from Foster-Cunningham also remain fresh.
Helfrich can still hear his trainer’s voice in his head when times get tough with the reminder that when you think you’ve got nothing left in the tank, there’s still 10% left, and there’s more. Countless other Buff and Blue axioms still prove useful everyday in business and beyond, she says.
“As an extra, I’ve never been a star on the team, but you’re only as good as your weakest link,” said Helfrich, a former A-10 All-Academic winner who earned his accounting degree from GW School. work. “The more I got better and the more I could contribute to the team, it made our whole program better.
“I think that’s true in all cases – at work, in a relationship, in a family. Everyone has to step up their game and contribute for one of these units to succeed.”
Helfrich hopes to bring some of these values to the current generation through his work with the Positive Coaching Alliance.
She serves on the Mid-Atlantic Board of the national organization dedicated to cultivating a positive culture in youth sports through the education of coaches, parents and young athletes. In May, the GW women’s soccer team lent a hand by volunteering at a soccer clinic for 500 DC kids at Audi Field as part of a PCA event that Helfrich helped organize.
“Your kids spend a lot of time with their coaches, and they have such an impact on their lives, for better or for worse,” said Helfrich, who keeps busy traveling the world to watch her children’s games Kaitlyn, Matthew, Carrie and Tommy. “I really feel like rooting all of this in some kind of positivity to build these kids up is only going to make them more successful.”
The difference a coach can make was certainly visible on that unforgettable day in March at the EAGL Championship.
Helfrich and the reunited group of former Foster-Cunningham gymnasts shared laughs about the good times at a pre-match social, then came together to cheer on Buff and Blue as they put on a show at the Smith Center to claim the program’s eighth conference. Title.
The festivities provided a beautiful reminder of all that has changed and all that has not changed for the program they love.
“I feel like the foundations are the same: the granularity, the commitment to excellence and the dedication that the team has,” Helfrich said. “I think the difference between when I was there and now is that they are given the resources to compete at the highest level.
“Everything is up a notch. Kudos to Margie, the administration and the school for recognizing that the gymnastics team is a good investment.”
Spotlight on past Title IX
Denise Dombay (’88) – Women’s swimming and diving