SWIMRUN IS A HUMANE SPORT – An interview with Helen Wikmar CEO of ARK Sports
For those who know Helen you know she is a warm, loud and charismatic woman who really is passionate about swimrun. This is an interview by Nancy Heslin, equally warm, loud and passionate.
SLM: We know you as the CEO of ARK Sports and an avid swimrunner. Have you always been into sports?
Helen Wikmar: I played competitive handball until I was 23 and my goal was to play on the Swedish national team. I injured my knees so many times that I had to let go of my dream and I stopped training totally in 2006.
SLM: At 38, you have a ton of energy as we see on your Insta feed. What did you do after handball to stay active?
HW: I have always been a happy person but between 2006 to 2014 I was super tired – I was a mom of three and weighed 90kg.
Honestly, after the twins arrived in 2013, I didn’t recognize the person I had become. I hadn’t done anything for myself and didn’t even know what colour I liked. All I cared about was my kids. I couldn’t even chase after them at the beach because I limped from all my knee operations caused by handball injuries. So this happened at the beach. This was “the moment” when I changed. When I decided to put ME first again.
It was a tough but I was so focused on being able to play with my kids that finally I had something to work towards. Losing weight wasn’t enough motivation for me but when I realised my 3-year-old son ran faster than me … that was a huge incentive. I started to work out again in 2014.
SLM: So how did you start to make Helen a priority after the beach moment?
HW: I thought I hated running but, it turns out, I enjoyed it. That made me think outside the box – What else did I say I didn’t like but had never really tried … swimming. I hated the pool, wearing a bathing suit, goggles, a swim cap and especially going to a new environment where I didn’t know anyone. This was the ultimate test for me, to give it a shot. So, I registered for a course and for six months I went to one swim lesson a week … with no friends. I had an enormous amount of anxiety every time. Suddenly I started to like it, and now it’s one of the best things in my life. It taught me to stop saying no to everything and to live a little.
SLM: You started in triathlon before swimrun?
HW: I had never biked but did my first triathlon in August 2016. I think my first swimrun was two weeks after with my brother – I couldn’t even do the front crawl. It was an adventure and the coolest finish line ever. I did two more races in 2017 and finished my first Ironman.
In 2017, I saw the ÖTILLÖ, The Swimrun World Championship live on YouTube and knew one day I had to do that race. And in 2018, I did it for the first time.
SLM: How did you end up at ARK?
HW: After I saw the winning teams at the 2017 ÖTILLÖ WC wearing supercool wetsuits, I reached out ARK via Instagram. Since they already had the world champions as ambassadors, I thought they would need someone more “normal” as a complement to these super humans. I started as an ambassador, helping out at events and posting ARK suits and gear on my Instagram. I only had 500 followers but they were really into training and it was a very active account.
In 2019, I quit my “ordinary” job. I had lost my passion and had to leave before I became bitter and grumpy. I decided to play it cool for four months and enjoy a period with nothing to do. And I did. I trained a lot. I found a teammate who wanted to try for podium at the 2019 ÖTILLÖ WC. I didn’t have a training schedule and did what I wanted, when I wanted. We came in third, amazing considering neither of us had trained for something like that before – and we weren’t experienced swimmers or runners. After the ÖTILLÖ, ARK offered me a full-time job as Head of Operations. It was a dream come true.
SLM: And then you were appointed CEO of ARK Sports.
HW: Yes, when Christofer Sundberg left the company in January 2021 to focus on his new gaming business, Liquid Swords. I manage everything from finances and retail and customer support to events and marketing, as well as our webpage and Instagram account. I also test and develop gear and suits together with other athletes. I don’t work to live; I live because of my work.
SLM: How has ARK developed its product line since 2019?
HW: We have tried to develop a broader product line but maintain quality. We need to have year-round products, not only in summer, and we want athletes who race in ARK suits and gear to be the happiest on the course.
SLM: Most common gear questions you get asked?
HW: The most common question is: “What size pull buoy is the best?”
SLM: What is one must-have piece of kit for swimrun?
HW: A nice teammate. Second is a big pull buoy.
SLM: This year you have had two ÖTILLÖ podiums for the women’s division – first place at Utö and third in your home town of Gothenburg (and you also did the KONA Ironman!). When you look back to your first swimrun, what were you most nervous about?
HW: Everything! My brother and I had bought pull buoys and paddles but I had never used either and barely knew how to crawl. After the first swim both of us stopped using the pull buoy. Martin was so strong in the running sections that I was exhausted. I remember we both got a cramp at the same time in one of the last swim sections and we just started to laugh really, really hard – you know when you can’t stop laughing? Teams passed us and wondered what we were up to. The crowd standing at the beach started to laugh and everyone helped us get out from the swim as we couldn’t use our legs. This is one of the best memories I have from swimrun. We managed to cross the finish line and thought it was so fun and exciting, we knew we would continue with the sport.
SLM: As a mom and CEO, how much do you have to train?
HW: I don’t really know how much I train. I train when I can, when I want and when I have a window in my life. I don’t have a schedule and don’t track my training.
SLM: How do you choose your partners?
HW: I try to compete as much as possible in the Women’s division as there are too few women’s team competing. I want to inspire more to compete – if I can you definitely can.
Before the race, I find it helpful to know what the goal is for both of us because it’s a pain to start a race with different goals! Will we push hard or take it easy? As long as we are on the same page everything is cool. And of course, I can have a bad day and totally disappoint my teammate and vice-versa. A lot of people set high goals – why not see what happens? Maybe you will manage to cross the finish line, maybe not, but it is an adventure and you will have a good time and memories for life. Who cares?
SLM: How have you seen the Women’s category change?
HW: It hasn’t really changed, we are still too few teams. The unique thing with swimrun is that everyone is equal. We all start together, which is why I am not really fond of “women swimrun” as this is a sport we do together as human beings. We have to learn to take our place alongside men and not be afraid. We have to be loud, bad, good, in the way, on the way, everywhere to be equal.
SLM: We were shocked to hear about what happened to your husband Anders during the Swimrun Côte Vermeille in France in June. How did he end up in hospital?
HW: He had been sick for three weeks prior to this race and trained even though he had a fever. When he started the race, he wasn’t 100% yet and had a fever. That’s the downside with swimrun – you sometimes push yourself to not disappoint your teammate. This race was 53k of running at 2,800m altitude and 8k of swimming– and on top of that it was sunny and 42°C.
It became too much for him and running up the biggest mountain to take the lead he crashed. His body said “No!” and stopped functioning. He had to stay in the hospital for 14 days and have dialysis twice to get his kidneys to start working again. He was seconds – or millimetres – from dying that day. He was so lucky.
One of the swimrunners on the winning Men’s team was a doctor and he contacted me after the race. He helped me translate what the doctors were saying as they did not speak much English. He kept in touch daily with the hospital and kept me informed. He also sent me some kind words that I always will remember.
“In a few days Helen, all these will just be bad memories.” That is one I will hold on to forever.