When runner Kristin Ihle Helledy decided to return to the sport in 1996, she went looking for personal inspiration as well as outside support. That came in the form of different coaches over the years, but perhaps the one with the most impact on her experience is also the one who influenced her early in her career. That individual is Lyle Knudson, running coach and Ihle Helledy’s former track coach at the University of Florida.
Knudson had lost contact with Ihle Helledy over the years as their careers took disparate turns. Ihle Helledy took a break from running from 1992 to 1995 when she was frustrated with the sport and decided to concentrate on her education while reevaluating her goals. But running called her back, and she took to the track where she qualified for and competed in the 1996 Olympic trials. Knudson witnessed her incredible run as a finalist in the 10K. She followed her appearance there at the World University Games the following August in Sicily. Knudson, who had yet to become her coach again, was astonished at all that Ihle Helledy had accomplished to date. Reunited at the Olympic trials, the two eventually decided to pair up again as her career continued to take flight.
Lyle Knudson had a long history of working with high-performing athletes, including seven Olympians — two before he turned 30. His résumé is full of experience working with runners throughout several national and international competitions, including serving as head coach of the women’s team at the Pan Am Games. His mantra to always “train specific to the demands of the event” held true for Kristin Ihle Helledy, as he helped her prepare for a 10K run held in Utah, where runners would face not only a test of endurance but altitude. To ready her for the race, Knudson had Ihle Helledy train for two weeks near his home in Frisco, Colorado, to acclimate to the terrain.
Now 67 and working as a high school teacher, Knudson looks back on his coaching career with mixed emotions. His experience with athletics began as a high school student who excelled at everything from baseball to track. His coaching style of pushing his athletes to their utmost limits came from his personal experience of being well-rounded but not pursuing one particular sport during his prime. His athletes were exposed to a unique training model that Knudson developed after his experience coaching, as well as pursuing a doctoral degree that included studies in kinesiology. The result was a path that helped student athletes explore a wide variety of sports and events before deciding on a single avenue for their careers.
His experience helped him lead the way with programs at Colorado State University, Utah State University, and eventually the University of Florida. His program helped student athletes who were otherwise overlooked by recruiters not only compete but outdo their own personal best times for races in events. Moving on from college programs, Knudson oversaw the U.S.A. Track & Field (USATF) junior elite championship program with the goal of producing Olympians who could be truly competitive on an international stage. He estimates that 70%-75% of U.S. Olympians from 1984-2004 went through the USATF camps he helped oversee.
Never one for politicking or taking the spotlight, Knudson left USATF as he perceived emphasis in the program shifted from performance to finances. Throughout his career, he’s remained true to his beliefs in the priorities that athletes should have as they train, coupling physical aspects with psychological approaches to sport. The results were palpable for his mentees.
“With Lyle’s program, you don’t have any psychological limits on exactly how fast you can run,” said Kristin Ihle Helledy, who trained with Knudson in the late 1990s as she looked to reignite her own career. “I had a season under Lyle where I either set personals or was within seconds of personals for eight months straight. I would even set them in training.”