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by Elaine K Howley

August 16, 2018

Helen Lin transitions from the water to national television with a strong grip and little fear of heights

“Up next is one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet—this is Helen Lin!” the announcer on American Ninja Warrior boomed as the 33-year-old comedy club sales manager bounded to the top of the starting platform to begin an obstacle-course run across countless televisions screens around America. Beaming a wide, toothy grin, Lin’s palpable excitement electrified the crowd, which roared in response to her debut on season 10 of the popular reality show.

But this would be no ordinary outing by an average rock climber or CrossFit enthusiast. This qualifying run filmed in Philadelphia in May 2018 and broadcast nationally on NBC in July was undertaken by an avid swimmer and longtime U.S. Masters Swimming member with a history of enjoying high-risk, high-adrenaline adventures in the open water.

But first, a twist. As the commentators presented Lin’s story and journey to the ANW stage, she slipped a sliver swim cap over her head in a smooth motion practiced near-daily over the preceding the two decades. Her long, straight, black ponytail disappeared under the cap, tucked up for safe keeping. She adjusted a pair of goggles on her forehead, the pink straps dangling off the back of her head as she flashed a nervous smile. “She has a very unique training technique,” one of the commentators remarked. “She’s an ice swimmer! And we’re not talking a polar plunge where you hop in and hop out. Lin goes out in the dead of winter with water temperatures sometimes in the 30s and swims a mile or even more!” The crowd lost its collective mind as Lin flashed another smile and took a deep breath before launching herself onto the course.

A Happy Identity

ANW contestants are encouraged to develop a unique persona, which often results in some contestants wearing wacky or whimsical costumes or capes while they’re traversing the range of challenging obstacles that demand superior upper body strength. For some contestants, finding a distinguishing characteristic to promote can be a challenge. But Quincy, Mass., resident Lin, a swimmer since high school and former president and member of New England Masters Swim Club, looked to her aquatic background for on-air individuality.

The funny thing is, it was a quest for an expanded identity—one not bound up completely with a pair of goggles—that landed Lin on that stage in Philadelphia to begin with. Although she was heavily involved with Masters Swimming for years and had organically transitioned into open water, marathon, and eventually ice swimming, that identity had begun to chafe a bit in 2016.

“It was a little bit of an identity crisis,” she says of needing to expand her horizons beyond the water. “I was so involved in swimming and people thought of me as just a swimmer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I said, ‘I think maybe one day I want to be more than just a swimmer. That’s not all I am.’”

Lin made an impact on the swimming world when she began transitioning to open water swimming in the early 2010s. The slender swimmer exploded stereotypes of what ice athletes look like (stocky and well-insulated) when she completed an ice mile in the Boston Harbor in December 2014. Per the rules of ice swimming established by the South Africa–based International Ice Swimming Association, Lin wore no wetsuit to complete that grueling event, but rather just a single cap, pair of goggles, and a textile swimsuit. She completed the swim in 33 minutes, 59 seconds in 41-degree water.

As a marathon swimmer who’d completed a 16-mile double crossing of Boston Harbor and as the first person to complete an 18-mile round trip swim between Nantasket Beach in Hull, Mass., to Nahant Beach, Lin says she “wasn’t sure what my next swim would be. I wasn’t stoked about anything.”

But a chance trip to a rock climbing gym in early 2016 changed all that. “I tried rock climbing on a whim and fell in love with it,” she says, adding she’d “been a fan of the America Ninja Warrior show for a billion years.” Lin realized the skills she was learning in rock climbing could transfer to the obstacles competitors face on the show. She began to wonder if she might one day be able to become a ninja warrior herself.

It took more than two years of diligent training and extensive work on her upper body strength and overall conditioning, but Lin was soon besting some of the most challenging obstacles competitors face on the show. It was time to audition. Casting about for the thing that would differentiate her to show producers, Lin says a nonswimming friend who’d encouraged her to apply for the show assured her that even though Lin might have begun to think of ice swimming as “normal” after seeing a constant Facebook feed of friends around the world engaging in the discipline over the preceding several years, highlighting her cold-water superpower could be her ticket to running on national TV. That friend was right.

“It’s entertaining,” Lin says of the costumes contestants wear, and she figured wearing her trusty cap and goggles during her run would not only mark her as a swimmer but might also prove useful if she fell off one of the ridiculously difficult obstacles and into the 65-degree pool below. “I figured I will fall in the water, so then I can take a lap to encompass the theme of swimming and show that I’m always ready for a swim. It’s totally silly,” she says, but the crowd loved her dual identity as the ice swimming ninja warrior.

Back Into the Drink

After surviving several obstacles during her ANW appearance, Lin lost her footing on a challenge called the Broken Bridge, a series of hanging foam triangles that sway and shift with each step. Although her run took just 1:49, she easily energized the crowd with her infectious sense of joy. Living up to her high school nickname “Happy Helen,” Lin radiated the disbelieving thrill of someone who was living in the moment and soaking up the delight of a dream realized. Though she was out of the running for the next stage of the competition, the crowd was completely on her side when, immediately after falling into the pool, Lin repositioned her goggles over her eyes and took several strong and steady freestyle strokes across the pool.

Lin says she’s not certain yet what will come next, but she hopes that her brush with fame will help boost her recently established personal training business, Happy Helen Fitness, which she’s building alongside her full-time job at ImprovAsylum in Boston.

In the meantime, her advice to other swimmers who may be feeling pigeon-holed into an aquatic identity is to not be afraid to give new activities and experiences a try. “See if that new thing will bring about new discoveries,” she says, noting that for her, “trying new things was scary.”

Putting swimming on hold to pursue rock climbing felt like, she says, a “huge betrayal of swimming,” a sport that had given her many opportunities to grow and shine. But, in switching to rock climbing, she learned new skills, began building a business, ended up on national television, and even met her boyfriend. She says that nothing good happens from staying stagnant, so reach for that next rung, whether it’s on the dreaded “salmon ladder” or takes a less literal form. And for her part, Lin’s next move might just be right back into the pool or open water—she’s got her cap and goggles at the ready just in case.


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