Cross Country, Track & Field
Favorite athlete: Craig Engels
Favorite team: My 5th grade In-house basketball team.
Favorite memory competing in sports: Winning the SOL Freedom Division championship with my team.
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: Losing my shoe on a racecourse and running the last half mile in mud.
Music on playlist: Anything from 50s rock to Modern pop music.
Future plans: I want to continue running and study pre-law.
Words to live by: "Put your hand in the fire."
One goal before turning 30: I would like to run a sub 3-hour marathon
One thing people don’t know about me: I’m single!
By GORDON GLANTZ
Lower Moreland senior distance runner Tom Hellenbrand - with his self-effacing humor about leaving his family in the dust while going on runs and the forgettable time he lost his shoe while competing - could easily be the inspiration for a sitcom.
His favorite sports figure, renowned professional middle-distance runner Craig Engels, holds that standing because he doesn’t take himself that seriously, despite evolving into a champion himself.
“He’s a big goofball,” said Hellenbrand. “That’s kind of what I want to be like as well.”
The theme song for the sitcom? How about “Getting Better” by The Beatles?
“When I started, I had fun with it,” said Hellenbrand. “Not that I’m getting better, it’s still important to remember that I’m still doing it for fun and to stay fit and all of that. I’m still trying to be competitive, but I’m trying not to forget who I am.
“I think there are times when I’m taking it too seriously and my arms get really tight and my form locks up. You can really see it. You can see it in pictures where you can tell that I’m just not having a good time and I’m miserable. It makes everything a lot harder for me.”
Fortunately, though, that has not been the norm.
Every day, in every way, Hillenbrand has steadily improved – in the classroom and on the cross-country course in the fall and on the track as distance runner in the winter and spring – to the point where Hellenbrand plans to take his weighted GPA, which tips the scales at 4.7, and new plateaus as a runner to the next level at Jacksonville University.
The final decision came this weekend via a meeting with his mom and dad, Denise and Joe.
“Jacksonville gave me an amazing deal through merit scholarships and a spot in their honors college,” he said. “They have excellent connections for what I want to be a part of for my future. The chance to run at a super competitive level is just the icing on top.”
Hellenbrand’s steady improvement was not lost on his coaches.
Said Lower Moreland coach Greg Green: “I started coaching Tom last year (in the winter) and have watched him develop into a very fine runner. Tom is a great leader who leads by example, which definitely had an impact on the boys’ cross-country team winning the SOL Freedom Division Championship. Tom also won the individual cross-country championship. Tom is running well and is having a very good outdoor season. His hard work will lead to big things at the end of the season.”
It has been a long journey for Hellenbrand, who described himself as a “complete novice” to long distance running. While he ran some track in middle school, it never consisted of more than one lap around the track.
“Cross-country was a huge change for me,” he said. “But, about every season, I dropped a minute off my time.”
He saw his times go from 19:23 as a freshman to 18:48 as a sophomore to 17:23 and then to 16:46 this past fall, good enough for honors and accolades he never thought possible when he first gave it a serious go.
“This year was really exciting,” said Hellenbrand, who was the SOL Freedom individual champion. “I came in third place in districts, so I had a chance to go to states for cross-country.”
While COVID wiped out last outdoor season and left him barely running this winter, Hellenbrand is just satisfied to be doing what he does best.
“Things have been going pretty good,” he said. “It’s definitely a little weird but, overall, it’s definitely been a lot of fun just coming out and competing. I’m able to still have meets and everything.”
A lot of his gratitude about this spring’s situation is a product what happened a year ago.
“It was really disappointing,” he said. “Around that time, we started really hitting our stride. We had a group that I was a part of that went to the Meet of Champions for indoors. That was a pretty big deal for us. But, we didn’t get to carry it out through the spring.”
In the winter, most of Hellenbrand’s participation came as a junior running the mile and the 800, but he dialed back his senior participation in deference to his younger sister, Siri.
“She didn’t feel comfortable going to any of the meets,” he said. “Obviously, they are all indoors. Out of respect for her, we decided I wouldn’t go to many of the meets. I only went to one or two during the whole indoor season.”
Not participating in winter track allowed Hellenbrand the opportunity to do a lot of individual work to get him ready for the ongoing spring campaign.
“I did a lot of cardio work,” he said. “My freshman year, I played basketball for Lower Moreland during the winter. I was awful. My sophomore year, I focused on lifting and things like that to get ready for track.”
Hellenbrand runs the mile, 800 and 4x4 relay for the Lions during the spring outdoor season. While he may not be ticketed for states, like in the fall, he has steadily progressed as well to the point that he hopes to qualify for districts.
“There has definitely been a lot of progression in the last year,” he said. “This year was really a huge improvement for me. I’ve dropped about 18 seconds off my (mile) time.”
A-OK with Plan B
Fate played a heavy role in Hellenbrand even running cross-country at Lower Moreland in the first place.
After moving into the school district from Centennial (William Tennent), he tried out for the soccer team as a goalie and was promptly cut.
“When I didn’t make the team, I decided to run cross-country instead,” he said, with a chuckle. “I’ve just been doing it ever since. (Soccer) didn’t work out, but that’s OK, though.”
The initial plan was to maybe stay in shape and try out for soccer again, but the old saying about one door opening when another closes definitely applied.
“I never thought I would I ever make it that far,” he said. “When I first started with cross-country, I thought it would just be a fun thing to do, to maybe keep in shape for next soccer season. Keeping with it and everything, it was all worth it.”
Despite the abrupt end to his soccer career at Lower Moreland, and despite his running success, Hellenbrand is not a one-trick pony.
While he gave up hoops on the scholastic level, he enjoys the sport and gladly works as a youth coach for fifth graders, projecting his own value system – having fun while getting better – onto his young charges.
“I still play some, and I still coach at the Lower Southampton Community Center,” he said. “It’s just so much fun to do. I do that with a couple of my old basketball friends.”
The basketball coaching is an extension of the joy Hellenbrand derives from working with kids.
He said: “Absolutely. I worked as a camp counselor my freshman year as well.”
Hellenbrand – who credits longtime cross-country coach Dick Rapson (who also coached Hellenbrand’s father at Lower Moreland) and former teammate Shane Cohen for their inspiration -- is also active in the school community, serving as a Class Representative.
“It’s a little bit different than student council,” said Hellenbrand, also a member of the school chess team. “I mostly just help to set the prom and graduation.”
At the top of the priority list is academics, where Hellenbrand’s course load has always included AP and honors classes.
“I’m pretty loaded up with that,” he said. “It’s no fun sometimes, but what can you do? It’s definitely something I’ve had to learn to balance out. It really is a lot of scheduling it all out. It’s a lot of, ‘When do I have time to study for stuff? When do I put aside time to stretch and still put aside time to do homework?’ It took a while to do that, but I think I kind of figured it all out now.”