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Company first sergeant, executive officer training side-by-side for JBLM Triple Threat Triathlon

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - In college, 1st Lt. James Appel always wanted to compete in a triathlon.

But, somewhere, he always found a reason not to.

"I kind of made excuses when I was in college for the reasons why I didn't," said Appel, the executive officer for Company C, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. "I had a couple of buddies that did sprint triathlons when I was in college, but I never really committed myself to it."

Today, however, the 26-year-old's excuses are gone, tossed to the wayside by a newfound commitment to the sport - and the help of one very good training partner: his company first sergeant.

First Sgt. Kristopher Rick, who got his start with triathlons more than 20 years ago as a high school student in Yuma, Ariz., is guiding Appel through every step of his goal to finish the daunting race that blends swimming, cycling and running into one physically grueling event.

In July, they'll compete together in JBLM's 20th annual Triple Threat Triathlon - a shortened version of a full triathlon called a "sprint triathlon" - in which competitors will face a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a three-mile foot race.

The two have different goals - Appel simply wants to finish a triathlon, and Rick, who completed an Iron Man last year in 14 hours, 18 minutes, will use the Triple Threat as a training event in his pursuit of a new full-triathlon best time.

But for both, the multi-faceted race represents a very personal challenge.

"It's something not a lot of people think they can do, so having that goal to strive for is important," Appel said. "It's always been a goal of mine to complete a triathlon."

"I see it as kind of a mark of excellence," said Rick, who put together a triathlon training team in March that comprises 13 soldiers and spouses from his brigade and more than 10 from other units, including Appel. "The people that have interest in triathlons - usually it's something they never thought they could do or thought just other people could do, and then when they start getting into it realize it's attainable.

"It gives them that spark, and they keep driving and aspire to do bigger and better things."

Six days a week, Rick and Appel train on and around JBLM, both striving for their own bigger and better things.

They ride their bikes for miles down twisting stretches of vacant, paved road on the installation's training grounds and swim in the open waters of American Lake, which lies partly on JBLM and partly in the neighboring community of Lakewood.

Rick has helped Appel set his bike up to exact specifications, and he's coached him through his biggest challenge: the swim.

Fortunately, that's Rick's strongest suit.

"It's really great to have someone there to mentor me and kind of show me the way," said Appel, a Colfax, Wash., native, sitting on his bike in the JBLM parking lot where the two start their 12-mile training rides each Tuesday morning. "I really appreciate the first sergeant driving me."

But Rick said Appel already has the most important quality in any training regimen, especially in a sport that takes every bit of devotion one can muster.

"Drive and determination-wise, and will to do it, he's already got it," Rick said, standing next to Appel and leaning over his bike, which has a water bottle affixed to the handle bars. "Most people are like, ‘ah, I can't do this.' "

"It's not really a short-term commitment."

But the help between the partners isn't entirely one-sided.

Rick pulls Appel through their long bike rides and open-water swims, offering up every ounce of advice he can to see the triathlon newcomer excel, and Appel leads the way during their runs.

"He's got me on the run; he's a stronger runner," Rick said.

"Yeah, I usually outrun him," Appel chimed in with a laugh.

The run, which, in the case of an Iron Man, stretches 26.2 miles - a full marathon - is where Rick said he'll expect to see much of his time disappear when he competes for a better outcome at his next Iron Man.

Over the past couple of months, the two have grown as athletes, but both agree there's much more to their growth than just physical strength and endurance.

"It definitely gives us more common ground," Appel said. "It helps to build the team (unit), and that's important."

"It's another venue to talk about things," Rick said. "It kind of gives you another way to engage with each other than, ‘roger that, let's go down to the motor pool and do Army stuff.' "

Appel said he and Rick, who have worked together for little more than a year, have bonded on a slightly different level than their work environment typically allows.

"When we're out there, we're talking about everything, from his dog's shoes to big pie-in-the-sky dreams about the world," he said. "It's a way to build the team and share in a challenge."

Though the two are preparing more immediately for the Triple Threat, both have their sights set on a full-scale triathlon in September in eastern Washington State.

But right now, Appel, who faces his very first triathlon in July, is still taking the new journey one step at a time.

"We'll find out after I get out of the water for the first race," he said, bursting into laughter. "We'll see how the sprint triathlon goes, and if I don't drown."

Photo by Sgt. Christopher Gaylord

First Sgt. Kristopher Rick, first sergeant for Company C, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, looks back at the company's executive officer, 1st Lt. James Appel, May 8 during a 12-mile bike ride on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., in preparation for JBLM's 20th annual Triple Threat Triathlon in July. The event will serve as Appel's first triathlon, while Rick is well versed in sport and has even completed an Iron Man race.

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