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446th airman discovers competitve spirit during triathlon

Major Judy Coyle, C-17 pilot with the 728th Airlift Squadron, earned first place in Armed Forces event

Staff Sgt. Madelyn McCullough photo

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A single triathlon was all it took for one Air Force Reserve C-17 pilot from the 446th Airlift Wing to propel her competitive spirit into a whole new world of athleticism.

Major Judy Coyle, C-17 pilot with the 728th Airlift Squadron, earned first place in the Armed Forces Triathlon in June of this year. She swam 1,500 meters, biked 40 kilometers and ran 10 kilometers in two hours and 11 minutes, outscoring competitors from all branches of the U.S. military and Canada.

Contrary to her current status, Coyle didn’t grow up with an above average fitness level. Besides being a swimmer in high school, she ran sporadically in college but after graduating, worked a desk job while raising her three-year-old son. Fitness was not a top priority for her back then the way it is now.

How does one make such a change in their life?

This journey began for Coyle when she traded in her engineering hat for a pilot’s seat in the Air National Guard in 2002. At KC-135 tanker aircraft pilot training at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., in 2004, she found herself focused more on her fitness.

From that point on, she stayed in shape but it was not until joining the 728th Airlift Squadron with the Rainier Wing that she rose to the next level of fitness. In this squadron, she joined a group of Airmen and retirees competing in the Boise Half Ironman Triathlon.

“That was my first triathlon,” she said. “After that, I got bit. I got the bug and I haven’t stopped.”

Since then, she has been in many competitions, all leading up to her most recent victory at the Armed Forces Triathlon. Training for events such as these has challenged her physically and mentally, forcing her to learn time management and prioritize what was important to her.

“When I’m training for an Ironman, I’m doing 20-25 hours a week,” Coyle said. “What sounds crazy becomes so normal. You learn so much more about yourself when you are pushing yourself. I have a 19 year old son and I’m thinking, ‘Aren’t I supposed to know everything at this point in my life?’ But I’m still learning so much. It puts you in situations you wouldn’t normally find yourself in and challenges your priorities.”

Recently, Coyle was hired by Delta Airlines as a pilot, making managing her time even tougher.

“Right now, I go in spurts,” she said. “I’m on the road about five or six days and I’m home for a couple of days and feel like I have to cram it all in when I’m home. I still probably train 10 to 15 hours a week.”

Though she wishes she could do more, she knows she can no longer sacrifice things like sleep like she did when she worked a desk job.

“Now I’m in a flying job with 150 or 160 people in the back of my airplane,” she said. “I can’t fly tired. So I have to make that choice and let it go and be at peace with it.”

As she is based in New York, she has an eight-hour commute from Seattle to her crash pad there. When she is flying her passenger plane, she stays seated during her entire flight, unless it’s a long trip. This is due to the difficult procedure involved in leaving the flight deck because of high security protocol post 9-11.

Despite this challenge, she still finds time wherever she can to get her workout in.

“There are people who say, ‘I don’t have enough time so I’m not going to do that.’ You have to get to that point where you say, ‘OK, I can’t do 20 hours but I can do five.’ Five is better than nothing.”

Even if this means working out during a two-hour layover or getting up before work to squeeze in a run, she does it.

“Fitness is my sanity,” Coyle said. “That’s when I work through everything. I see athletes that train and are all about that next race. For me, I don’t do that. I’m thinking that when I’m 80 years old, I still want to be riding a bike. I don’t want to be stuck in a chair. I want to still be active, so I try to train for that. I train for the rest of my life.”

This training has changed her.

Besides learning how to manage her time wisely, she has learned how to never accept no as an answer and that truly anything is possible, she said.

Coyle hopes to participate in more triathlons, marathons, and international competitions. She is also planning to try out for the Air Force Armed Forces team again.

“It’s amazing to me now to think that I got through some of the most stressful times in my life without exercise,” she said. “Now I need it. You don’t have to be the Ironman triathlete. You don’t have to even do anything competitive. Just be active. Being active makes life better.”

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