Wednesday, July 31, 2013

140.6 miles of bliss

by Senior Airman Derek VanHorn
35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

7/25/2013 - MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan  -- She can carry on full-fledged conversations in English and Spanish ... and Hebrew, French, Portuguese, Italian and Arabic.

She's accomplished more in the amount of years you can count on one hand than many people will attempt in a lifetime. And through it all, her personal apex was just recently reached ... for now. The only problem is she can't tell you why.

"I have no idea how it makes me feel," said Capt. Hila Levy, fighting back an enormous smile.

If the smiles were any indication, it's a feeling comparable to ascending the peak of Mount Everest - something Levy said is probably out of the question for her.

You can hold your breath on that one; she's great at deflecting attention and praise. But at least for now, she'll stick to conquering other slopes.

Levy qualified to take part in the 2013 Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii - a grueling triathlon made up of a 2.4-mile rough water swim, 112 miles of bike racing and a 26.2-mile marathon to finish the event off. To top it off, black lava rock dominates the panorama, and athletes battle fierce crosswinds of 45 mph, 95 degree temperatures and a scorching sun.

In all, it's 140.6 miles, and Levy is one of nearly 1,800 athletes worldwide who qualified to take the plunge. Her first-place finish in her age group during the 70.3-mile Ironman in Tokoname, Japan, ensured her one of 30 qualification slots there for the Kona championship scheduled for Oct. 12.

The path she took to get here took more than crossing just one finish line.

Levy was raised in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and was born into a military family. Her father, Ramon, was also a captain who worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Her aspirations to shoot for the moon - literally - began at 3-years-old when she set her sights on being an astronaut. By the sixth grade, Levy made attending the U.S. Air Force Academy her main goal.

Levy's mother, Rachel Salpeter-Levy, said she didn't give it much thought as a parent and figured she had plenty of years to get educated on the idea.

Not exactly.

On her 16th birthday, Levy's parents presented her with a certificate to begin flying school, where she dedicated countless hours to ground and flying lessons and obtained her pilot's license within a year.

"Uneasiness is an understatement to describe the feeling of sitting next to the pilot -- your child in an airplane," said Salpeter-Levy.

Levy took her pilot training and fulfilled her dream at the time by accepting a slot at the USAFA, where she enrolled in 2004 and became part of the academy's flying team.

During her time at the academy, where she eventually graduated at the top of her class, she picked up the sport of power lifting. By her senior year, she was competing nationally and locked in a top-10 finish at collegiate nationals.

After some time, Levy felt her cultural background provided more abilities to serve her country, so she switched career fields to become an intelligence officer where she works as the chief of the combat intelligence cell for the 35th Operations Support Squadron here. Having spent time in more than 35 countries and being fluent in seven languages, intelligence is a fitting term to classify Levy.

"We always knew Hila was very bright; her ability to read, comprehend, analyze and absorb is astounding and admirable," said Salpeter-Levy. "We just didn't anticipate how bright she'd shine in the bigger skies."

Another prestigious opportunity arose at the twilight of her academy career, when she was one of only 32 Americans selected as a Rhodes scholarship recipient to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom -- one of the most well-known and respected opportunities in the world of academics. Levy was the first Puerto Rican-born recipient in the scholarship's existence, and went on to complete two master's degrees in biology and historical research.

After a few months at Oxford, fumbling with finding her place, tragic news came that changed her life. A roadside bomb in Afghanistan violently captured the life of a friend and mentor she spent time with at USAFA; exposing the fragility of the contract we call life.

Levy was rattled, in search of some way to release all the emotions that had relentlessly been building up.

"What am I doing?" she asked herself rhetorically, internally sifting through immense inspiration and desire for purpose. "I needed to do something, anything."

What'd she decide?

She rode a bicycle across the entire United Kingdom, alone.

All 956 miles, from a town called John O'Groats to Lands End, most of the time directly into the heart of a headwind. It was her first time on a bike, and it took her 11 days - a blink of an eye compared to what the spontaneous trip unearthed in the coming months and years.

Her mother called the journey harsh, lonely and daring. Levy called it an amazing experience.

It was an experience made less lonely by the aid of one of her five "children" - all of whom instead of traveling by two legs, roll around on two wheels and were purchased at cycling shops around the world. This time she was escorted by the aptly named "William the Conqueror" as she conquered the English countryside.

On top of falling in love with a newfound activity -- or a healthy addiction, as Levy puts it -- she found a way to make it about others. She raised around $4,000 for British and American wounded veterans along the way.

The U.K. trip sparked a deep-felt passion, and since then Levy has completed double-digit triathlons, marathons and cycling races. She's finished in the top three in more than half of them, along with notching two first-place finishes.

Levy belongs here; she's earned it -- even though she still doesn't quite know how.

"I don't feel I was gifted naturally with any athletic abilities," said Levy. "I'm not tall, I have legs of uneven length, and I have shoulder and knee problems. I have to work hard every single day."

The Ironman mantra is "Anything is Possible," and Levy said she's living proof it's true.

"I would have never dreamed of running a half marathon a year ago ... now I am running that distance at least once a week."

She can thank her coach, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Chase, for some of that. Chase, an Air Force triathlon team member himself, met Levy at an Ironman competition in her birth country, and referred to her as "the most intense woman I know."

"It's hard to think about now, because it's all become so normal to me," Levy said.

"She's unique in that she really will not quit and puts a hurting on plenty of men who think themselves worthy," said Chase. "She's always pushing her results and my expectations as a coach higher and higher."

Chase and Levy are both part of Team Red, White and Blue, an organization whose mission is to enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

The duo communicate through online technology, where they mainly discuss nutrition and a training routine that consists of workouts like 3-hour bike rides, 5,000-yard swims and 16-mile runs. Some weeks run upwards of 20 hours of pure training.

Like anyone else, Levy has her low points, but it's never enough to make her quit.

"There are some days when you just feel slow, and you know you are," she said. "The great thing about having a coach is having a focused workout. If I lose focus, I won't accomplish anything."

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but Levy doesn't leave much room for excuses. Or any room, for that matter.

"You can't say 'I got injured' or 'I got fat' -- everyone can do this. I have seen people with missing limbs, no vision and traumatic brain injuries compete. I don't want to speak for other people, but there's a lot you can overcome no matter how big the challenge.

"When a guy with one leg passes you during a race, the pain seems to hurt a little less than you thought it did."

For many, the question remains: Why would someone want to voluntarily put themselves through something so demanding?

As a 15-year-old, Levy was highlighted in a student profile. In a section titled "What's important to me", her response was "Achieving my goals and upholding my beliefs."

In that aspect, not much has changed in 11 years.

"What drives me is accomplishing tasks - really following through on accomplishing a goal," said Levy. "I don't question my innate motivations to do it."

She also said the overwhelming support she has received from her leadership at Misawa to pursue these dreams provides positive pressure to give everything she has day in and day out.

"This lifestyle has changed my perspective on life," said Levy. "Working with all these people who challenge themselves and who have overcome so much is so inspiring. It makes you worry a lot less about little things in life.

"It's really nice to be able to bring someone along and be there for someone who needs encouragement. We all started somewhere."

For Levy, it started as a hobby, and ended as - well, let's be realistic. It's far from over. It's only just begun.

1 comment:

Chi said...

This is gorgeous!