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News > Feature - AF's top female triathlete seeks Olympic gold
Intel officer wins AF female athlete of the year
First Lt. Kathy Rakel is the Air Force's female athlete of the year for 2010. In this photo, she competes in a mountain bike race with the Air Force Academy Mountain Biking Team. Lieutenant Rakel is a 2007 Academy graduate and was part of the first Air Force female triathlon team to take gold at the Armed Forces Triathlon June 5. (courtesy photo)
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AF's top female triathlete seeks Olympic gold

Posted 12/22/2010   Updated 12/22/2010 Email story   Print story


by Senior Airman C.J. Hatch
56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

12/22/2010 - LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- The Air Force's female athlete of 2010 never thought a suggestion from a friend at the Air Force Academy would point her to a sport that would take her to professional status with a shot at the Olympics.

First Lt. Kathy Rakel, the chief of intel readiness for the 56th  got her first introduction to triathlons when she entered the Academy but initially turned down her friend's suggestion.

"I didn't swim, bike or run," said Lieutenant Rakel, a 2007 Academy graduate who grew up with basketball and golf and who played basketball every day in high school and during the summer.

In the spring semester of her sophomore year, a friend asked her if she was trying out for the triathlon team.

"At that time, they had tryouts to make it to the collegiate nationals to represent the Academy there," she said. "She told me I should just try out and see if I could make the team. Again, I told her I didn't do swimming or biking. I did a bit or running to stay fit for the fitness test."

Lieutenant Rakel tried to excuse her way out as well by saying she didn't own a bike.

"My friend ... told me I could borrow hers," Lieutenant Rakel said. "So, out of excuses, I tried out."

The tryouts included a sprint-distance triathlon: ½-mile swim, 10-mile bike and 3-mile run. It was her first time on a road bike, but she made the team nonetheless, earning second in the bike portion over those who were on the team.

Before joining, Lieutenant Rakel asked the team captain what the distances were for the races at nationals.

"He told me nationals would be an Olympic distance event, which is about a 1-mile swim, a 25-mile bike and a 6.2-mile run," she said. "After hearing the distances, I told him, 'No way.' So I had the slot but turned it down. I thought it was too long, and I had never done any of those events individually, much less together."

It was a missed opportunity for the then-cadet, but the sport caught her attention again during the summer of 2005 when she competed in her first triathlon in Burnet, Texas, near her parents' home.

"I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "I think I stopped in the middle of the bike portion to eat some Fig Newtons and walked most of the run portion after dying from trying to ride the bike. But the sport and the challenge appealed to me."

During the fall of 2005 she did a semester exchange program, taking her to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. She was a beginner to triathlons but learned a lot about the sport and how to train for it.

"At West Point, I was still slow in the pool and an average runner," she said. "But during my time there, something interesting happened with the cycling. I had my first road bike and I was just learning to ride it. By the end of the semester and after competing in four races, I had the fastest bike split on the team."

But on her return to the Academy, triathlons fell by the wayside. She didn't see the appeal in the triathlon. She wanted to see where cycling could take her, so she did a lot of bike racing the rest of the semester.

Then in 2006, after a summer of intense running in the Marine Officer Candidates School, she entered the Soma half-Ironman.

"So I did this half-Ironman, which is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and a 13-mile run," she said. "Then I did another triathlon and some training with the academy triathlon team before coming to Ironman Arizona in 2007."

She competed in the Ironman not really knowing much about the sport. But she had friends from the Academy triathlon team who competed with her and helped her along.

"I had no real expectations going into the race," she said. "I finished the Ironman in 11:46:42 and set the female cadet ironman record at the Academy."

At this point a mentor, Academy nutritionist Capt. Jim Winesten, pulled her aside and implored her to find a coach who could teach her how to train for triathlons. She found a coach, Maj. Brian Grasky, and began working with him while doing her master's degree program at the University of Arizona.

"Tucson is a training haven for triathletes," she said. "There are great running trails and many places to swim, and Mount Lemon is a 26-mile bike ride uphill."

In May 2009 she qualified to turn pro, but due to her schedule and being between trainings and moving to Luke Air Force Base, she didn't have time. She got the chance to turn pro again in January of 2010 and accepted, finishing out the year as a pro triathlete.

"This year was a good year," she said. "I was on the Air Force triathlon team in June when we took gold in the male and female categories."

Lieutenant Rakel's other accomplishments this year included victory at the Armed Forces Triathlon June 5 and a win in the Kiwanis Sprint Triathlon April 17. She placed first among six American women and seventh overall at the Ixtapa International Triathlon Union Pan American Cup May 22 and finished eighth in the Desert Classic Duathlon Feb. 28.

After accomplishing so much, Lieutenant Rakel still plans and is making goals to achieve more.

"My short term goal is to be the first American to get gold at the July 2011 Military World Games in Brazil," she said. "After that, my goal will be winning gold at the 2016 Olympics."

(Air Force Academy staff writers contributed to this report.)

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