Many people have an aversion to pushing the boundaries of physical stress. But for others, it offers challenges that are life-changing, even life-saving.
“I started out in the military by having to lose 50 pounds just to join, but I never ingrained those life changes required to be not just fit, but healthy as well,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Bryant Lopez-Cepero.
That’s where US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) came in. Lopez-Cepero said the organization, which isn’t affiliated with the U.S. armed forces, had a “massive impact” on his fitness.
Mandy Midgett, USMES executive director and Air Force veteran, said that 70% of its members report that the organization has “had an impact on their lives for the better, whether it’s improving their mental health or improving their physical health.”
From cycling to triathlon
USMES began as an elite, 10-person cycling team in 2009 and evolved into a broader sports model.
“As we grew, more triathletes were interested. And … they would see us out having fun cycling,” Midgett said. “And the triathletes really wanted to be a part of it … So it was triathlon first that was brought in, and then we brought in the running portion.”
USMES is represented in all 50 states and seven countries, with members active in 180 installations within 17 USMES regions.
“We’re global … and so we have people as far away as Bahrain, Abu Dhabi. And then, of course, we have people in Japan, Korea, Italy,” Midgett said.
Its mission is to promote endurance sports as a pathway to healthy living, specifically targeting active-duty members and veterans of the U.S. military.
Lopez-Cepero said the sports nonprofit motivated him to embrace fitness as a lifestyle through multi-sport activities.
“I went from the chubby back of the pack, barely passing airman to a consistent front and center leader,” he said.
USMES has 17 regional coordinators who act as facilitators to communicate with members, provide information, plan meetings and gatherings and work with local race directors to furnish incentives for event registrations and to represent the nonprofit organization.
“It becomes like a whole network of people that you have that are very like-minded,” Midgett said.
Developing athletes through mentorship
As a doctor, Navy Lt. Imelda Muller worked long hours in a hospital and couldn’t participate in regular practices with a training group. She missed being part of a team until a nurse introduced her to USMES.
“Through USMES, I soon discovered that I could regularly train on my own time (sometimes in the middle of the night), while still connecting with athletes who had similar goals,” she said. “USMES also designates team races and training camps throughout the year, which allowed me to grow personal relationships with my teammates and develop skills essential to improving my performance as an athlete.”
Muller became a 2018 IRONMAN champion.
Lopez-Cepero said he had exceptional mentors from the outset. His regional community helped him become involved in cycling-related sports and highlighted their transcendence.
“I’ll be forever grateful to my fellow USMES track cyclist Jim Lawrence for talking about and showcasing that there’s more to cycling than just the road,” Lopez-Cepero said.
One of the most rewarding aspects of USMES, according to Muller, is inspiring others to move outside of their comfort zone and undertake a triathlon or running race.
“There are a lot of moving pieces in triathlons, which can be intimidating for athletes who are interested in the sport but just don’t know how to take that first step,” she said. “I’ve found that simply being on the USMES team has allowed me to connect with these athletes who need just a bit of support … Training, race nutrition or working through the steps involved in transitioning from swim to bike to run.”
According to USMES, 45% of its active-duty athletes believe membership in the organization has impacted their units and companies by encouraging them to adopt and embrace an active lifestyle. Additionally, 75% of USMES members have some form of disability, and 51% currently use endurance sports for rehabilitation from acute injuries.
USMES offers military personnel and veterans a gateway to better physical, mental and emotional health, regardless of physical ability and fitness level.
“We’re here for everybody from the novice to the professional,” Midgett said. “And your endurance could be a 1-mile; it could be 250 miles. Endurance is what you term it to be for you. So, it’s all relative. We want to help you on your journey to get to where you need to go or for whatever you want to do.”