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Therapy through triathlon: Beyond the Blue

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexi Bosarge
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. – In 2008, a young April Spilde joined the Air Force unsuspecting of the challenges she would face and eventually overcome during her career.

Master Sgt. April Spilde, 22nd Wing Staff Agencies equal opportunity superintendent, knows what it is like to face uncertainty. She began her career as a Security Forces Airman, deploying twice and then leaving to join the Air Force Honor Guard in Washington D.C.

During her time at the Honor Guard, Spilde experienced many highs and lows. One of the most significant events was during a ceremony where she passed out on stage in front of 500 people during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference. This event had lasting adverse effects on her mental health.

“In the honor guard, we are taught to stand sharp, crisp and motionless, and on that day, I was anything but,” said Spilde. “I felt a deep sense of shame and unworthiness which bled into how I viewed myself as a person.”

Years later, on that very same stage, Spilde fainted again while being recognized as one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year.

“I felt helpless,” said Spilde. “Like nothing I did to earn that title mattered because I wasn’t able to stand.”

After experiencing these events, Spilde decided to seek help. She worked with Mental Health, who introduced a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which helps with alleviating the stress associated with traumatic events.

The next thing Spilde did was set out to prove her resilience. She chose to take on a half-iron distance triathlon composed of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and a 13.1-mile run.

“Finding and training for triathlon reminded me that I am strong,” said Spilde. “I can endure hardship and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I learned how to manage my feelings when facing uncertainty. That exposure to pain and fear through triathlon really helped me with overcoming my feelings of doubt and unworthiness.”

Spilde finished all three portions of the race within seven and a half hours, an hour before the official cut-off time. During the race, she reflected on her accomplishments and her family, which helped fight back feelings of self-doubt.

“I kept telling myself, ‘I can do hard things,’” said Spilde. “Triathlons are a battle of the mind; it’s you vs. you. I told myself I could do it. Crossing that finish line meant more to me than just a piece of hardware. It proved to me that I was mentally tough.”

Since the race, Spilde has worked hard at not allowing negative self-talk and shame dictate her performance. She also thanked Mental Health for helping her through her struggles and giving her the tools to overcome her fear.

“I accomplished something I never thought possible,” said Spilde. “I gained the confidence to say, ‘You know what? It’s okay that I went through this because now I know I have what it takes to overcome it.”

Spilde is not done yet. Her next goal is to finish a full-iron distance race.

McConnell’s Beyond the Blue initiative takes steps to normalize help-seeking behaviors. These stories communicate struggles and create conversations that go below the surface. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, then press 1, or access the online chat by texting 838255.