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Airman's competitive spirit motivates self, fellow basic trainees

Airman 1st Class Danielle Kerrigan, 161st Operations Group aviation resource management apprentice, poses for a photo in the on-base gym, 161st Air Refueling Wing, Phoenix, Aug. 2, 2014. Kerrigan, who recently returned from Air Force basic training, competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials; placing 6th overall. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Technical Sgt. Courtney Enos/Released)

Airman 1st Class Danielle Kerrigan, 161st Operations Group aviation resource management apprentice, poses for a photo in the on-base gym, 161st Air Refueling Wing, Phoenix, Aug. 2, 2014. Kerrigan, who recently returned from Air Force basic training, competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials; placing 6th overall. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Technical Sgt. Courtney Enos/Released)

PHOENIX SKY HARBOR AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE -- An Airman assigned to the 161st Air Refueling Wing here who competed in the weightlifting Olympic trials, recently returned from Air Force basic training.

Airman 1st Class Danielle Kerrigan, 161st Operations Group aviation resource management apprentice, said her background in competitive sports prepared her for the mental and physical trials that come with basic training.

At the age of 9, Kerrigan began competing in track and field. After high school, she received a scholarship to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff to continue her track and field career. A strength training coach from the Olympic Training Center saw her training and gave her a "reality check." He told her that she would be more successful at Olympic weightlifting than running.

Kerrigan said she made a difficult decision to leave NAU and move back to Phoenix to begin a fulltime weightlifting program.

The Olympic sport of weightlifting consists of two competitive lifts. The first lift is called the "snatch" where competitors attempt to lift a barbell from the platform to locked arms overhead in a smooth continuous movement. The second lift is called the "clean and jerk" where competitors attempt a two-part lift. During the clean portion the competitor attempts to lift a barbell from the floor to a racked position at the top of the chest. The jerk portion involves lifting the weight above the head until the arms are straight and the bar is stationary.

The coach who directed Kerrigan to Olympic weightlifting was right about her natural talent. She went on to win three national titles. She also made the Pan American Games team and made it to the Olympics trials; placing 6th overall.

"When I didn't make the Olympic Games, I thought this would be a good time to join the Air National Guard," she said.

Kerrigan has a history with the Air Guard and specifically with the 161st Air Refueling Wing. Her grandfather was a first sergeant at the 161st and her aunt served there as well.

She said competing in Olympic weightlifting prepared her for Air Force basic training.

"There is a lot of teamwork involved [in Olympic weightlifting], but there is also a lot of individual work, just like basic training," said Kerrigan.

The biggest similarity between her experiences in competition and basic training was the trust she had in her coaches.

"I viewed the military training instructors as coaches," she said. "I trusted that they were doing what they were doing for a reason, because it works. You want to graduate and they know how to make that happen. Also, during Olympic weightlifting competitions, the coach tells the judges what weights you will be opening with. The competitors don't get to choose them, so you have to have total trust in the coach. If you really want it they will get you there, whether they're an MTI or coach."

She shared this analogy of seeing MTIs as coaches with a particular trainee who was having a hard time.

"I told her that she might not like them, that she may not like this experience, but if she wanted to graduate, they knew how to make that happen," said Kerrigan. "I told her that she just needed to put her trust in them and not worry about it. She took my advice and graduated."

She said the stress of having MTIs in your face and yelling at you was similar to the stress felt during weightlifting competitions.

"The military physic training was different, but the mental challenges of competition are the same," said Kerrigan. "During competition there are three judges sitting right in front of you, an audience watching you and your competitors are warming up right next to you, and you still have to perform at 100 percent."

Kerrigan was assigned as the physical training monitor for her basic training flight. The PT monitor helps, encourages and ensures Airmen meet the physical training requirements to pass the Air Force's fitness test. She was chosen to be the PT monitor after scoring high on her basic training flight's initial PT evaluation.

Kerrigan wanted her fellow trainees to be able to perform at 100 percent. To do so, she had to counsel them on everything from what they ate, to their breathing techniques and their exercise form.

"A lot of the girls would get angry that I would make them stop what they were doing and get down and do pushups, but it didn't really matter to me because I wanted all of us to graduate together - and I didn't want something like physical fitness to get in the way," said Kerrigan.

She said in the end she felt as though she helped her fellow trainees graduate.

"Some people were really close to not making it just because of physical fitness," she said. "It made me feel like I helped a little bit and that felt amazing."