Face of Defense: Airman Makes Splash Giving Back to Community
By Air Force Airman 1st Class William J. Blankenship
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala., Sept. 18, 2013 Military members find many ways to be involved in their communities. Some volunteer to clean schools, build homes or visit elderly veterans. Others use life experiences to mentor youth.
Air Force Airman 1st Class Lance Thornton coaches his Barracudas swim team at practice in Montgomery, Ala., Aug. 30, 2013. Thornton began volunteering in the community to share his experience from competing at the college level. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Blankenship
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In 2011, Air Force Airman 1st Class Lance Thornton, then a Buffalo State College student-athlete, hung up his goggles and swimwear to join the Air Force. Today, he shares his aquatic skills with the Montgomery YMCA Barracudas swim team.
More than 20 years ago, Thornton took his first lap in a backyard pool in upstate New York. When he was 5, Thornton and his four brothers learned how to swim competitively under the direction of their mother.
The four-year all-conference collegiate swimmer competed in multiple events, including the 100-yard butterfly, 100-yard breaststroke, 50-yard freestyle and 200-yard individual medley, racking up numerous accolades and experience he would later use to mentor others.
"There came that point where I knew I was done swimming competitively," Thornton said. "But, I always knew I would be around the pool in some capacity."
Thornton said he is asked all the time why he chose the Air Force over the “aquatic” Navy or Coast Guard.
"The Air Force offered me the greatest opportunity to pursue a career field that I was interested in -- computer programming -- with a high quality of life," the Air University operations and communications technician said.
After technical school, Thornton started his first job in the Air Force as a programmer and began searching for community involvement opportunities shortly after arriving here.
"Once I got settled, I thought, as a military member, ‘What better way to give back to the community than doing what I love anyway?’" he said. "Coaching isn't like doing a job for me. It is the most rewarding experience I have ever been a part of."
Thornton holds Buffalo State's school record in the 200-yard individual medley and received a Robert Kissinger Swimming and Diving Award, which is presented to student-athletes who exemplify an "outstanding work ethic and commitment to the team and college.”
"I figured I had something to give back to the community, and my experience gave me an outlet to become involved," he said. "A vast majority of my weekends and evenings are spent volunteering, and I wouldn't trade that opportunity for anything."
After six months of volunteering with the Barracudas, Thornton became the head coach for the YMCA's entire swim program. In this role, Thornton leads the instruction for 130 swimmers ages 6 to 18.
"I spend about 12 hours a week at the pool with these kids," said Thornton, who also is a physical training leader with his Air Force unit. "We want to empower them to be successful both in the pool and, more importantly, in life. Our program aspires to foster an atmosphere for kids to make friends and their parents to get to know other adults. The camaraderie that comes from sports brings them together and benefits the entire family."
During Thornton's first season with the Barracudas, the team set 48 personal records out of 56 taper swims. Seven former team members are on current Division I college scholarships. In the past three years, the Barracudas have produced an Auburn University swim team captain and four 2012 Olympics trial swimmers.
Thornton uses a rank structure on his team similar to a military chain of command, which, he said, creates stability and organization.
"I lean on the lessons I learned both in the pool and thus far in my military career to stress dedication and discipline to my team," he said. "My goal is to prepare them for swimming and college with emphasis on proper work ethic, discipline and dedication to best prepare them for the next level."
From swimming in meets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., as a child to poolside coaching in Alabama, Thornton has traveled far to get to this point, but he said he knows this is just the beginning.
"For me, a child achieving a goal is what coaching is all about," he said. "It is way more rewarding when the kid succeeds than when I did as an athlete. If you're not coaching to see the smiles on the kids' faces, you aren't doing the right thing."
With aspirations of continuing to work with young people, Thornton said he wants to be an Air Force recruiter or military training leader if he is not accepted into a commissioning program.