Know Your Military

U.S. Athlete Wins Triathlon Gold Medal in China

Nov. 1, 2019 | BY Gary Sheftick

In the final competition of the World Military Games in Wuhan, China, U.S. armed forces team athlete Air Force Reserve Maj. Judith Coyle finished the triathlon in 2:10:48 to win a gold medal in the women's senior division and propel her mixed senior team to a silver medal.

It was the only gold brought home by the U.S. team, which earned four silver and five bronze medals in the games held every four years by the International Military Sports Council, better known by its French acronym of CISM.

"It was so good to finally hear the national anthem," said a member of the triathlon team after watching the U.S. flag raised at the gold medal ceremony. Team members cheered with pride even though the two triathlon medals were not actually counted in the CISM official medal tally for the games, as they were awarded in the over-40 division.

Woman wearing a blue track suit and a gold medal holds a stuffed animal in her left hand and holds her right hand over her heart.
Coyle with gold
Air Force Reserve Maj. Judith Coyle stands at attention for the U.S. national anthem after receiving the gold medal for placing first in the women's senior division of the CISM Military World Games triathlon in Wuhan, China, Oct. 27, 2019. In her left hand she holds the mascot of the games, BingBing, presented to all medalists.
Photo By: Gary Sheftick, Army
VIRIN: 191027-D-LX472-700

Coyle, an airline pilot in her civilian career, finished the final leg of the triathlon — the 10-kilometer run — ahead of many younger competitors from around the world in the elite athlete division.

She began the 1500-meter swim a little sluggish, though, she said.

"It was actually a slow swim for me," she said. "I couldn't get into the groove. I came out further behind in that pack and had a terrible T1."

Her T1 transition from swimming to the 40-km cycling road race was hampered by her numb feet from the cold lake water and the longer-than-average quarter-mile run in bare feet from the lake to the bikes. "I couldn't get my feet into the pedals," she said after getting her wetsuit off.

Woman triathlon athlete runs with “50” on her right arm.
Maj. Judith Coyle
Air Force Maj. Judith Coyle of the U.S. armed forces triathlon team runs to win gold in the 2019 CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 26, 2019.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 191027-D-DB155-001

At first, she was cycling alone, with no one to draft behind. Eventually,she and elite teammate Teresa Groton got picked up into a fast-moving pack.

"I felt like I had a solid bike," Coyle said. "For once, felt good on the run. I was able to finally put a little gas on the fire out there coming in and was able to get out in front of a group and make up a little bit of time."

Her senior-division teammate Christina Hopper was hit by another cyclist on the final kilometer of the bike race. The crash happened just as Hopper was about to make the final turn back to the T2 transition point to rack the bike and run.

"The girl came up on my left and she boxed me in," Hopper said, "and then she kind of started pushing into me. I said 'Move over!' and she caught my wheel and my wheel entangled with her rear wheel, and I couldn't disengage. I went down hard on my right side."

She was knocked out of the race, but not seriously injured, she said, though she "caught a little road rash."

Woman triathlete rides a bicycle past a row of flagpoles that stand behind a blue course barrier.
Golden Race
Air Force Maj. Judith Coyle of the U.S. armed forces triathlon team races a bicycle on her way to win gold in the 2019 CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 26, 2019.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 191027-D-DB155-002

Luckily, only the finish times of the first senior woman and first two senior men counted in the team standings, Coyle explained. Senior teammate Air Force Lt. Col. Jonathan Mason finished the men's triathlon earlier that day with a time of 2:01:38, putting him in ninth place. Mason said he also had a poor swim that forced him to bike hard.

"I had to bike a lot more aggressively than I wanted to because of the swim exit and T1 [transition]," he said. "That put me in a good position off the bike, but I had no legs because of the aggressive bike, so I ran a little bit slow. I couldn’t hold on to the leaders."

Mason serves at Pope Army Airfield on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His senior teammate Army Lt. Col. Bryan Dunker teaches ROTC at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Dunker finished 12th in the senior division with a time of 2:03:12. His time and Mason's time were averaged and added to Coyle's for a combined team time of 4:12:11, earning the silver medal. Canada took the team gold in the division with a combined time of 4:10:05.5 and Hungary won bronze with 4:25:14.5.

Male triathlete crosses the finish line for the running portion of the event.
Dunker's Finish
Army Lt. Col. Bryan Dunker crosses the finish line of the men's triathlon with a time of 2:03:12 at the CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 27, 2019. He finished 12th in the men's senior division, helping to secure a silver medal for the U.S. mixed seniors team.
Photo By: Gary Sheftick, Army
VIRIN: 191027-D-LX472-110C

Overall, Mason said, he was pleased with the team's performance.

"I like having the race at the end of the period," Mason said, explaining that having the triathlon on the last day of the two-week Military World Games enabled the team to adjust to the 12-hour time difference in China, train hard and then rest for a few days before the competition. "I think it was a long season in terms of getting ready for this," he said.

Two weeks earlier, his elite teammate Army 1st Lt. Connor Wernecke, ran the Ironman competition in Kona, Hawaii.

Wernecke said he had plenty of time to recover from the Ironman, but he added the training for that type of competition is "vastly different" from an Olympic-type triathlon.

"I struggled to shift gears," he said.

Army Capt. Maia Paris also ran the Ironman two weeks ago and finished the women's triathlon Sunday with a time of 2:11:52, in 34th place.   

This is probably as close as I'll ever get to the Olympics."
Army Capt. Nicholas Sterghos, men's triathlon competitor

Paris returned from Afghanistan in March. She commanded an aviation company there split between Jalalabad and Forward Operating Base Shank. Now she serves as the G3 aviation officer for the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.

She's been running triathlons since flight school in 2011. "When I joined the Army, they told me to run," she joked.

It's tough to compete in the triathlon against the professional athletes that many of the other nations bring to the race, Paris said. She competed in much of the triathlon next to teammate Navy Lt. Elizabeth Bochner. They were in the same pack for the cycling portion of the competition, but when it came to the run, Bochner pulled ahead.

Bochner, who serves at Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia, finished the triathlon in 2:10:49, putting her in 33rd place.

Army 2nd Lt. Groton, from Fort Carson, Colorado, was the first U.S. woman to finish the race. She had a time of 2:06:39, finishing in 28th place.

Army Capt. Nicholas Sterghos from Fort Carson was the first U.S. competitor to finish the men's triathlon. He finished 32nd out of 89 male competitors, with a time of 1:49:56. "This is probably as close as I'll ever get to the Olympics," Sterghos said after the race. 

Air Force Capt. Joel Bischoff finished next for the U.S. team with a time of 1:55:39. The officer from Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, ended up in 47thplace overall.

"It was a very aggressive swim out of the gun," Bischoff said, explaining that some really strong swimmers were pushing the pace.

Swimmers dive into a pool to begin the swimming portion of a triathlon competition.
Swimmers Start
Competitors enter the water for the 1500-meter swim to begin the women's triathlon at the CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 27, 2019. Air Force Maj. Judith Coyle finished first in the senior women's division, winning gold for the United States.
Photo By: Gary Sheftick, Army
VIRIN: 191027-D-LX472-131C

"The swim is just so important," he said. "You've got to be able to hang with the first or second group of main swimmers. If you can do that, then you can get on the bike, you're in a pack and you're in good position."

Wernecke, who finished next for the U.S. team, was cycling with a group of about eight bikes, but only about half were willing to take turns out front. The rest just wanted to draft, he said.

"Once I realized that we weren't going to get anywhere pushing the bike hard, I just sat back too," he said. "There really wasn't any point in burning yourself out just to gain a few seconds that they would have gained back in the run. The juice just wasn't worth the squeeze."

Wernecke finished the race in 1:56:52, in 51st place. Air Force Capt. John "Max" Bierman from Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, finished in 54th place with a time of 1:57:38.

Gold in the men's elite division went to France's Pierre LeCorre, who finished in 1:42:21. Silver went to Belgium's Marten VanRiel, who finished in 1:42:23, and France's Doriqan Coninx finished third at 1:42:27 to take the bronze.