NIAGARA FALLS AIR RESERVE STATION, N.Y. --
It was a crisp October morning and the stars were beginning to fade when three relative strangers and I loaded into a minivan at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. We were about to embark on a 12-hour journey with little more than a case of water and PT gear. The destination was Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia and the goal—to participate in the first-ever Air Force Alpha Warrior Challenge Regional Tryouts.
Tryouts were scheduled across 15 bases worldwide. The top finisher from each qualifying round would automatically move on to the National Competition to be held in San Antonio, TX., on Nov. 11, 2017. First, participants would need to successfully qualify in the regional tryouts.
We were the qualifying participants from the local tryouts at NFARS and were at a stark disadvantage to the other competitors, having been the only base without the opportunity to practice on the competition’s apparatus. Being a half-day’s drive from Langley, we wouldn’t be able to touch the equipment until the night before tryouts.
Or so we thought.
Senior Master Sgt. Paul Hackett, 914th Force Support Squadron Career Advisor, voiced what we were all thinking, “It’ll be an uphill battle not having any experience on the rig.”
We arrived at JBLE and changed into PT gear before making the short walk from our hotel to the community center. Fliers announcing the Air Force Alpha Warrior Challenge adorned the doors and windows of the quiet building, with most occupants having left hours before. We said hello to the building’s lone occupant, a facilities custodian, and made our way to the event area where we finally saw it—The Battle Rig. An impressive structure stood before us. At 15-by-30 feet wide and crafted from welded steel, the rig seemed much larger than it’s 12 ½ foot height.
As we prepared to test out the rig’s 11 obstacles, the custodian approached us and said that the rig was off limits for the remainder of the night. We wouldn’t be practicing after all.
The Battle Rig had been at JBLE for months, with some competitors practicing daily. In addition, the Rig had been on tour, visiting each of the other competitor’s active duty air bases where competitors practiced and qualified prior to regional tryouts. We were at a serious disadvantage.
Similar to what is used in popular competitions like American Ninja Warrior, the physical obstacles the rig presents consist of swinging monkey bars, battering rams, ledge climbs and the Devil’s Staircase—steel stairs meant to be climbed by hand from underneath. The rig can be configured to allow rope climb and ring and peg board upper body challenges. In order to qualify for the national competition, participants needed to be the fastest competitors, with fewer than two mistakes.
“In preparation for qualifying, I created some obstacles at the Niagara base gym that would stress the body in a similar way that the alpha challenge rig might,” said Hackett, who is also the base exercise physiologist. “I think it worked, to a degree,” said Hackett. “It helped us find people that have the ability to excel at the regional. In hindsight, it lacked the specific skills that were needed to compete against others that actually trained on the rig. I must say that our group of five did a fantastic job considering what we were up against.”
No one from the Niagara team qualified for the Nationals. None of us even completed the course. To be honest, I wasn’t personally expecting to. Sure, I passed the pre-qualifier locally at Niagara but I’m a photographer. A jewelry and furniture maker. A PA nerd. I’m more at home around band saws and craft shows than I am free weights and P90X classes, but what about those Airmen who are fitness buffs?
We had some of those people on our team. Individuals for whom meal prep. and knowing the subtle differences in protein powders and liquid aminos is second nature. Some of these guys are in the gym 7 days a week. Why didn’t they qualify? I have to think that Mr. Hackett might be on to something. If Niagara Falls Air base had access to the Battle Rig, or something similar, would we have done better?
“We tried to improvise at NFARS as much as we could.” said Alpha Warrior Regional participant Staff Sgt. Nicholas Clause. “Paul turned equipment that was never intended to be used for a situation like this into a mini obstacle course; we were better able to somewhat suit our needs,” said Clause who is a Senior Munitions Inspector with the 914th Maintenance Squadron. “It was still no match for what we were up against.”
The goal of the Air Force Alpha Warrior Challenge isn’t necessarily to recognize the most fit Airmen or to bestow accolades on the supreme alpha. The larger, more overreaching goals are the functional fitness objectives that preparing for a challenge like this meet. Additionally, the bonds and relationships that are created by competing with and against other Airmen in a challenge like this are immeasurable. For those of us who may be intimidated or put off by the traditional thoughts of what “working out” means, this competition makes working out fun.
“The daily and sustained use of Alpha Warrior equipment will sharpen our Airmen’s physical and mental abilities,” said David Nolan, Alpha Warrior chief executive officer. “Maintaining that functional fitness is important because it enables them to face physical and mental challenges at home and in a deployed environment.”
Currently, Battle Rigs are on 15 installations worldwide with the larger DoD objective to put one on every active duty base. Once Active duty commitments are met, where will the next Battle Rig go? With plans for a new base gym to be completed by 2020, and servicing Reserve, Guard, Army and MEPS components, it seems that Niagara Falls Air Base may just be the next best location.
Special thanks and congratulations to Niagara finalists and fellow regional competitors: Senior Master Sgt. Paul Hackett, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Clause, Senior Airman Ebenezer Adu, and Tech. Sgt. Rusty Renn. They helped to make this athletic experience the exciting adventure that it was. If the Alpha Warrior Challenge is the direction in which the U.S. Air Force wants to take fitness, I’m all in.