JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. – It was summer 2007 in Wausau, Wisconsin. David Flaten, now a senior airman assigned here, had completed his first mountain bike race through the 9-mile forest course with no racing experience and only a simple knowledge of cycling. But after regaining the feeling in his legs, he said, he knew he had fallen in love.
In January 2013, just three years after enlisting and with eight years of experience cycling, Flaten started racing professionally.
"I apply a lot of my military bearing in my training and racing. It's important to treat every competitor with respect," he said. "I take pride in taking care of my bike and equipment, just as I take pride in wearing the uniform."
Flaten is ranked 43rd on a list of 250 for cross-country mountain bikers, according to USA cycling, the official cycling organization responsible for identifying, training and selecting cyclists to represent the United States in international competition. He participated in the 2013 Conseil International du Sport Militaire cycling competition in Belgium as one of two active-duty cycling professionals for the Armed Forces Cycling Team.
To be selected for that elite group, a cyclist must be rated as a professional mountain biker or as a Category 1 road cyclist.
Flaten said he is most proud of his continuous self-motivation and added that he is "always pedaling in a forward direction."
The 21-year-old's training includes core exercises, stretching and high-intensity cycling on roadways and through mountain terrain. He works out at least 20 hours a week. Clean eating, staying hydrated and resting are a 24/7 discipline, he said.
"The drive you have to force yourself to [train] is more important than being able to physically turn over the pedals," he said. "I get a lot of satisfaction from the hard work I put in every day. I'm hoping that the top step on the podium someday will make it all worth it."
Flaten attributes his successes to his family, friends, military leadership and his coach, 2003 Pan American gold medalist and highly decorated mountain biking professional Jeremiah Bishop.
When Flaten isn't challenging himself biking through back country roads during a rough rainstorm or making a strenuous trek over sun-baked mountains, he is working with the 811th Security Forces Squadron. The squadron is the Air Force's largest protective services unit, providing primary escorts and inner-perimeter security for distinguished visitors here.
"I've often observed Senior Airman Flaten excelling in his duties by providing direct security support to the president of the United States one day and then competing in a world-class cycling event the next," said Air Force Maj. Aaron Rittgers, the 811th SFS commander. "He epitomizes the whole-person concept by giving his all in every area of his life. His exceptional dedication and sacrifice have allowed him to excel both his professional and personal endeavors."
This dedication to his job also led Flaten to be named as the 2013 Airman of the Year for the 11th Security Forces Group.
"The Air Force has certainly helped me maintain structure on a day-to-day basis," Flaten said. "When it comes to work, diet and training, maintaining balance is key to my success."
The military has played a significant role in Flaten's cycling career, he noted, providing more than just a paycheck to cover his racing expenses.
"My leadership has given me encouragement to pursue my dream," Flaten said. "They're almost as invested as I am to get me to the Olympics one day. It's an awesome feeling to have that kind of support, and that is worth way more than any paycheck in my book."
Meanwhile, Flaten is awaiting acceptance into the exclusive Air Force World Class Athlete Program, which allows active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve personnel an opportunity to be released from their primary mission for two years to participate at national and international level sporting events. The program makes it possible for selected athletes to train and compete full-time, with the ultimate goal of selection to the U.S. Olympic team.
"Every athlete has a shelf life," he said. "I don't want to look back in 30 years and ask myself, 'Why didn't I give everything I had to be an Olympic athlete?' It would be awesome to be part of a more than a thousand-year-old tradition."