JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. -- The flight instructor sat across from 2nd Lt. Katherine Shaw with an expressionless face. The instructor took in a deep breath as if the air contained the right way to say the words he was about to utter, but there were none.
"They said I had a great attitude and work ethic, and would still make a great officer, just not as a pilot," said Shaw as she recalled the meeting where she discovered she failed out of the initial flight screening program in Pueblo, Colorado.
Failure was an unfamiliar territory for the 22-year-old from Cincinnati who practiced, studied and trained until meeting perfection, but with flying there just wasn't enough time to practice. During training, she only had about three flights in an actual aircraft. She studied and memorized her books from cover to cover, but the text lacked the hands-on feel of the throttle and landing gear she needed.
"It was frustrating," Shaw said. "I hate struggling and not being able to get something right, but this was a time for me to look inside and say, 'Yeah I really want to do this, but there's nothing I would have done differently, and yes, I failed, but what's next?'"
Still in Colorado awaiting her next assignment, Shaw took to the Internet to find a new challenge to conquer that would test her limits just as flying had done. An avid swimmer, soccer player and runner, she looked to fitness and began searching for events that would fill the void failure left behind.
"There was this sensation in me that I wanted more, that I expected myself to be able to give me more," she said. "I wanted to endure more pain, push myself harder, become fitter and become stronger."
While searching, Shaw read "Half Ironman Austin, Texas" across her computer screen. The 70.3-mile race comprised of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run was just a few weeks away and a mere stopping point on her way to her next assignment at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
After preparing for three weeks, Shaw said she thought she had a good handle on competing in the race as she was already a strong runner and swimmer, and recently took up biking.
When she arrived at the course, carting her bottom-of-the-line triathlon bike, she was in awe of the athletes dressed in expensive high-performance athletic gear.
"I'd never seen anything like it before. Everyone looked like a professional athlete," Shaw said. "I felt really intimidated, but everyone was so nice and supportive even before the race."
After soaking in the activity around her, Shaw trudged into the open water with hundreds of others in her heat awaiting the clamor of the starting gun.
A powerful blast sounded from the gun and Shaw along with her competitor's flailed their limbs about grasping for the pull through the tide, hitting the water and creating turbulence for what was usually a smooth activity in the pool by herself.
"I was thinking, 'this is terrible,' which is what I wanted," Shaw said. "If I was swimming in a pool, I would have quit, but I didn't have that option. I was struggling and told myself, 'I got to keep moving.’"
Once Shaw finished the swim portion, she sprang on her bike only to get passed by a 70-year-old woman, but she still peddled through the entire 56 miles and made her way to the run.
"I start the run, and everyone said I had a good pace and looked great," she said. "It wasn't fast by any means, but I felt strong."
Three laps through Austin with four hills to go, she kept repeating, "keep running." As her muscles screamed from exhaustion, Shaw said she could hear the cheers of encouragement through the chaos.
"There were people cheering the whole time," Shaw said. "And, then came the best part: running past the finish line hearing you're a half Ironman."
As she heard those words, her previous failure seemed like a distant memory.
"Although I went into the race looking to get my butt kicked, I learned you don't have to beat yourself up over not doing well," said Shaw. "You can find a different challenge or goal and work toward it."
Inspired by the experience, Shaw's next goal was to take more time to train and compete in a full Ironman -- a 140.6-mile triathlon.
"I wanted to see if I could go the distance, and if I could, could I be fast and strong at it," Shaw said.
She set her sights on Ironman Louisville, Kentucky, and gave herself approximately a year to train. A solo sport competitor, Shaw had only the windy sound of her wheels, the engulfing hug of water and repetitive thud of her feet hitting the pavement to accompany her thoughts for miles every day.
"The process of training has really allowed me to take a step back and look at my life and how I can push myself, not only physically but mentally and emotionally," she said. "It's allowed me to test my limits, push myself down and pull myself back up. It's that constant reminder that yeah you might stink at something, but if you work hard you can change your outcome."
Shaw completed the full Ironman in August 2014, and beat all of her previous paces; but ever the challenger to herself, she has her sights set on surpassing her completion time and learning more about her strengths and weaknesses at Ironnan Texas, May 16, 2015.
"Through triathlons I have gained more perspective on myself and how I am able to overcome obstacles," Shaw said. "I learned that whatever you put your heart and mind to you can achieve. At first, that was hard for me to understand because I felt like I did that with flying. There are days that I'm not going to win, but I can't let one thing in life keep me from being happy and triathlons allowed me to do that--they helped me move forward."