'You'd Be Amazed at What You Can Achieve': 3-Time Deployer Becomes a Bodybuilder

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An Air Force staff sergeant prepares for a bodybuilding competition.
Staff Sgt. Kathleen Sullivan, 50th Security Forces Squadron, flips tires as she prepares for a bodybuilding competition. (Jennifer Thibault/U.S. Air Force photo)

Fitness goals are like people; no two are exactly alike. And how people develop their fitness goals typically evolves and changes as they do.

For Staff Sgt. Kathleen Sullivan, her initial fitness goal before joining the Air Force six years ago was to drop some serious weight as the scales topped out at around 230 pounds on her 5-foot, 6-inch frame.

"I played softball for my college team but I injured my throwing arm and had to sit out the season," Sullivan said.

However, her appetite didn't sit out the season, and she kept eating like she was still playing. Hence, the extra weight.

"I started exercising and running in preparation for basic military training and weighed in at about 186 when I joined the Air Force. Even then, I was still at the top of the allowable weight for my height," she said.

By the time she graduated from BMT and her security forces technical training, she was able to drop another 40 pounds.

"While I've been in the Air Force, I feel like I have been in good physical shape," Sullivan said.

But that doesn't mean her fitness goals are in her rearview mirror; rather, she has set her sights on a new goal on the horizon. Sullivan intends to compete during the Natural Colorado Open bodybuilding competition in Denver later this month.

"It started as a challenge from a coworker that I couldn't do the things a professional bodybuilder could. I took that challenge and have been training since this summer," she said.

Her training involves hitting the gym six days a week for 2-4 hours.

"I do a minimum of one hour of cardio a day in addition to my rotating, targeted muscle routines," said Sullivan.

With all that time in the gym, one would think it would be getting a bit old, but that's not the case for Sullivan, thanks to coworker and challenger Senior Airman Adam Donahue.

"He comes up with different workouts to keep things different; this week, we're flipping tires," she said, smiling.

Donahue's passion stems from his own fitness goals to compete in the popular strongman competitions as well as to prepare for a potential opportunity to cross-train into Tactical Air Control Party.

"I didn't realize she'd take my challenge seriously," Donahue said. "I think she will learn more about herself through her training and what she's truly capable of, and that will no doubt benefit her for her future fitness goals, her career and life in general."

Together, the security forces members motivate each other to stay on track and on diet.

"He will tease me about what I eat to help me maintain my focus," said Sullivan, who has adopted a high-protein, very low-carb diet. The hardest diet change to swallow, though, was no soda.

"I only get one Diet Dr. Pepper a month," she said.

The sacrifices are worth it, especially as Sullivan tracks her progress toward her current goal.

"I take progress pictures every 2-3 weeks to track my progress. I also do measurements and fat caliper checks," she said.

Sullivan said she's already reaping the rewards from her training.

"I got to go shopping to buy new clothes; I was so excited," she said. "I keep the photos from when I was heavier, and I compare them to how my body looks now and it makes me happy. Plus, I have noticed that others are asking me questions about fitness and diet, and it's a good feeling to be motivating others."

Not to mention she has more energy now and is more alert.

"I have increased my physical abilities, and I feel I am a better trainer because I have quicker reaction times," Sullivan said.

The defender said she has more fitness goals beyond this month's competition.

"I would like to keep competing and maybe get my pro card, which is based on your ranking in competitions," she said.

However, another deployment is likely in the stars for this three-time deployer.

"Deployments actually help me with my fitness goals, because there are fewer distractions. All I do is work, eat, sleep and work out. I get in the best shape when I'm deployed," she said.

For those looking to develop new fitness goals, Sullivan recommends asking others for help.

"Ask people in the gym for advice on how to do exercises to meet your goals. We have a gym staff here that is extremely helpful and knowledgeable," she said. "And when it gets tough, keep pushing through it. The human body is amazing, and you'd be amazed at what you can achieve."

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