JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
Finishing with a total time of nine hours, 54 minutes, and 1 second, U.S. Air Force Capt. Samantha Skold won the military division at the Kona Ironman World Championships. The active duty physician assistant, currently stationed at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Family Health Clinic, completed the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run in October, 2023.
“Winning the Military Division at Ironman Kona is one of the top three best moments in my life,” Skold said. “I set a goal to just qualify for Ironman Kona a year ago, and made triathlon my life; to come home a military world champion is just crazy.”
Running was deeply ingrained in her family, but it wasn’t until the sixth grade that Skold discovered her athletic talent. She was running laps around a mile trail in Alderfer Three Sisters Park, Colorado, when the high school cross-country team happened to be practicing there as well.
“Their workout was one-mile repeats and I was passing all their JV runners and keeping up with their varsity runners,” said Skold. “One of the coaches was watching and came up to ask if I was planning on running cross country in high school because they wanted me on their team. I said yes, and kept running.”
In her freshman year, Skold became one of the top three runners in her school and only progressed from there. Eventually, she had the opportunity to run at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
After graduating from the academy, Skold found herself in a job she wasn’t passionate about. She needed to do something athletic again to lift her from her funk, she said, and returned to running, then began participating in triathlons. A triathlon friend referred her to the Physician Assistant program through the military.
Skold’s job led her to being stationed as a physician assistant in Alaska – a place known for breathtaking scenery, but also for long, dark winters, when keeping up on physical training is difficult, Skold said.
She committed to waking up in the early hours of the day to kickstart a workout before work, another during lunch, and a final session after work.
Preparing for the Ironman Kona took a year, during which Skold trained hard, 14 to 18 hours a week, which left little to no room for social outings. But it was all about crafting the perfect routine that worked for her. It became the key to maintaining her sanity in the challenging environment, she said.
“There are a lot of sacrifices that you have to make. A lot of times it’s saying ‘I'm sorry, I can't go out to the party tonight’ or ‘No, I can't stay up late; I've got a long run in the morning.’” Skold said.
Long bike rides, swims and runs offered Skold ample time for introspection. She delved deeply into the reasons behind her goals and pushed herself to question her own toughness as both an athlete and person. These psychological battles fuel her perseverance - both in life and in races.
“Your mind can enter incredibly dark places during [the Ironman], and you have a choice to let the thoughts win or lose,” she said. “A mile into the swim, the current picked up; I was kicked in the face, brought under the water for probably the sixteenth time, and my heart rate was redlining. Negative thoughts of ‘I can’t keep this pace, I am not a strong swimmer, I will not finish’ flooded my brain. I knew if I gave in to these thoughts my race was over, so I closed my eyes for a second, caught my breath, and finished the remaining distance faster than I have ever in a race.”
“It’s easy to become overstimulated, anxious, and burnt out,” she said. “But if you learn how to break down and prioritize tasks, the full image becomes clearer and the task can easily be done.”
Skold is no stranger to the stressors of military life, the weight of completing the job with top proficiency and efficiency as well as staying on top of military readiness training. Skold acknowledges the critical role played by her leadership in allowing her to balance her training and work responsibilities. Success in a triathlon demanded significant time and commitment, but her leaders recognized the importance of her athletic pursuits and supported her in managing her schedule effectively.
“I was beyond proud when Capt. Skold claimed the top slot at Kona,” said Lt. Col. Emily Seitz, Skold’s flight commander with the 673rd Medical group. “I was so excited that all her hard work paid off. It’s so great to see someone who truly deserves it take home the trophy.”
Her leadership isn’t the only one to make note of Skold’s hard work. Her friends also acknowledge her efforts and constant support for friends and teammates alike.
"Everyone should have a friend like Sam,” said Michelle Humphrey. “She is the kind of friend that will show up to go on a long run with you way too early on a Saturday morning, join a relay team last minute to cover for someone who got sick, and encourage you to go after goals outside of your comfort zone.”
The friendships Skold has made go both ways - something she said she realized after her Hawaii win.
“I realized how unbelievable the friendships I have developed through the Air Force truly are,” she said. “People dropped everything, loaded up brand new babies and kids, and flew to Hawaii to support me. If I had asked any of my friends outside of the military to do that, I don’t think they would’ve. This community understands what showing up for each other means, and having them there made that finish and win so much more meaningful. I am not an emotional person, but when I saw them at the finish line, it made me cry.”
Through these ups and downs of training and hard work, Skold persevered. She managed to find a balance between her workouts, her job, and her personal life.
Skold said her personal journey as an Ironman triathlete underscores the importance of mental and physical readiness and fortitude.
“Endurance sports are such mental games,” she said. “There is so much room for self-doubt to ruin your results, process, and motivation. So these wins are huge in keeping the excitement and self-awareness in place.”