VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Three weeks before Maj. Christina Hopper's first half-Ironman race, she came down with bronchitis. She carried the sticky, coughing weight with her as she continued training, hoping that she'd kick it before race day.
In a doctor's office on the Tuesday before the race, as her still-inflamed lungs heaved during an exam, her doctor said "you probably won't be racing this weekend."
Between labored breaths, she said "that's not an option."
The doctor resigned "don't expect to do anything great."
She smiled to herself.
Toting a new inhaler, some Vitamin C chews and cough medicine, and amidst coughing fits so ravaging that she pulled muscles in her back and sides, Hopper not only finished the race, but beat her goal time by one minute.
No one should blame the doctor for his pragmatism and realistic bend - he just didn't know Hopper.
The 5th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot will return to competition Aug. 8 when she competes in the USA Triathlon Olympic-Distance National Championships in Milwaukee.
Like the three segments of a triathlon, Hopper doggedly pursues her life triathlon with the same dedication and a desire to "live life well."
After her time as an AFROTC cadet with University of Texas Detachment 825, where she graduated as a cadet commander, Hopper headed to Vance and earned her wings as a Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training class 00-07 graduate.
Spanning almost ten years as an active-duty fighter pilot and instructor, she went on to fly more than 50 missions in support of Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom, among other efforts.
Fifteen years later, Hopper said while she loves her life today, she'd be remiss if she didn't say her heart still leaps when she hears an F-16 afterburner.
"When I got off active duty, my husband was still flying F-16s," she said. "I miss it every time I see them - I loved flying the F-16, but I don't look back with regret on the decisions I've made. (Air Force Reserve duty) has been a great balance for me of maintaining my military affiliation and all of the work I've put into becoming a pilot, while at the same time being available to my kids."
As she was graduating pilot training, 1st Lt. Aaron Hopper was coming through Vance's gates for the first time.
Now a lieutenant colonel and the 8th Flying Training Squadron director of operations, Aaron Hopper's JSUPT class was just forming up when he opened the base newspaper in 2000 and saw a picture of a polished new graduate who was moving on to an F-16 slot in New Mexico. He said he immediately felt he knew something about the woman who would eventually become his wife.
"I thought she was someone I would have nothing in common with," he self-effacingly said, figuring that the future fighter pilot had an astuteness he lacked (although he too would soon fly F-16s). "We became fast friends and realized how much we had in common. It was easy for us to spend time together."
Three children later, Aaron, whom Christina referred to as "my Sherpa," said he couldn't have asked for a better partner. He said with open communication, each of them is able to pursue their goals with unyielding support from the other.
"We're shoulder-to-shoulder in the things that we do," he said. "If (triathlons) are her passion, I want to be right there beside her, helping her do those things. She's passionate about fitness and living a healthy lifestyle and setting a good example for our kids."
When she was seven, Christina's parents, Melvin and Susan Allick, laid down a mandate for her and her siblings, who all played sports, that grew into a mantra.
"One of the things my parents taught us (was) not to quit," Hopper said. "They had a deal with us that if you get to the end of a season and you want to stop - then you could quit the program, but you couldn't quit during a season. We had to see things through until the end, and I feel that is something that's huge to teach your children. They taught me to never quit in the middle, so it's never been in my psyche to stop."
Christina holds five letters as a swimmer at the University of Texas, where she got the chance to swim with her sister, Indira Murr, who holds several University Games swimming records and is an Ironman championship qualifier.
"It was about a year ago that my sister was talking to me about triathlons," she said. "She's been at it for about five years. Supporting her was very inspiring - watching her cross finishing lines and seeing the work she put in; she said 'you can do this.'"
The sisters are ranked 152nd and 85th in the nation respectively, which places them within the top ten percent of triathletes nationally.
Hopper knows she may not be the first person to cross the finish line Aug. 8. She doesn't measure herself by a stopwatch, yet she does measure herself.
"The overarching thing that defines all of my life is my relationship with God," she said. "It's what drives me and makes me passionate about life. The reason and the purpose behind everything I do is to glorify God and to make his name known. If that was removed from my life, I would feel that I have no purpose."
And that will be her direction Aug. 8 and every day following. The triathlon courses are designed by others, but her life's trail is directed by faith. Faith in God, faith in those she is close to and faith in the belief that life's spoils, whether they be triathlon finishes, flying or family, are blessings.
"Triathlons are intense and hard," she said. "I tell my kids that there are things in life that are worth doing. Going to pilot training, competing for a fighter (pilot) slot - that was hard, but it was worthwhile. The level of difficulty that you put into something also increases the level of satisfaction that you get out of something.
"I believe that as I do triathlons, it teaches me about life," she said. "Things come up that are hurtful, they're painful, and they're difficult to work through, but on the backside there's a great sense of accomplishment - there's a peace in accomplishing what you've set out to do in life."