A Dolphin in a Woman’s World

From swimmer to triathlete, I now look ahead at how those sports can apply to spaceflight training.

One of my goals with this training journal is to spend some time reflecting on where I have come from, where I am now, and establish where I want to go in the future. A little background on my swimming career, how it brought me to triathlon training, and how that relates to civilian spaceflight training.

Swimming is a sport I’ve competed in since I was a little kid. I was practically born with fins and grew up with a community pool, Beaurepaire Swim Club, right down the street. I participated in four different water sports; water polo, diving, synchronized swimming, and the swim team. There came a point where my parents suggested I should pick a sport. Around that time I had a swim coach that thought I had what it would take to become a competitive swimmer. He suggested to my parents to have me tryout for the year-round club team, Pointe-Claire Swim Club. From the ages of 9 to 13, I swam competitively in Montréal and I excelled in my age groups across Canada. I actually had a few seasons where I ranked in the top 25 in my age group in different backstroke and freestyle events. My claim to fame as a child athlete!

At age 13, I moved to Virginia and I felt quite a shock. I basically moved into a much larger pool of competition and was no longer at the top of my age group. I joined another year-round club team, Curl Burke Swim Club—now known as the Nation’s Capital Swim Club—and swam competitively all through high school. I hit my peak performance around my junior year of high school, competing at the junior nationals and later qualifying for, and competing in, the U.S. Open. I was later recruited to swim for the division I Virginia Tech Swim and Dive team. I continued competing until the end of sophomore year. At that point, I had burned out on the sport, I wasn’t improving, and I wanted to have more of a college life. In addition, my health was suffering from various stress related illnesses that needed to be addressed. After much discussion with my parents, I decided to stop my competitive swimming career after my sophomore season completed.

I then entered a phase in my life where exercise and health took a backseat to fun and excitement. I do not regret it one bit, but it took a toll on my physical and mental fitness. After college, I started to build a career in graphic and web design, which eventually led me to a position contracting with the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) in Washington, DC. I was living the life. I had a successful career, married the love of my life, and had a strong group of fun and supportive friends. The high I was feeling only lasted for so long until the stress, intense workload, and generally draining nature of politics in DC took over. I woke up one day and realized how unhappy I was with my body and the stress my life was providing. At that point I decided to start working out again. This was quite the on-and-off again cycle for a while. My husband and I both got a personal trainer to help with the accountability part.

Around this same time, I decided to get my skydiving license. Skydiving was a sport I had been interested in for a while and for my 29th birthday some friends and I went for our first skydives together. Skydiving took me to a new mental place that I had never imagined. It opened my eyes to new possibilities and it motivated me to set new goals and dreams. After that first jump, I was asking a friend how he became a Zero G Flight Director and he said that many people came from a skydiving background. Those simple words started me down a path to researching skydiving schools, getting my “A” license, and developing a new dream to work in a zero gravity environment. After successfully earning my United States Parachute Association “A” license, I knew I needed to work on my fitness and flexibility.

I decided to do a few 5K and 8K running races and eventually registered for my first sprint triathlon. This was a big deal because (1) I had never competed in one, (2) the rules were confusing and didn’t want to get disqualified, and (3) I was nervous about how I would feel by the 5K run at the end. The race I participated in was the Luray Sprint Triathlon in Luray, Virginia. I had one of my close friends doing the race with me so that calmed some of my nerves. When race day arrived, I was no longer nervous. I knew what that feeling was. It was the same feeling I would have at competitions in my swimming days. The triathlon was fun, the community was extremely encouraging, and I knew I had found a new sport that gave me the satisfaction I had not felt in years. Exercise could be fun again!

A few years later, my husband and I decided to move to Arizona to leave the stresses of Washington, DC behind and start a new and healthier lifestyle. At that time I wanted to go back to swimming and triathlon would be a path to do that. I decided to join a local triathlon team, Racelab, and set new goals of competing in a half IRONMAN. Should be IRONWOMAN if you ask me, but that’s neither here nor there. Racelab built me a custom training program to build up my fitness in each sport. The team was amazing and I was on track to do the race, but then I decided to take another big step in my life and start my master’s degree. That moment was a turning point in my life because I realized that I needed to go back to school to learn more about the commercial spaceflight industry, training, and hone in on the outdoor adventure aspects of my life. I often try to do everything at once and I wasn’t quite prepared to balance the level of training that was needed for a half IRONMAN, work, and school all at the same time. Unfortunately triathlon training was the one thing that fell through and I just wasn’t able to keep up with it.

After being in graduate school for three part-time semesters, I finally started to figure out the school-life balance and understand what is important for me personally. Health took a backseat for those first semesters and I knew I needed to make it a priority again. To coincide with the topic of my master’s, I started working with a company to build a custom spaceflight training fitness program. It was the most scientifically accurate program I have ever seen. After working with them remotely for a few months, I realized that I was missing the social aspects of training. To satisfy the socialization I was missing, I recently rejoined the Racelab team and am already feeling it was the right decision. I was welcomed back with open arms and already feel the motivation coming back. I did not realize until then how important being around people was in the success of my training.

What this shows me is that there many different training methods that can be used for future civilian astronauts. I think it is something really important for people to consider as civilians start going to space. Whatever type of training a person is comfortable with, and wherever their fitness passions lay, finding what is right for each individual will only help them succeed in their fitness goals.

The featured image is of me on the blocks, in the black bathing suit, ready to race at Beaurepaire Swim Club.

About the author

Erin Bonilla

Erin Bonilla is pursuing a master's degree in Adventure Education with a concentration in the psychosocial components of human spaceflight selection and training. She believes that through the development of a baseline approach to behavioral health within the astronaut selection process we can minimize long term psychosocial challenges and increase participant enjoyment.

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