Born in Puerto Rico to an Israeli mother and Puerto Rican father, at age 11 Capt. Hila Levy told her parents she knew she wanted to one day attend the Air Force Academy and eventually become an astronaut. Even as a pre-teen, she dreamed big. Levy would go on to attend the Air Force Academy, graduating first in her class and making history by becoming the first Puerto Rican to ever be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. Her time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford led her to cycling, and eventually to triathlon. In her few short years in the sport, Levy has seen great success, winning her age group at Ironman 70.3 Japan this year and securing a place at both the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and the Ironman World Championship. As if that wasn’t enough racing, Levy, who is currently stationed at Misawa Air Force Base in Japan, also squeezed in an third-place finish in her age group at the Inaugural Ironman Japan just one week before heading to Vegas. A long-time advocate of military charities such as The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon, Levy became a member of Team RWB last year.
LAVA: You’ve only been doing triathlons seriously for a year. How did you first get involved in endurance sports?
Hila Levy: I used to power lift in college and before that I only did team sports, but I really have no background in any of the triathlon disciplines. I mean I didn’t grow up with any of that endurance sport culture. I grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and triathlon has only recently become a little popular there since we got a 70.3 race a few years ago. I hadn’t even heard of an Ironman until I was a freshman in college. I had a calculus teacher who had raced Hawaii in the 80s and he had done a ton of them. I saw a poster for it and I literally told him that he was insane. I told him it was crazy and people who did them were crazy. He retired this year and I just wrote to him and told him that I’m the crazy one, and I’m actually going to Hawaii. We’ve had a nice back and forth about it. In 2009, when I was 22, one of my friends from the academy was killed in Afghanistan, and I just really felt like doing something to help raise money, and I think I just felt like doing something crazy. So I bought a bike and I asked if there was anyone who wanted to bike across the U.K. with me, but everyone was busy so I just decided to do it solo. I ended up planning a route that was 956 miles.
LAVA: That’s quite a journey. How long did it take you to prepare?
HL: I gave myself 30 days to get a bike, and learn everything I could about maintaining a bike. I sat at a bike shop for a few days trying to learn everything and figure it all out. I got a blog started and just started raising money for wounded vets in the U.K. and in the U.S. through organizations like The Mission Continues. Then I started this 11-day journey. The first few days, especially through Scotland, it was really lonely and deserted. The only person you talked to was your waiter at the pub. It was a tough first few days. I was solo, unsupported, carrying my own gear on this heavy, steel Trek 520. Then I got about 40 miles from the end and I just didn’t want to finish. The bike and the journey had become a part of me. I spent 8 hours a day on this bike and it had just been a really amazing experience. I would wake up, have an English breakfast, bike for four hours then have a pub lunch, then bike for another four hours. Along the way I talked to all these veterans and visited all these different war memorials from the Great War and from World War II, and I just documented it all the whole time. At the end I just felt like I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I was in the middle of finishing grad school in England. So I figured, well, I have this bike. Let’s see what I can do with a bike. And on the journey I had met another family who was really into cycling and they kind of introduced me to the world of cycling. And then I learned about triathlon. I joined the British Triathlon Federation and got a list of races and found some that looked fun and I just really jumped in.
LAVA: What are your expectations for Kona?
HL: My victory is just being here I think. I want to finish, obviously, but that’s it. I think a bonus would be to not be last. I had a big year, bigger than I ever thought I would. I think this might be my lifetime achievement until maybe I come back when I’m 60 years old. Truthfully, I’m just happy to even be able to do this sport at all because I have no speed. I’m just lucky that I’ve been able to mentally focus and get things done in my career and to be able to race as well. I started working with a serious coach in March. I started training pretty heavily then with the goal of qualifying for Vegas. Qualifying for Kona was just kind of a pipe dream, but then I double qualified because I won my age group at Ironman 70.3 Japan. I never really thought I would have a chance to be here this soon.
LAVA: How did you first hear about Team RWB?
HL: I found out about Team RWB while I was stationed in Korea, and I was just searching for more ways to join up with members of the military community. I had been involved with The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon for some time, and this just fit with all of that. All of these organizations want to help veterans build relationships and a sense of community and purpose once they are out of the military, so it’s just a real natural fit for me to try and do that through sport as well. I like that it isn’t about raising money for something, but rather about encouraging people to come together through sport and improve their health and avoid a lot of the bad habits that sometimes happen when people leave the service. It’s unique in that respect.
LAVA: You have quite the military resume, especially for someone so young. Did you always know you wanted to serve your country?
HL: My dad was a reservist in the Army and my mom is Israeli and so she did her mandatory service in Israel. So I grew up feeling like it was your obligation as a citizen to serve your country. No one ever told me to, I think probably my parents would have preferred I didn’t not to. But from the age of 11 I knew I wanted to attend the Air Force Academy. I was a real space nerd, I wanted to be an astronaut for a long time. When I was in high school, my parents got me flying lessons and I eventually got my pilot’s license. Subsequently, I actually chose not to fly in the Air Force, I decided to specialize in intelligence. It was a winding path to get where I’m at but I love it. It’s funny how you change your mind about things as you grow up. I kind of clarified what I wanted to do through a lot of trial and error.
LAVA: There has always been a pretty strong relationship with the military and triathlon, especially with Ironman. What about triathlon do you think makes it so popular with the military community?
HL: I think there’s definitely an element of perfectionism within me and within people in the service that works with triathlon. I want to get things right. A kind of responsibility for yourself and being results driven and objective driven is very nurtured in the military. All intelligence is bad intelligence unless it furthers your objective. I think military people are naturally self-critical and reflect on what you’ve done and how you can prepare better. Also not wanting to let people down. Even if people say that you are racing for yourself, there’s always an element of teamwork in it I think. For me, it’s my family, my mentors, my leadership and everyone who has helped me get out there and race and get better. I don’t want to let people down. Especially now representing Team RWB.
LAVA: You’re military job is very time consuming and demanding. How do you juggle your training with your life as an active duty service member?
HL: It’s kind of hard. I usually wake up around 4 or 4:30 every morning and try to get one or two of my workouts done before I have to go to my unit’s physical training session. That’s about 30 minutes to an hour, which could be anything from Crossfit or a track workout to dodge ball. Then I have to try and swim before changing quickly into my uniform and head to work. After work I’ll have another one or two workouts left to do. It’s kind of cramming it all in. In Japan, it gets dark very early in the winter and there is a lot of snow. Misawa Air Force Base is the snowiest base in the military actually, we can have upwards of 25 feet in the winter, so outdoor training is just not possible for a lot of the year. Most of my workouts in the winter are done in a pool, indoor track and trainer. There is great riding during the summer, but I’m not comfortable with the roads. I don’t speak Japanese, I don’t know the roads very well so I have to go with a group. There is no shoulder and no signage or marking on the roads, it’s very rural where we are, so unless you know where you are going really well you can very easily get lost. I go out with a great group of older guys who are all really good cyclists but aren’t competitive, so they really kick my butt but are also incredibly encouraging. They are like brothers to me now. They’ll take me out at 5am on weekday mornings and they’ve really showed me the ropes. I’m definitely the only 26-year old female out there cycling where I am, that’s for sure. We have an 8.2 mile loop around the base and that’s pretty much the frequent running route. There’s also a track, but it’s snow-covered for a good four months out of the year. Our base is at the equivalent latitude of Siberia, so there’s a lot of snow, but we’re also coastal so there’s a ton of moisture and it can just get really bad. But if you are a skier or snowboarder, it’s heaven. Just not for triathlon.