Military discipline and competitive drive help the nation’s top-ranked para-triathlete stay focused.
Sgt. First Class Allan Armstrong resumed running just six months after he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 2013. He returned to active military duty a few months after that, took up paratriathlon in 2015, and won his first U.S. championship in less than two years. Whew. Now the three-time defending national champion in paratriathlon, Armstrong is staying focused through the pandemic on his goal of earning a spot on Team USA for the 2021 Paralympics. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your athletic career before you got injured.
I was never an elite athlete per se, but I was always active. The military strongly encourages physical fitness, and there’s a small percentage of us where we take that to an extreme and run events such as the Army ten-miler. One of the things I was able to bring forward from my military experience was the tough mental attitude. The military teaches a lot about discipline, and I’ve brought that over to the athletic side. You need a lot of discipline to do your workouts, do them on time, stay on top of recovery.
What was your job in the Army?
I first got into the service after high school. It was a way to help me pay for college tuition. Little did I know that I wouldn’t start my college education until six or seven years later because I was on back-to-back deployments. I was first a quartermaster. I worked in the logistics department those first ten years of service, and I loved it. I was able to stay physically fit and to give back to my country and to do my job and to lead soldiers. After ten years I switched over to signal communications and worked a little more in the technology side of the military.
Through all of that time in the military, I always enjoyed running. I was that guy in the combat zone who would always find a way to run around my installation. Sometimes I’d have to run around my whole installation about 10 or 20 times to get 3 or 4 miles.
When I first lost my leg, I kept asking my doctors, “Well, okay, I know it’s going to be hard, I know it’s going to be a journey, but when can I run again? What’s the timeline? You think it’s going to be three months? Four months?” And they kept telling me, “Oh, maybe a year.” But I was able to get back to running again within six months. I’m not sure why I had that in my head. I just needed to get out and run again. I was determined.
How soon after your injury did you start thinking about competition?
At first I was just trying to stay physically fit so I could pass the darn test to prove that I’m fit for duty so I could continue to serve my country. It was about a year later when somebody told me about the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. And that’s when the idea finally like set in—“Is this an option for me? Can I be an elite athlete?”
Let me back up just a second. What do you have to do to get certified to go back on active duty? What tests do you have to pass to establish that you’re fit for service?
The first test is the Army physical fitness test, which consists of pushups, situps, and a two-mile run. Pushups and situps I was able to manage. The two-mile run was obviously the biggest challenge. You have a year to pass that test before they say no-go, and I was able to pass this test with 30 seconds to spare. You have to complete it within 16 minutes, and I did it at 15:30. It’s not an amazing time, but I was able to do it. And then I moved on to where I did a year of regular duty, my normal job.
While I was doing that normal job, I started working toward this goal of getting into the World Class Athlete Program. So I was training too, working 40 to 50 hours a week. About two years after the injury is when the World Class Athletes Program recruited me and allowed me the opportunity to train full time.
How did you choose triathlon? I gather you always had liked running, but what was it about the combined disciplines of running, swimming, and biking that attracted you?
When I first lost my leg I couldn’t run, so I learned to swim. That was one of the three disciplines [in triathlon]. Then I started running again, but I enjoyed swimming so I just kept up with both. So that’s two of the three disciplines. So I did triathlon because I wanted to continue with swimming and running, and I just stared messing around with the bike a little bit. It wasn’t the bike discipline that I fell in love with. It was the community I fell in love with. Some athletes have got an ego side to them, which is understandable because you need some sense of ego to be competitive. But the thing that really hooked me in with triathlon? Everybody was very humble. Not only was everybody very humble, there was a good mix of athletes. It kind of reminded me of the military culture, where we had a lot of diversity and it was very family-oriented. It kind of brought all that together. It was like working with the military as a team and having my squad. Triathlon’s my new squad now.
Another triathlete told me he thinks of the sport as “equal opportunity abuse.” It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re gonna suffer the same, and that brings people together.
It doesn’t feel good to race sometimes. It hurts. Your body is telling you, “Hey, we don’t want to do this anymore,” and you mind is telling your body, “Well, we’re going to to keep on doing this.” Everybody else who’s going through that course is having that same experience, and at the finish line your competitors are cheering you on. It’s like friendly competition. It’s amazing.
Have you had much interaction with soldiers who were injured in combat and are struggling to adjust to an injury? You mentioned you’re mentoring a couple of young athletes. Are you interested in mentoring soldiers as well?
Yes, 100 percent. Just to help them live day-to-day lives without impacting their lives negatively. Moving on with whatever they wish to do, whether it’s education, whether it’s working back on duty, or if it’s on the athletic side, I want to help them in all three of those aspects. How to be a person again.
You know, the great thing that I noticed since injury, especially with my injury being very visible. A lot of soldiers want to share their situation with me. They opened up more for some reason. What I’m finding is there’s a lot within the community who have non-visible injuries and challenges—mental, back injuries, and other things that you just can’t see. I’m able to relate with them, help them out, talk them through it. And I try to express to them that even though mine is visible and theirs is not, it doesn’t make my injury any worse than theirs. We’re almost on the same battlefield, same ground, and we both have challenges and we need to support each other.