Air Force colonel swims a million meters, teaches importance of comprehensive fitness

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad
  • Armed Forces Network - Kaiserslautern

When asked how he’d characterize himself in a swimming pool, Col. Brian Thompson is quick to downplay.

“I’m definitely not Aquaman,” he laughs. “I’m more of a manatee if anything.”

But after finishing out 2021 with a million meters swam, the equivalent of swimming the English Channel 30 times over, Thompson is more than deserving of the Aquaman moniker, however at odds with his characteristically down-to-earth attitude towards his own accomplishment.

“If I’d impart any advice to a service member who’s struggling with gathering up the motivation to achieve their goals, it’d be, ‘If Colonel Thompson can do it, then you can too,’” he said.

At 54, Thompson is the first to note his body has lost some of its elasticity over the years, preferring to swim over higher-impact forms of cardio like running in an effort to safeguard his joints.

The nature of Thompson’s work as Third Air Force’s staff judge advocate also makes high demand of his time, often forcing the former high school and college swimmer to start his days during the morning’s wee hours to fit in a workout.

“There are definitely days where I’m basically dragging myself to the pool in the morning—it can be a slog,” he said. “The importance of finding something you can feel passionate about is really what makes the difference, though. The connection between the mind and body is what will keep you powering through during times of struggle—and not just during trips to the gym or pool. If your body’s fit, it tends to help push the mind to that same level of fitness, and vice versa.”

According to a recent study by Frontiers in Psychiatry, those with an active lifestyle prove to be 60 percent less likely to develop anxiety than those who live a more sedentary lifestyle over a 21-year period.

That, combined with the Air Force’s priority of Comprehensive Airmen Fitness—a commitment to holistic improvement of oneself related to the philosophy’s “pillars” of social, mental, spiritual and physical well-being—paints a picture in which each facet of a person’s health impacts one another and is important both in and of itself as well as a component within a larger, interconnected system.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Joanne Bass also touched on the importance of keeping one’s CAF pillars strong in a recent post on her social media.

“When (one of the CAF pillars) are off, we tend to be out of balance,” she said in the post. “Think about what fuels you, both intrinsically and outwardly, and try to get more of that in. Rest, connect with others, find some good hobbies and remember what you fuel your mind and body with matters.”

For Thompson, swimming has long been a passion, something he says he has always found to have a natural inclination for. Though, beyond the physical aspect of such a Herculean accomplishment, Thompson claims much of the million meters came naturally—a side effect of simply doing something he loves.

With the right mindset, swimming and other forms of exercise can go beyond being just a simple way to stay fit, he said.

“When I’m swimming, it’s more than ‘Okay, twenty more laps and I can indulge that sweet tooth of mine,’” Thompson continued. “It’s a way for me to process my day, think about what I have to do… It can be very meditative in that way, and it’s something I wish for all service members to find that thing they’re passionate about and let it be all it can be for them.”

With his goal of swimming a million meters now completed and in his rearview, Thompson shows no sign of slowing down, even planning a 12.5-mile swim in the summer off the Florida Keys and, further off, his bucket list item of swimming the 20.5-mile English Channel.

As he puts it: “A day might come where I’ll have to take my foot off the gas with my swimming, but it’s not today. As long as it remains something that brings me joy, I’m going to continue with it as long as I can.”