The All-American walking Airman

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Grace Bynum
  • 131st Bomb Wing Public Affairs

Shoes were pounding the rubber track. It was the home stretch. Seven athletes were hitting the final 100 meters. The time board kept ticking up with each breath from the competitors. They had been training for years in order to complete this race. The final foot passed the finish line and the newest national All-American athletes were recognized.

U.S. Air National Guard Master Sgt. Kevin Conrey, a radio frequency transmissions technician assigned to the 239th Combat Communications Squadron, had a unique background prior to joining the Air National Guard.

As an RF transmission specialist, Conrey maintains physical fitness to uphold mission readiness. However, athletics were not foreign to him before his military career; he excelled as a competitive athlete.

He participated in track and cross country in high school and then received a small personal scholarship to Missouri Valley College, initially specializing in longer distance running, competing in the 1500 and 3000 meter races.

Upon entering college, Conrey embraced a new challenge. His coach encouraged him to participate in the conference championship as a race walker to contribute points to the team.

“My coach saw something in me that I didn’t even know I had in myself,” said Conrey. “Coach said, ‘We need to score some points in different areas,’ and I said, ‘What is race walking?’”

Conrey, like many Americans, was unfamiliar with race walking and had to quickly get up to speed with the sport.
Race walking isn’t just a normal walk around the track. It first appeared in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis as part of an “All-Around Championship,” known today as a decathlon.

Race walking is stricter than running, which he was more familiar with. Some of the rules associated with race walking are one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Another is that the athlete’s knee must not be bent whenever the heel makes contact with the ground. Athletes may be disqualified for not conforming to the specific race walking form.

Judges around the track monitor competitors, holding paddles that show the athletes different symbols. They’ll give them a warning and potentially give a red card. If racers get three warnings from the judges, they will be disqualified.

Conrey’s coaches wanted him to do distance running, but also wanted him to give race walking a shot. So, he began training for the conference championship, incorporating race walking into the routine.

“I actually started doing it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re actually pretty good at this,’” he said.

Conrey said the practice wasn’t much different from distance running training, he would run five miles in the morning. Then instead of running interval workouts, he would race walk them.

When it came time for the meet, Conrey did not anticipate much out of the race walking event, due to his limited amount of training and practice.

However, to his and his coaches' surprise, Conrey was a minute away from qualifying for nationals as a freshman athlete.

“I did the conference race and my coach said, ‘Wow, you almost qualified for nationals,’” said Conrey.

His coaches recognized his potential and encouraged him to continue training in the sport.

Between his first championship to the following one, Conrey worked hard putting in his race walking miles.

His sophomore year of college he went back to the conference championship and the outcome was not what he wanted. He was disqualified from the race within the last 100 meters for a bent knee and only found out that he was disqualified after he finished.

He pushed himself harder to do well in the next race. When the time came for the next conference championship, he felt more confident.

Conrey placed in the conference and was able to make it to the national championship.

His team traveled to East Tennessee State University for nationals, the same place where he was disqualified the year prior. This time he was determined to have a greater outcome.

Once Conrey heard the start gun go off, his race walk to victory began. Nearing the final lap he was feeling confident in achieving All-American, but as he approached the last 100 meters, the person behind him began to pick up speed and finished ahead of him to win sixth place in the national championship.

Conrey thought it was over, he wasn’t going to make all-American. Moments later judges declared a disqualification. The sixth-place athlete had been eliminated due to a bent knee.

“So, I qualified for nationals and got the top six, which makes you an All-American,” said Conrey. “Then the next year I got the top six again, making me a two-time All-American.”

To this day Conrey still holds the one-mile race walk record at his college.

“Two things I never thought in my life,” he said. “One, I’d be a collegiate athlete and two, that I would be an All-American in an event that I knew nothing about.”

Conrey has taken some of his ability and used it for good around the squadron. He helps out with physical training programs and teaches others the proper running form, ensuring his peers are successful during their physical training evaluations.

“Conrey is always involved and has high energy,” said Maj. David Hood, director of operations for the 239th Combat Communications Squadron. “He’s very passionate about bringing our best, ensuring our training needs are met, and our people are set up for success.”

Although the old racing shoes have been placed in the attic, the memories and hard work have been ingrained into Conrey. He has taken his lessons and talents and has used them throughout his life and military career.