Many Soldiers in today's Army are also accomplished athletes, applying the same dedication to their respective sports as they do mission fulfillment. A Fort Belvoir Community Hospital security officer is one such Service member who has taken her particular sport to the most elite levels.
Sgt. 1st Class Maatje Benassi, an Army reservist, recently returned from Wuhan, China, after having been selected to represent the U.S. Military at the International Military Sports Council 7th World Games that ran Oct. 12-28. The event, called the Peace Games, had 23 events for men and women, where thousands of military athletes represented their nations and competed for gold.
Benassi competed as a cyclist alongside three female and seven male teammates, hoping to improve on her last CISM Cycling Championships that took place in Belgium in 2013. At that race, which was also the inaugural Women's Cycling Championship Road Race, she earned a bronze team medal.
In the final lap of the 50-mile, five-lap road race in the second day of cycling competition at the 2019 Games, Benassi led the pack for much of the third and fourth laps. But, a devastating crash on the final lap put her on the pavement with a cracked helmet and bruised ribs, effectively dashing Team Army's chances of securing the gold. Teammates rushed to her side to provide aid, but Benassi refused medical care for the moment and jumped right back on the bike.
"My goal was to finish it. … I came this far, I trained this hard, I had to finish it," she said. "I was in a lot of pain, and my bike was rubbing, too. Nothing went smooth, but I said, forget it, I'm just going to finish."
Team Army ultimately finished in eighth place on the day.
Benassi has been cycling competitively for nearly 20 years and has more than 110 podium finishes, with 44 first places, including four USA Cycling National Master Championships in road and track cycling events. She also a founding member of U.S. Military Endurance Sports program, a non-profit organization chartered to support amateur athletes and endurance sports education and activities for current, retired and veteran Service members.
Benassi said her passion for cycling began when she met an enthusiast who she would ultimately marry.
"I became interested in cycling in my late 20s, when I met my husband; he was the one who introduced me to cycling and I remember going on bike rides with him and his friends, and they'd be talking while riding their bikes," she said. "I could barely get a breath. I was thinking to myself, 'how in the world do these guys do this?' I was telling myself, 'I have to get stronger and faster.' So, the more I trained, the faster I got, until, one day, my husband and his friends couldn't keep up with me."
From those challenging beginnings, Benassi's dedication has taken her to some of the highest levels a military athlete can reach, and part of the fuel that has driven her is her experience in the Army, its principles of discipline and her own sense of duty.
Proud to serve
"When I was watching the news and saw how many Soldiers sacrificed their lives for our freedom, I wanted to do more, I wanted to help, and that's how I knew I had to join the U.S. Army," she said. "I joined in August of 2008. I served on active duty for eight years as an 88M truck driver. I deployed to Basrah, Iraq, in 2010-2011 (in operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn) and I drove the NATO Supreme Commander, for three years while working for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany." She then joined the Army Reserve in 2016 and serves as an observer controller trainer, with the 312th Regiment 3rd Battalion out of Fort Meade.
"It was an honor to go to CISM and represent the U.S. military," she said, "I wanted to win the gold for the United States and I wanted to make our military proud. I made some sacrifices, not seeing my daughter on her 20th birthday. But, I knew in the end it would be worth it. I thank the Army for allowing me this great opportunity and my husband, Matthew Benassi, for supporting me. It was an amazing experience I will never forget."
For Benassi, cycling has added a dimension to her life that continues to expand and be rewarding.
"For me, the best part of this journey has been to get to experience all these amazing memories--to be at the start line of a race and telling myself, 'I am going to win this, I can do this,'" she said.
From the look of things, the trajectory of Benassi's cycling career will continue skyward.
"I'm going to race Master Nationals in 2020 and try to get a 5th Master National jersey," she said. "And, I'm looking forward to competing in my first Track Master World in Manchester, England."