Athlete offers advice for improving fitness

By Mr. David Vergun (ARNEWS)December 12, 2012

Nicholas Sterghos
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Nicholas Sterghos
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WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 7, 2012) -- Ever since he was a child, Capt. Nicholas Sterghos dreamed of competing in the Olympics and medaling in cross-country and later in the triathlon.

Sterghos hasn't yet made it to the Olympics but he hasn't let his dream die. And he thinks he has a pretty good shot at making it to Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics will be held in 2016.

He said the road to Rio has helped make him a better Soldier, "more focused, disciplined and physically fit."

Sterghos has had his share of defeats as well, coming in 46th this year in the Army 10-miler, for example. "Picking yourself up and continuing to train takes a lot of discipline. It's too easy to quit," he said.

While that finish may seem average, there were 30,000 runners and he finished first for his Fort Hood team. His usual race is 10k (6.2 miles), not 10 miles.

As the executive officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery at Fort Hood, Texas, he said he tries to set a good example for his Soldiers in fitness and leadership.

"Not everyone enjoys rigorous physical training -- including some Soldiers -- because it hurts," he said. "Also, some are more physically gifted or have a better tolerance for pain than others.

"But everyone can train smarter and improve," he continued. "A lot of it has to do with having the right attitude; the right frame of mind."

He said athletes can actually learn to block pain.

"When I race, my strategy is to focus on the present," he said. "When I'm training for the triathlon, I focus on each swimming stroke, each pedal stroke and each stride. I try not to think about how many more miles I have left to go or how tired I might be. And all my thoughts are positive."

He said certain thoughts can easily become self-defeating, so he actually prepares happy, positive thoughts before a race that he can call up when the going gets tough -- things like a serene setting in the forest or by the ocean, for instance.

Beware of self-defeating thoughts, he added.

"Thoughts such as, 'I'm too tired or busy to PT today' or, 'slow down, you can't keep this up' or, 'you are not going to catch up to the runner up ahead' or 'the runner behind me is going to pass me soon.'"

My swim coach and mentor, Louis Tharp, put it simply: "Stopping is not negotiable."

Sterghos thinks this advice can help Soldiers with their physical training every day, especially those who are not natural athletes. He cautioned against getting too eager and overtraining, however.

He said there are many Soldiers in each unit who can offer advice -- especially master fitness trainers or others who run the PT program. And he added that it might also help to find a partner to exercise with.

As for the Olympics, he said, "It's a one-in-a-million shot -- qualifying for the Olympics -- so while the dream is there, I know that I have to achieve small, personal and athletic successes every day in order to even have a chance to represent the United States.

While he may or may not get there and win, Sterghos already has a lot to be proud of.

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in 2009 and is a Soldier. He also has won a lot of races or come close to winning. Since he started competing in triathlon, he's had 11 first-place and 29 top-five finishes out of 40 events.

This year, for example, he competed in the 2012 Armed Forces Triathlon at Point Mugu, Calif., June 23, where he placed second; and the 2012 Canada Army Run in Ottawa, Ontario, Sept. 23, where he placed fourth.

He's also had to overcome some challenges along the way.

From January to December 2011, he was stationed at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, where he worked as a battle captain and later an executive officer at Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.

The camp has a large pool, but unfortunately for Sterghos, it was closed for renovation much of the time.

In order to continue training while deployed, Sterghos ordered a special workout machine, a Vasa Ergometer, which mimics freestyle, the fastest swim stroke, used by most triathletes.

"The machine isolates the swim muscles you use and provides performance readouts on how much force you are exerting, stroke rate, distance traveled, heart rate and so on," he said.

The downside to using the machine in the desert, he said, is that wind-blown sand could get inside the mechanism, so as soon as he finished using it, he'd tuck it away in his closet.

"The machine was a real life saver," he said, noting that it effectively kept him in top swimming form.

Because he was able to sustain a high fitness level in all three sports, Sterghos ran in the Peachtree Road Race 10K in Kuwait and finished first, as well as competing in triathlons in Kenya and Turkey during his two-week leave.

"I'm trying to set a good example for my Soldiers by being physically fit, as well as being a good leader," he said. "I hope some of my enthusiasm for fitness rubs off on them."

Related Links:

Nick's blog

Army News Service U.S. Army 2012 Olympians and Paralympians

Coach Tharp's blog