MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFNS) --
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
Military members find many ways to be involved in their communities -- some volunteer to clean schools, build homes or visit elderly veterans. Others, use life experiences to mentor youth.
In 2011, Airman 1st Class Lance Thornton, then a Buffalo (N.Y.) State College student-athlete, hung up his goggles and swimwear to join the Air Force -- today he shares his aquatic skills with the Montgomery YMCA Barracudas swim team.
More than 20 years ago, Thornton took his first lap in a backyard pool in upstate New York. At the age of 5, Thornton and his four brothers learned how to swim competitively under the direction of their mother.
Throughout school, the four-year all-conference collegiate swimmer competed in multiple events, including the 100-yard butterfly, 100-yard breaststroke, 50-yard freestyle and 200-yard individual medley, racking up numerous accolades and experience he would later use to mentor others.
"There came that point where I knew I was done swimming competitively," said Thornton said. "But, I always knew I would be around the pool in some capacity."
Thornton said that he is asked all the time why he chose the Air Force over aquatic branches of service like the Navy or Coast Guard.
"The Air Force offered me the greatest opportunity to pursue a career field that I was interested in, computer programming, with a high quality of life," said the Air University operations and communications technician.
After technical school, Thornton started his first job in the Air Force as a programmer and began searching for community involvement opportunities shortly after arriving to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
"Once I got settled, I thought, as a military member, what better way to give back to the community than doing what I love anyway," he said. "Coaching isn't like doing a job for me. It is the most rewarding experience I have ever been a part of."
Thornton holds Buffalo State's school record in the 200-yard individual medley (2009) and was the recipient of a Robert Kissinger Swimming and Diving Award (2007), which is presented to student-athletes who exemplify an "outstanding work ethic and commitment to the team and college.
"I figured I had something to give back to the community, and my experience gave me an outlet to become involved," he said. "A vast majority of my weekends and evenings are spent volunteering, and I wouldn't trade that opportunity for anything."
After six months of volunteering with the Barracudas, Thornton became the head coach for the YMCA's entire swim program. In this role, Thornton leads the instruction for 130 swimmers ages 6 to 18.
"I spend about twelve hours a week at the pool with these kids," said Thornton, who is also a unit physical training leader with his Air Force unit. "We want to empower them to be successful both in the pool and, more importantly, in life. Our program aspires to foster an atmosphere for kids to make friends and their parents to get to know other adults. The camaraderie that comes from sports brings them together and benefits the entire family."
During Thornton's first season with the Barracudas, they set 48 personal records out of 56 taper swims. Seven former team members are on current Division I college scholarships. In the past three years, the Barracudas have produced an Auburn University (Ala.), swim team captain and four 2012 Olympic trial swimmers.
Thornton uses a rank structure on his team similar to a military chain of command, which, he said, creates stability and organization.
"I lean on the lessons I learned both in the pool and thus far in my military career to stress dedication and discipline to my team," he said. "My goal is to prepare them for swimming and college with emphasis on proper work ethic, discipline and dedication to best prepare them for the next level."
From swimming at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., for meets as a child to poolside coaching in Alabama, Thornton has traveled far to get to this point, but he knows this is just the beginning.
"For me, a child achieving a goal is what coaching is all about," he said. "It is way more rewarding when the kid succeeds than when I did as an athlete. If you're not coaching to see the smiles on the kids' faces, you aren't doing the right thing."
With aspirations of continuing to work with young people, Thornton wants to be an Air Force recruiter or military training leader if he does not get accepted into a commissioning program.