SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (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.)
As he looked out of the water during a freestyle swim race, he dreamed of pushing beyond the surly bonds of earth.
Capt. Stephen Grace, a 79th Fighter Squadron fighter pilot, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and since grade school he wanted to be an Air Force pilot.
Grace used the same competitive spirit he had in his swimming career and applied it to becoming a pilot.
"One great attribute of (Grace) is his initiative," said Capt. Wesley Tubman, a 79th FS fighter pilot. "It doesn't matter if we're talking about his swimming competitiveness, or innate flying abilities, there's no idea too small and no dream too big for him to set his sights on and excel at."
Grace's dream started with swimming. He learned to swim at 4-years-old, and by age seven he was swimming competitively.
"My older sister was a swimmer so, being a competitive person, I decided to try my hand out at it," Grace recalled.
Comparing competitive swimming to flying an F-16CM Fighting Falcon isn’t the same, there are similar aspects between the two.
"The dynamics of a fighter squadron and a sports team are what I have found to be most similar," Grace said. "While the specifics of what you are trying to achieve are obviously quite different, the mentality and interactions are not."
Camaraderie is a big part of both a fighter squadron and a swim team that naturally develops friendships through sharing tough experiences, Grace said.
For Grace, these experiences in high school helped shape personal goals. His high school swimming career was as goal oriented as his Air Force dream.
"I'd start every year with a time to beat," Grace said. "I'd spend the entire year training to beat that time."
That planning led to success in the pool for him.
"By my junior year (of high school) my goal was to get to the state finals," Grace said.
Swimming to the state finals wouldn't be easy, though. Grace would have to propel himself through the choppy waters of everyday life.
"Time management became a big issue," he said. "In order to make sure I was ready, I needed to swim before and after school, in addition to doing homework and having a social life."
Grace's innate abilities would serve him well not only in the pool, but in the sky.
"Grace has the potential to be a great leader with the qualities the Air Force desires," Tubman said. "His competitiveness is not based on distinguishing himself from his peers but in challenging himself to be a better pilot today than he was yesterday."
Grace's drive to excel at everything he does led him to the state finals his senior year and then the Air Force Academy where he swam for his first two years.
Seeing that his ultimate goal of flying was within reach, he put away the swimming goggles and swapped them for aviators.
"I received my private pilot's license my junior year of college," Grace said. "Then in my senior year I got my instrument rating."
Grace was awarded his spot in flight school his junior year at the academy. After graduation, Grace attended flight school at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.
"I started pilot training January of 2011," Grace said. "The first six weeks were all academic training."
For Grace, academics was an area in which he easily glided.
"He is a humble guy by nature," Tubman said. "But his work and character speak for itself."
After the academic portion, pilots then spend approximately five months flying the T-6 Texan.
"That was broken into three different phases," Grace said. "There's contact; which is just basic flying, then instruments; learning how to fly in weather, then formation; learning how to fly in formations."
After Grace conquered the T-6, the next challenge he took hold of was the T-38 Talon. This transition was more turbulent for him.
"I stumbled early on in T-38 training," Grace said. "I got some low checkride scores, but fortunately was able to turn it around as training progressed."
Grace's ability to adapt and overcome was crucial to his success in flight school. His desire to exhibit the Air Force core values added to his success.
"(Grace) doesn't just exemplify core values, he embodies them," Tubman added. "Any of his closest friends would say that he is a simple man, that his ability is founded on a core of genuine altruism, trustworthiness, and passion for life."
After soaring in the T-38, the day finally came where he would be told what aircraft he would be assigned to fly.
Grace wanted to fly the F-16.
"I loved that single-seat fighter mentality," Grace said. "I loved that it's just you versus your opponent."
He was given that chance; he got the F-16, one of the Air Force's premiere single-seat fighters. Grace's leadership was evident from the first day.
"Some say leaders are born," Tubman said. "Others say leaders are made; both would be accurate of him."
Grace's drive to succeed led him to success in the water and in the air. His dream of becoming an Air Force pilot was met and exceeded, but his goals have expanded to becoming not only the best pilot he can be, but the best Airman as well.