Air Force announces top athletes of the year

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Public Affairs

The Air Force recently announced a winter Olympian and a nationally ranked Jiu-Jitsu champion as the 2021 Female and Male Athletes of the Year – Airman 1st Class Kelly Curtis and Staff Sgt. Justin Southichack, respectively.

Female Athlete of the Year

“I’m humbled to be selected as the Air Force Female Athlete of the Year,” said Curtis, a knowledge management technician with the 31st Communications Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy. “I joined a list of amazing women and am honored to be in such good company.”

“Her list of accolades during the award period included being ranked as the top Air Force and military skeleton athlete in the world and top military Olympian hopeful for the 2022 Winter Games,” said Maj. Aaron Tissot, chief of DAF Fitness and Sports with the Air Force Services Center.

As an “expert in her craft,” Curtis was also requested by name to perform track testing and research and development at the Beijing venue before the Olympic Games, according to her nomination package.

Leading up to the Olympics, Curtis put in more than 500 hours of training, competed in 12 international events averaging 11th place among her peers around the globe and represented the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, at the skeleton team trials in Lake Placid, New York, earning a third team ranking for Team USA.

Curtis got what many see as a late start in the Air Force at age 31, after she learned she could serve her country and continue to pursue a sport she loves.

“I first learned of the opportunity to merge the two when I joined USA Bobsled and Skeleton and saw the number of sliders actively serving in the military,” Curtis said. “Once I became good enough to compete for our national team, I started my application to enlist in the Air Force and join WCAP.”

As the first WCAP Airman to enter basic military training, she spearheaded an elite athlete recruitment initiative which sparked interest in more than 20 elite athletes, her nomination noted, and Curtis shined as an Air Force ambassador and WCAP athlete at world competitions.

“I feel privileged every time I get to compete for the country and act as an ambassador for not only Team USA, but also the U.S. Air Force. I still have a lot to learn and I’m looking forward to learning from my fellow wingmen,” Curtis said.

Curtis attributes her success and selection as athlete of the year to her strong network of support.

“My village is composed of the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, the 31st CS, teammates and coaches at USA Bobsled and Skeleton, and the friends and family who have supported me on this eight-plus-year endeavor,” she said. “I am also fortunate enough to have a husband, Jeff Milliron, who has also agreed to join me in this unexpected chapter of our lives. His support has been unwavering and his strength and conditioning programming has proved to be worthy enough of this title.”

Male Athlete of the Year

Earning the title of Air Force Male Athlete of the Year “is truly surreal” for Staff Sgt. Justin Southichack, a production supervisor with the 649th Munitions Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

“I’m very certain the Air Force has numerous athletes who are truly inspiring and motivational at their craft,” Southichack said, “and I’m grateful for my leadership for nominating me and honored to represent the best Air Force in the world.”

He also thanked his coach, Eduardo Mori, and training partner, Amy Campo, because he said, “I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am if it wasn’t for them … those two have really pushed me to excel in the sport of Jiu-Jitsu.”

During the award period, Southichack’s record in numerous competitions helped him edge out other male athlete nominees, Tissot said.

Southichack took first place in his division of eight competitors at the 2021 Winter Impact Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or BJJ, tournament Open Gi competition in Salt Lake City; first of 12 in the North American Grappling Association Vegas Grappling Championship No-Gi Division in Las Vegas; first of 32 fighters in his weight class at the International BJJ Federation World No-Gi BJJ Championship in Dallas; and first place of 334 rivals in his weight class in IBJJF Masters I Blue Belt, earning a top-six ranking in his division for calendar year 2021.

“Throughout my Air Force career, athletics have played a vital role in my personal well-being and resiliency,” Southichack said, who has participated in many intramural sports as well as boxing, bodybuilding and powerlifting.

In addition to being an ammunitions troop, Southichack has been a physical training lead, unit fitness program manager and part of a unit fitness cell at every duty station he’s been assigned.

Even with his sports experience, he said it wasn’t until 2019 that he found a purpose within sport when Jiu-Jitsu found him as a way to bond with his young son and teach him self-defense.

The martial art of Jiu-Jitsu, a sport gaining in popularity in recent years, is a discipline that is “non-bias to gender, age, size or physical ability that focuses on getting one's opponent to the ground to neutralize any strength or size advantage the adversary may impose,” Southichack said.

“It has been shown to assist individuals physically, mentally, spiritually, socially and psychologically throughout the course of one's life span as well,” he said, “with the culture bringing forth a sense of acceptance and camaraderie.”

Department of the Air Force fitness and sports programs, like the Athlete of the Year Program, emphasize the importance of mission success through sustained dedication and hard work, and the importance of maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle, Tissot said.

“Our sports and fitness programs are designed to allow Airmen and Guardians to achieve their athletic goals, remain resilient personally and professionally, and ultimately that increases our mission readiness,” Tissot said.

When it comes to the importance of athletics to building better, stronger, more resilient Airmen, Curtis said, “I have learned to build a process I love then do my best to let that process run. It's not one great training day, but the day-in, day-out monotony of working toward an athletic goal that builds resiliency.

“I can't speak on behalf of all Airmen, but I know I just feel better after getting some endorphins pumping through my body,” she said.

Throughout his life, Southichack said athletics have helped him ensure he isn’t complacent.

“I have always pushed the status quo and ensured I am ‘fit to fight,’” Southichack said. “As supervisors, we should lead from the front and by example. I continuously preach to my Airmen that we should never settle for mediocrity but chase excellence.”