KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
A competitive spirit and the urge to challenge herself have long been driving factors in 1st Lt. Jaci Smith’s life. Now the Air Force is helping Smith pursue one of the ultimate challenges: competing in the 2024 Olympics.
Smith, a nuclear surety engineer at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, was recently accepted into the Air Force World Class Athlete Program.
These athletes train full time in their sport as part of the two-year program, competing in U.S. Armed Forces events and potentially the Olympics. During this time, they still complete annual and ancillary training, professional military education, fitness assessments and other mandatory tasks required of all Airmen.
This isn’t Smith’s first time with the program: She was accepted in 2019 to train for the 2020 Olympics. Those games were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she competed in the 2021 Olympic Trials, placing 10th in the 10,000-meter race and 19th in the marathon.
She then set her sight on the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“I was fortunate enough to be accepted back into the program for the 2024 Olympic Trials,” Smith said.
At the trials, the top competitors in each field earn spots on the U.S. Olympic teams to compete for the country.
Smith has competed in cross-country and track-and-field events since she was in middle school, including for the U.S. Air Force Academy. She’s reuniting with her coach at the academy to train for the Olympics and will be transferring back to Colorado for the duration of the program. Her events are the 10,000-meter race and the marathon.
Sports have been a big part of Smith’s life from a very young age, she said. While running ended up offering the most opportunities for her, she enjoys and plays a wide variety of sports.
“I was always obsessed with sports,” Smith said. “From the time I could hold a bat or ball or run. I tried them all. I did basketball, I did softball, and I did tennis.”
She began running in middle school with her father, who was a collegiate runner himself who kept in the habit to stay healthy.
“It was awful at first,” Smith said. “I did not enjoy it. I couldn’t even make it around the block at first, and that bothered me. That bothered the competitive spirit in me. So, I decided I was going to run the Oklahoma City half marathon that spring. At 11 years old, I ran my first half marathon and got hooked.”
Her competitive streak also led to her career field in the Air Force. She is a developmental engineer and her latest assignment is as a nuclear surety engineer at AFNWC.
“I studied astronautical engineering in college because it was notoriously the most difficult degree at the academy, and I am addicted to challenge,” Smith said.
And while she wants to pursue her running career, Smith also wants to keep her engineering skills sharp.
“Most of my goals for the next 10-15 years do involve running,” she said. “I really want to see how far I can get in this sport, not just in my Olympic pursuits, but in major marathons, qualifying for world teams, and national championship events. And during that time, I want to keep my engineering mind sharp so that once my high-level running career is over, I can pursue engineering.”
Smith said she’s very excited to be part of the World Class Athlete Program again.
“I think it embodies the idea of excellence in all we do,” she said. “The program really allows us the time and flexibility to reach our full potential versus having to balance a full-time job with training, which is another full-time job in and of itself.”
“And it’s a great look for the Air Force,” Smith added. “Every time I’m at races, I have people ask me about the WCAP program and what I do in the Air Force. It’s a really good avenue to bring attention to the Air Force and the service members.”
Smith said she is also very appreciative of the Air Force, AFNWC and her engineering team for helping her pursue her dreams.
“As excited as I am for this opportunity, I really have loved my time at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. It’s really broadened my horizons,” Smith said. “My team was very supportive and flexible about letting me compete while working this engineering job at Kirtland.”
Smith also touted the opportunities available for Air Force athletes outside the World Class Athlete Program. For example, Air Force Sports has allowed her to train and compete while representing the Air Force at additional athletic events.
“Air Force Sports put together an Air Force team for the national cross country championships in San Diego in January,” Smith said. “And I won the Armed Forces Championship [in Colorado], and the Air Force team also beat the Army and Navy and Marines out there. There’s all kinds of opportunities for runners who aren’t in the WCAP, and I’ve benefitted from those this past year.”