Airman powers-through challenges

JOINT BASE LANGLEY EUSTIS, Va. -- Paris Roberts took a seat and cupped her head in her hands to massage the bridge of her nose.

People rushed passed her with gym bags in tow, some scarfing down bananas and chugging protein shakes, some just talking about what they went through that morning, Jan. 17, 2015.

Roberts shifted her head up just enough for her eyes to peak through and look to the crowd where her father, Arnold Smiley Jr., was sitting.

Smiley drove from Maryland for the day as he had a meeting later, just to see his daughter compete.

Roberts, then dropped her head and prayed, "I've been working hard. I can do this. Please don't let me fail ... or fall."

Voices dropped to whispers and those rushing shimmied back as the announcer called heat eight - Roberts' heat.

She, her teammates and competitors made their way to the holding area to wait their turn at the TeamGrit CrossFit Competition. Roberts' eyes seldom blinked and her mouth was shut save a few moments when her teammates made her nervously chuckle.

As heat seven ended, she walked to her starting position in front of a 65-pound weighted barbell at the competition in Hampton, Virginia

The buzzer sounded and Staff Sgt. Paris Roberts, an Air Combat Command Public Affairs knowledge operations manager at Langley Air Force Base, Va., thrusted the weight up to her chin and squatted it down repeatedly with the weight increasing 10 pounds for three sets.

With each set, the vibration throughout her legs and arms increased and the muscles across her face stretched, her eyes and mouth open. She inched the weight up, slower with each set with no rest between as she had to sprint to a box approximately 50-meters away, and crawl around it. Approximately six minutes later, she finished her first CrossFit competition heat.

Roberts and her father, a retired Air Force loadmaster, never thought the girl who wouldn't even pick up a five-pound weight would compete in a competition that involves lifting, pressing, shrugging and squatting weights that, in some cases, weigh more than she does.

"Paris is my first daughter, and she was born three months early weighing just 1 pound 3 ounces, so to see her out here participating in CrossFit is a blessing, that's why I come out to support all of her dreams," said Smiley.

From day one, Smiley said Roberts powered through a battle, and has faced many more some big, some small, but she made it through them, and he has been proud every step of the way.

She first decided to join the military after seeing her dad retire in his flight suit at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.

"I was just so proud of my dad for being a part of something that makes such an impact," she said. "I wanted to be just like my dad, so I joined the Air Force hoping to be in aircrew just like him."

After speaking to a recruiter, there was a small setback. Roberts discovered she was too short to be an aircrew member.

"It hurt my feelings," said Roberts. "From the day I went to my dad's retirement ceremony, I wanted to be aircrew, but there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't make myself grow taller, so I thought, 'fine, I'll just keep going.'"

Roberts joined the Air Force in 2008, taking the first available job, as a knowledge operations manager. Roberts' duties have ranged from postal service to working on executive staffs and for the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations.

"The job is constantly changing. Once you master one area you move to something completely different," she said. "Like for me, I did postal for a year and was really good at it. Then I had to learn records management. What I've learned is that it's very important to communicate with others in the career field to get advice for whatever area you're moving into."

On her first deployment to the Middle East, Roberts found a new challenge at the base's CrossFit box.

"I thought I was in real good shape until I joined CrossFit," said Roberts. "I was primarily a runner and ran consistently, but seeing what some of these people did was just inspiring. I saw what they were doing and thought 'I want to do that.'"

Roberts set out to figure out how to be like those who inspired her.

"I was told if you want to get a skill, you have to get obsessed," said Roberts. "You have to learn everything about it and you'll figure out how to do it, so I became obsessed."

Now, at Langley, Roberts trains at a local CrossFit gym five days a week, where she fights through challenges like mastering "double unders," jumping two jump rope rotations in one jump, by seeking  help from others, looking at online videos and practicing.

When Roberts couldn't figure out double unders on her own or through videos, she went to an eight-week program to learn them.  Now, she practices them regularly and works through them in work outs even if it takes her twice as long as others, said Danielle Rodier, her coach.

"I just thought I can do these," said Roberts. "I don't care how long it takes; I am going to finish them. I may not be as good as everybody, but I can do them, so I need to do them."

Rodier said Roberts improved in other areas that challenged her as well.

From starting each exercise at the basic level of just lifting an empty 45 pound bar, Roberts can now back-squat 200 pounds, bench press 120 pounds and do a strict dip with 10 pounds strapped to her waist, explained Rodier.

"Paris is super supportive of her fellow athletes and draws energy from their successes," said her coach, Rodier. "She's also eager to learn. She constantly looks for feedback and input on her gymnastics lifts and skills. Her openness to the feedback is what is driving her success."

The way Roberts works through the sting and burn the rope leaves after a missed double under or the blisters bar bells create after slipping from her hands are mirrored by the way she faces challenges in the Air Force.

"I got a four on my Enlisted Performance Report when the force reduction went through," she said of a setback she thought would end her military career. "It broke me down. It was bad. I was mad. I didn't know why. I just thought, 'I'm going to get kicked out of the Air Force.'"

Roberts turned to others in her career field to seek guidance. They reassured her that this wasn't uncommon, that she was still a good Airman, and that it wasn't career-ending. Despite their reassurance, the markdown still felt like a disappointment, she said.

"It bothered me when I saw how many points I missed out on testing for promotion," she said. "You see how many points you lose because of that one thing, and you can't do anything about it other than just study and do your best."

Roberts said that much like with CrossFit, giving up on the Air Force wasn't on option for her.

"If you relate it to CrossFit, there are times you think, 'I'm tired, I want to drop my weight down; No!' Just keep going because as long as you keep moving you are going to finish," Roberts said. "Unless you absolutely cannot do it, just keep going and stay with it. I knew I wasn't going to give up. The Air Force is my family. I'm retiring, and even then I'll be kicking and screaming."

While the burn of the four will forever be a mark on her records, it's a livable mark she can work with and through. She already made it through the reduction phase, so the next step is for her to make technical sergeant this year, she said.

"Things work out, you just have to keep going," she said. "You can't think that you are going to give up if something is hard. You need to challenge yourself to see where you are to get better -that's why I competed in this competition. I worked hard and know I am strong at my abilities. I had some 'are you serious?' moments but in the end I finished knowing I gave my best and that all the hard work paid off."