Christina Hopper has piloted a nearly $19M war machine and raced in our sport’s most iconic event—and faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in both.
As an Air Force fighter pilot, Christina Hopper has turned 9 Gs and dropped bombs from her F-16 Falcon fighter jet during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Air Force Reserve Major is destroying race and sex barriers as the first African-American female fighter pilot to see combat in a major war.
The daughter of U.S. Air Force parents, Hopper had no military ambitions growing up as a kid. In fact, swimming was her first love: She attended the University of Texas on a partial swimming scholarship (growing up, her father was one of the top swimmers on the Virgin Islands). But it wasn’t until she was walking past an Air Force ROTC table—seeing the men and women in the blue Air Force uniforms her parents wore so long ago—that she became interested in the military. “I said, I have to go home and pray about this.’ Two weeks later, I had a vivid dream—I knew I was supposed to fly fighters.”
After nearly two years of academic study and focused F-16 fighter training, Hopper graduated pilot training in 2002. During her five-month deployment in Kuwait, she participated in Operation Southern Watch, monitoring the southern No-Fly Zone. A year later, when the Iraq War started, she and her squadron were tasked with flying in support of Marine and Army ground troops as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, an assignment that earned her the honor of becoming the first African-American female fighter pilot to see action in war. As a result of her dedication and service, Hopper earned the Air Medal, the Aerial Achievement Medal, and the Combat Action Medal. It wasn’t until later that triathlon showed up as a blip on her radar.
“I was at a family reunion, and my sister Indira said she was doing an Ironman,” Hopper recalls. “ I’d seen the Ironman watches but really didn’t know what it was. When she told me, my eyes popped out of my head. I told my husband, ‘I think my sister is going crazy.’ I told my sister, ‘I’ll never do anything like that—but I’ll cheer for you.’”
Hopper watched her sister finish on Ironman’s live online feed. “She’d struggled through the race, but to see her cross the line and achieve like that? I just cried.”
Hopper later decided to join her at a local sprint tri. That segued into her first half Ironman-distance race at Ironman 70.3 Muncie. “That race,” she says, “lit the fire.”
Last fall, after competing at her first Ironman—the weather-abbreviated Ironman Texas—Hopper lined up with her sister for the big dance: the Hawaii Ironman. It would be her first true full-distance Iron- man race. Second out of the water in her age group, Hopper backed her swim with a powerful bike. But in the excitement of the race, she neglected her nutrition.
“That was my fatal flaw,” Hopper remembers. “By mile three of the run, I started feeling it. I was dizzy and unsure if I was gonna finish. I told my sister Indira ‘I think I need to walk—you need to go, I don’t want to hold you back.’”
In a show of sibling solidarity, the Hopper sisters stayed together. “She said, ‘C’mon Christina, just keep scooting,’ and I was able to run/walk with her,” Hopper says. “That was the heart of it, she sacrificed her race to be there with me. The sisterhood experience was unbelievable.”
The mother of three has more racing on the horizon as she represents and encourages minorities racing in multisport. “There’s been this thing with my friends where they say, ‘Black people can’t swim, we just sink.’ And that’s just not true,” Hopper says. “I’ve seen the same challenges in aviation. But a lot of it is just early education: The more we can teach and educate at the childhood level, we can change that mentality. Opportunities and encouragement. Kids need both to achieve hard things.”