Yvonne Spencer admits she was an overachiever as a child. Encouraged by her parents, Darnell and Carolyn, the young Spencer set out to excel at every activity she could, be it collecting Girl Scout accolades or leading the local softball team. Her high-achieving nature, combined with a natural leadership style, made Spencer gravitate toward the Air Force Academy after graduating high school, but there was one problem: “I was putting together my package to apply to the Air Force Academy and asked one of my school instructors for a letter of recommendation,” Spencer says. “He declined. He told me, ‘I don’t think you have what it takes.’”
The response was surprising to Spencer, who thought she had proven time and again that she was fit for the armed services. But instead of a setback, Spencer saw it as a step up: “It became fuel to my fire. In the back of my mind, all I kept saying was ‘Watch me.’”
This pivotal moment would set the tone for how Spencer would respond to so much in her life. Twenty-five years later, Spencer now answers to “Colonel Spencer”— not only did she have what it takes to be in the Air Force, but she has what it takes to rise to the upper echelons.
Spencer, 48, has embraced her role as a trailblazer. As she progressed through the ranks of the United States Air Force, she has served in several positions where she was the first female, first African-American, or both, to hold the title. Sometimes she has encountered resistance: “One of the biggest challenges is people not accepting or respecting me for my knowledge, skills, and abilities based on my outward appearance. In a male-dominated career field, I have had to overcome stereotypes to forge a path for other leaders coming behind me.”
Fitness is part of the Air Force culture, Spencer says, adding: “Each of us has a responsibility to maintain a certain level of physical fitness. This allows us to support the Air Force mission and be prepared to answer the call of our nation.”
Spencer views training as something that enhances her ability to do her job, rather than something that piles on to her already busy schedule. This makes it much easier to prioritize training.
She first heard about triathlon in 1993, while training for the Air Force Marathon: “My running partner mentioned he was preparing for a triathlon. I do not know if it was the endorphins, hunger, or fatigue, but I blurted out that I would join him. The next thing I know, I had a new road bike, a training plan, and access to an Olympic swimming pool!”
As in the Air Force, Spencer quickly discovered triathlon had few females, much less African-American females. Ever the trailblazer, she founded FastChix, what she calls a “sister-ship” of women looking to better themselves through running and triathlon. This community of over 600 women shares everything from advice for newbies to training groups and meet-ups at races across the country.
“Endurance sports have significantly influenced my life, and I want to share that great feeling with others,” Spencer says. “My FastChix inspire me every day. No matter what obstacles or challenges life throws at them, they rise and they grind. They are doctors and lawyers with their own practices, nurses and emergency responders working 24-hour shifts, business owners, corporate leaders, and caregivers of elderly parents and children. Their plates are overflowing, yet they make a way to do something good for their minds and bodies each day.”