Leader Spotlight: Lt. Col. Zoe Ollinger

Leader Spotlight: Lt. Col. Zoe Ollinger

Lt. Col. Zoe Ollinger, a member of the Arizona Army National Guard, wears her medal from past triathlons she has competed in. She uses her military experience to help plan her race strategy and her race mentality to lead her through life, one buoy at a time.

Editor’s note: This is the third article in the AZNG Leader Spotlight series, a collection of features about the diverse experience and leadership perspectives of Arizona guardsmen. Join the conversation on social media using #AZNGleaderspotlight. Comment on these articles with your take on leadership and nominate other AZNG leaders you think should be featured.

PHOENIX, Ariz. – She has thought through all the logistics. She has rehearsed how to go from a wetsuit to biking apparel as fast as possible, quickly doffing her goggles and donning biking shoes. She has done this over and over. She has rehearsed the lightning fast change of uniform and gear, tweaking her method over four months of intense training that started back in July under the scorching Arizona sun.

It is now a rainy November morning and although the desert sun is more forgiving than it was when she started training, she does not want to test the limits of its forgiveness. She has staged her sports drinks in ice chests miles down the path so their temperature won’t make her stomach queasy 10 hours from now when she reaches for them during her marathon run.

Energy-fueling, nutritional snacks are at the ready in strategic locations so she can sustain her body through the next 14 hours of grueling pain and exertion. She has planned this day like a military operation: every detail spelled out, every possibility accounted for. She’s drawn from her 23 years of experience planning military training and operations in the Arizona Army National Guard and active Army.

Lt. Col. Zoe Ollinger is ready.

Her race number is scrawled in permanent marker on her arms, and on the back of her left calf is her age—45—but she knows full well from competing in more than 20 triathlons that age is just a number, having once been passed by a woman with “68” penned on her calf.  

She tucks her red, curly hair underneath a neon pink swimming cap and jumps into Tempe Town Lake with 3,000 other Ironman triathlon hopefuls, each of them with an uncommon motivation to finish the 2.5-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.  

They tread water waiting for the signal. The starting gun sounds. All at once, the treading turns into mass splashing as 3,000 athletes begin swimming, hitting one another with their determined strokes.

From the Mill Avenue Bridge above spectators observe what looks like thousands of fluorescent fish thrashing through the usually still and silent man-made lake in the heart of the college town.

Someone accidently grabs Ollinger’s foot, pulling her down. Her wetsuit constricts her breathing. She raises her blue eyes up from the water but can’t see where she is going. She can’t breathe.

And suddenly, panic pays her a visit like an old familiar friend. The first time she met him was during her very first open-water triathlon swim in 1998 at Lake Pleasant. The same feeling. The inability to breathe, the tight wetsuit, the racing, frantic mind fighting to take control over the otherwise steady and calm body.  Ollinger fought through that visit of panic and made it through her first open-water swim.

“That was a nightmare,” she remembers. “The lake was freezing cold and I had borrowed a wetsuit from a girl who was 20 pounds lighter than me. I had to unzip it at the neck to try to breathe.”

Though she was one of the last competitors out of the lake that day, she never gave up and she finished the race.

“I knew if I could make it through that swim, I could get better,” Ollinger says.

She did get better, and she learned to manage the feeling of open-water panic, so on this November day she was ready for its familiar visit.

She yanks her foot away from a competitor’s accidental grasp, slows her breathing and keeps swimming forward although she still can’t see where she is going through the mass of athletes and splashing water.

“I’d say to myself, ‘just swim 20 more feet,’ and once I made it through those 20 feet, I’d say, ‘just make it to that next buoy,’” she remembers. “By the time I made it to the next buoy I was warmed up and calmed down.”

What she has learned throughout her many races is to be consistent and set small goal after small goal, never giving up until those small milestones add up to a big accomplishment.

“It’s too overwhelming to think about it as one big race,” she says. “I take it in small parts. That’s how I get to the end: one buoy at a time.”

She applies this triathlon strategy to running the race of life and a military career.

“I take it one day at a time,” she says. “There’s a lot to be said about being consistent. Never give up, pace yourself and you will finish strong.”

Living up to the legacy

She likens taking on a new military position to the start of a triathlon.

“When you first get into a new position you have a little anxiety, like you do in the open water,” she says. “You just have to get in there and take it one step at a time, wake up each day, and stay healthy, eating well and getting good sleep. You have to be consistent and fuel your body to sustain itself.”

About three months ago, Ollinger took on a new position, leaving her brigade-level role as the 198th Regional Support Group executive officer to assume the role of the Deputy of Operations G-3 for the Arizona Army National Guard.

She followed in the big footsteps of her late friend and mentor, fellow Arizona Army National Guardsman Lt. Col. Michael Warren, a retired Tempe motorcycle police officer turned citizen soldier who lost his fight with cancer last year. Warren sat in the same seat Ollinger now works from every day.

She says she remembered Warren throughout her November race and did not want to let him down, much the same way she strives not to let him down in her current military position.

 “I knew he’d be watching and cheering me on at the race and I just kept thinking of him and my three kids to get me through it,” Ollinger says. “I’d think of how blessed I was just to be there and swimming.”

For Ollinger, giving up is never an option. She has finished every triathlon she has started.

“How am I going to face others and myself if I don’t finish?” is the question she asks herself when she feels like giving up. “I just couldn’t face all my supporters the next day if I quit. I never want to let them down, so no matter what I just keep going.”

On Warren’s birthday last year, Ollinger completed her master’s degree in Strategic Studies from the Army War College, a two-year program she juggled with her military and mother-of-three duties.

“I had to forgo my usual workout regimen to write papers and finish school assignments,” she says. “When I finished Army War College I wanted to fill that studying void with triathlon training, so more than a year out I signed up for another Ironman knowing I’d have four months to train for it after graduation.”  

She calls the race a graduation present to herself. While most people would not see the grueling day’s long exertion as a gift, Ollinger says it’s the best present she can give to herself.

“It’s exhilarating. It just makes me feel good and it makes me feel strong and accomplished that my body can make it through 14 hours of constant movement,” she says. “I’m happiest when I finish without injury and knowing I made the right choices with equipment and nutrition. It’s like the wonderful feeling of knowing you packed right for a vacation.”

The Red Menace paves the way

What started as a competitive group of coworkers talking about triathlons at her civilian job, turned into her doing up to five triathlons of different distances each year. After beating most of her coworkers at her very first triathlon, they nicknamed her “The Red Menace” because of her fiercely competitive spirit and red hair.

She became hooked on competing in the races because they pushed her to the limit. In fact, only three months after giving birth to her first child, she competed in a triathlon, breastfeeding her baby girl shortly after crossing the finish line.

Ollinger worked up to a half Ironman triathlon and then competed in her first full Ironman triathlon in 2012, at the age of 42.

She had set a goal to compete in one by age 40, but a deployment to Afghanistan temporarily stalled her accomplishment of this bucket-list event.

In 2009, while Ollinger was serving as the Arizona National Guard Adjutant General’s executive officer, she volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan. She quickly received orders to support a Commander’s Action Group for the 101st Airborne Division at Bagram Air Base, a unit she had supported at her first military assignment in 1994 as a medical service officer coordinating medical logistics in a combat support hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky. Just four days before deploying to Afghanistan, however, her orders were changed.

Instead of Bagram, she was headed to Kabul in support of the International Security Cooperation there. She was told she would be working as the executive officer for a Polish general officer who managed all the NATO mentoring teams and donations of money and equipment into Afghanistan. Just one month after volunteering to serve in Afghanistan, she found herself on a plane ride there.

Ollinger recalls her first conversation with the Polish general officer when she arrived.

General: Why are you here?

Ollinger: To serve my country, sir.

General: You should be at home with your three children.

Ollinger: Well, sir, in the U.S. Army we do things differently.

General: Who are your children with?

Ollinger: Their father, sir.

Ollinger says the Polish general told her he had never worked with a female military officer in his entire career and was not sure it was right for her to be there in a war zone.

Nonetheless, she did her job and did it well, making small goals and accomplishing them one after another. After six months in Afghanistan she was promoted to lieutenant colonel and the Polish general pinned on her silver oak leaves in a promotion ceremony.

“In his remarks during the ceremony he admitted he had never worked with a woman before in his career,” she remembers. “He said before meeting me he never knew a woman could be so effective. By doing my job well I had shown him that women are very competent and can offer just as much as our male counterparts.”

 She says one thing she’s learned from working in a predominately male military is that the best thing for a woman to do is to be herself.

“There’s no need to be mean or rough around the edges if you’re not naturally that way,” she says. “If you are feminine, there’s nothing wrong with that and you will get more respect by being yourself and will be more effective that way.”

She sees gender diversity in the workplace as a win-win for an organization.

“Men and women sometimes process information differently, communicate in different ways, and see and solve problems differently,” she says. “Everyone working together as a team and embracing these differences makes us more effective.”

She underscores the importance of women in the military speaking up when they have a different idea.

“Don’t keep things to yourself because you’re not sure how your ideas will be received,” she says. “Sometimes a different perspective may be the answer to a particular problem.”

Ordinary woman, extraordinary feats

Ollinger says her next goal is to compete in an Ironman triathlon every odd year, one in 2017, and one in 2019.

“And maybe (I’ll do) one as a 50-year birthday gift to myself,” she ponders. “If I could still finish an Ironman at 50 that would be neat.”

The humble Mobile, Ala., native says she doesn’t think of her accomplishments as anything out of the ordinary, even though she has finished more than 20 triathlons and is one of only four Arizona National Guardsmen to ever receive the prestigious national-level MacArthur Leadership Award for excellence as a company grade officer.

She credits much of her success to the support of her parents, Ellis and Regina Ollinger, and says without them she wouldn’t be where she is. Ollinger says they taught her about hard work and it’s that life lesson that drives her forward.

“The reason I’ve achieved the things I’ve been able to achieve is not because I’m extraordinary. I’m just an ordinary person who paces herself and takes things one goal at a time,” she says. “Setting and achieving small goals is what makes an ordinary person able to do extraordinary things.”