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From left, Nick Sterghos, Bryan Dunker, Connor Wernecke, John Mason, Joel Bischoff and Max Bierman pose for a photo in Wuhan, China, on Oct. 26.

Helena native Joel Bischoff recently logged a 47th place finish in the triathlon at the Military World Games in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on Oct. 27.

Ever since joining the ROTC program at Montana State University, Captain Bischoff’s life has been goal-oriented, and for good reason. The program showed him that having goals and a solid foundation with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish is an effective way to go through life.

When he didn't make the Air Force triathlon team in 2015, it was a difficult pill to swallow. Not only was he faced with the realization that his training and effort was deemed insufficient, he did not meet a goal he set for himself.

“It was kind of one of those goals I had set for myself,” remembers Bischoff. “And it started to turn into, ‘well, okay, what do I need to do to be able to make the team.’”

Born at St. Peter’s and later a graduate of Helena High in 2007, Bischoff gravitated toward the different elements of a triathlon at a young age, which is a race comprised of running, swimming and cycling. 

“Every fall I did cross-country, then during the winter was swimming and the spring was track and field,” he says. “I did that all four years (of high school) and had a lot of friends in all those sports as well, which set me up to, ultimately, be doing triathlons later in life.”

During Bischoff’s junior year of high school — like many high school juniors — he was faced with the daunting task of deciding what he thought he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He leaned on his family for help.

“It had a lot to do with my older brother and my dad,” Bischoff says. “It was probably my junior or senior year of high school. I was looking into the whole college thing — what are you going to do with your life? My brother was already doing ROTC at Montana State University so I had a connection there. And my dad recommended it might be a good way to jump start things.

“It was a way to kind of get some focus and direction in my life. So I’d say 2006 was probably the year that that all went down with kind of figuring out what I want to do with my life.”

It is commonplace to hear about how college is a time where people find themselves. It can also be a time when you become very lost. Yet, Bischoff credits the ROTC with giving him the mindset needed to set and meet specific goals.

“It definitely gave me drive and focus on week-to-week things to accomplish,” he explains. “And then obviously being in the military program and being on a scholarship and other stuff, in a lot of ways they were almost paying for you to go to college but also you had to meet their timelines. I had a lot of friends who would start out working on one degree, switch to another and another — they were having a hard time.”

The ROTC helped Bischoff focus on the degree. It kept him on a path through college and he ended up coming out the other side with a degree and no debt.

But then what?

After returning from a deployment, Bischoff needed something new to work toward. Given his past experience with endurance sports, he naturally found triathlons.

“I started really training for them and made it a lifestyle change in 2013,” he says. “I got back from a deployment and was just looking at trying to find a positive hobby, or just something to keep me in shape. It’s a lot easier — in my mind — to stay fit or maintain a lifestyle if you’ve got goals and objectives you’re trying to accomplish. Looking at triathlons and trying to better myself in that sport, it was a way for me to kind of continue to improve my fitness. Not that I had dropped off a whole lot, but I didn’t really do sports at all in college so I had a good four or five years there when I wasn’t engaged in fitness or anything along those lines. It was something I missed — I found — when I got out of college. I enjoyed it in high school and even before that.”

As luck would have it, there was (and is) a competitive triathlon team organized by the Air Force.

Suddenly, Bischoff had a new goal, and it was simple and clear: make the team. It was not, however, easy.

“It was 2014. I didn’t know there was an Air Force triathlon team when I first started out,” Bischoff says. “But I found out there was a team and so I got interested in potentially trying to at least make the Air Force team. That’s really all it ever was, initially.”

Bischoff, whose military career field is security forces, fondly remembers his family supporting his goal and doing their best to cheer him on along the way.

“I applied in 2014 and didn’t get picked up. I applied again in 2015 and still didn’t get picked up,” Bischoff says. “But then in 2016 when I applied, they picked up my package and I was able to go and compete.

“The first year I had only been doing it for a year. I was like, ‘okay, I’m probably not going to get picked up on it this time.’ But I was pretty bummed in 2015 when I didn’t make the team.”

There was still a sliver of hope. Every year the Department of Defense puts on the DoD Championships. The event is typically held in Ventura County, California.

“The top nine guys and gals from the different service branches go there and compete,” Bischoff says. “They’re all selected through a resume process where you say how many races you’ve done, positions, your times and all that stuff.”

There is also an open category, which Bischoff was able to enter even though he was not officially on the Air Force’s team.

“In 2015 I didn’t make the team but still went to the race and competed in the open category. I think I came in 27th or something — I was pretty far back,” he says. “I did beat one of the Air Force guys, so the coach and the people who were making the decisions for the Air Force team had seen me. Then I was like, ‘okay maybe I could be on the team in the next year or two.’ And sure enough, the next year I did.”

Once he was on the team, Bischoff continued improving. After finishing seventh in the 2016 DoD Championship and second place in 2017, his next goal became the Military World Games which take place every four years.

A father of three children under the age of five, Bischoff must squeeze his training somewhere between his full-time military job and the time he spends with his family. He is able to dedicate roughly 10-15 hours per week to training. He will stagger running, bicycling, swimming and cross-training during his down time.

“At these World Games you’re going to have everyone from Olympic athletes who can dedicate 40 hours a week — or more — to training,” Bischoff says. “Then you’ve got people — and I’ll throw myself into that category — who have a full-time military job, and you’re just kind of fitting in your training around that.”

The Great Falls resident says that he put in for a cross-train to try to do something within the realm of flying. He would be flying military aircrafts. The Air Force allows its active-duty officers to change the direction of their career.

“If that happens, that’ll start me down a whole new path with some goals and some other things associated with flying.” Bischoff says.

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Matthew Kiewiet covers high school and community sports for the Independent Record and 406mtsports.com. Email him at matthew.kiewiet@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter @IRmattkiewiet.

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