In spirit of our partnership with US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) and Veterans Day, we’re honoring the athletes dedicated to our country and to fitness. For this week’s blog, we chatted with retired Army Maj. Lillian Pfluke. She’s one of the first women to enter West Point following President Gerald Ford’s signing of a 1975 bill requiring women’s admission to US service academies. Fortunately for Pfluke, it was her senior year of high school when West Point Academy began recruiting for its first class to include women— though Pfluke’s journey and the challenges she would take on had nothing to do with good timing and everything to do with her sharp mind, strong drive and tenacity.
Pfluke was just one of 119 women to enter West Point in July of 1976 and of 62 to go on to graduate from the academy in 1980, after which she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps. After completing the Basic Course at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, she was assigned her first duty as a maintenance platoon leader and shop officer in Hanau, Germany, where she ran an automotive maintenance facility in support of V Corps.
Following another stint at Aberdeen for the Advanced Course, Pfluke was assigned to the Army Material Command (then in Alexandria, VA), in the office of the Secretary of the General Staff. In 1986, she commanded the Heavy Maintenance Company of the 9th Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, Washington. From there, the Army sent her to graduate school at the George Washington University to earn her Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering. Her utilization (or post-degree) assignment as as a program manager for the Army Space Program Office. Pfluke soon advanced to the Pentagon, where she worked on the Patriot Missile System Team for the Secretary of the Army for Research, Development, and Acquisition. In 1995, after nearly two decades of service, she took an early 15-year retirement when was offered for a brief time in the mid-1990s to select military personnel and moved to Paris when her then-husband was assigned there.
The retired major now enjoys her second career as a Mathematics Professor at one of several University of Maryland University College's several satellite campuses in Europe. Pfluke teaches basic math to active duty members, their spouses and/or their college-age children, in addition to a rigorous training regimen she loyally adheres to. Realizing all that she has accomplished and continues to take on, we had plenty of questions for this dedicated athlete, educator and accomplished woman who has achieved more in her 58 years than most people can only dream of. Read on to learn about Pfluke’s incredible journey from a green 17-year old West Point student to the cultivated woman and competitive athlete she is today.
At what age did you decide to pursue a military career? What were your motivating factor(s)?
I never considered the military until my senior year of high school when a West Point recruiter came around looking for smart, athletic women to enter the first class to include women. I had already been accepted into the University of California Engineering program, but the thought of shooting big guns and jumping out of airplanes sounded like a lot more fun. It was purely a decision of seeking adventure and excitement.
Every career has its challenges, but in your case, to hold such important positions and in a more male-dominated field must have certainly come with its pressures. How did you cope with any self-doubt or situations that you may have experienced?
I was only seventeen years old when I went to West Point in the first class ever to accept women. I think my naiveté helped me. We all thought if we could only run a bit faster or do a few more push-ups, THEN we would be fully accepted. It took years to realize that no matter what we did we would always be a second class of soldier. It has been thrilling to see recent developments allowing women into Ranger school and the Infantry—both of which were my desires—albeit 40 years too late for me!
What would you say was the most memorable part of your military career?
I certainly loved the adventure component: shooting big guns, jumping out of airplanes, driving tanks, and traveling. But the longer that I am away from it, the more I appreciate the unique comradery shared by military members.
What does being American mean to you? Has that definition changed over the course of your lifetime?
I have lived in Europe since 1995, for twenty years in Paris and now for the past three in Germany. Seeing our country from the other side of the pond is definitely a unique perspective and forces you to evaluate your feelings regularly as you are so often asked for your opinion on world events and US news.
It also allows you to see an entirely different way of thinking and of treating controversial issues like health care, gun control, and social safety nets. I am proud of being an American and thoroughly enjoy our culture and way of thinking. But the Europeans have also opened my eyes and taught me things that maybe we could do better at.
Tell us about your athletic background. At what age did you really start to take an interest in sports, particularly running, cycling and swimming?
I was a pre-Title IX child. There were very limited athletic opportunities for girls when I was growing up. The one sport that was available to me was swimming, so I swam competitively from the age of 8 through my first years of college. Suddenly, in my junior year of high school, the athletic world opened up for girls and I was on the varsity volleyball, basketball, swimming, and soccer teams. At West Point, I swam for two years, skied (and won a varsity letter) for the ski team for four years, played softball for two years, and captained the lacrosse team for two years.
In the 80’s and early ‘90’s I was an active and successful triathlete, regularly qualifying for the national championships and in 1984 placing as the 13th overall woman in the World Championships in Nice, France. Upon moving to Europe in 1995, I started concentrating exclusively on cycling, which was always my strongest of the three sports. I started road racing but quickly branched out to mountain biking, cyclocross, and track. Now I race year-round in all disciplines. [At one point] I bought a three-person bicycle to ride with my sons on the back. We did all sorts of amazing trips from when they were 10 – 16 years old, ending with a cross-country trip in 2006.
And you were able to use that bike for another purpose too, right?
Once I had the bike, I got recruited into riding with blind stokers, and the same club that does blind cycling also does blind skiing. I teach sighted people to ski with blind people in the winter and race tandem bikes in handisport events in the summer.
After retiring from the Army, you chose to teach math at the university level. Was teaching a lifelong dream that you intended to pursue following your military career, or how did you decide on academia, particularly mathematics?
No, teaching wasn’t a lifelong dream at all; I honestly stumbled into it. After retiring from the Army, I worked for ten years for the American Battle Monuments Commission in their Engineering division for ten years. I resigned from that job in 2008 to found American War Memorials Overseas (www.uswarmemorials.org) and needed to keep some money coming in while I made the transition. I put myself on the substitute teacher list of the American School of Paris down the street from my home and found that I LOVED it! So I got my teaching credential through the University of Western Florida and worked as a math, PE, and physics teacher at the high school level for five years. I also coached volleyball, basketball, swimming, and softball.
Upon moving to Germany three years ago I was thrilled to find the University of Maryland program, which allows me to continue in the teaching profession that I love but gives me more flexibility for my own personal goals. Why math? Because with a masters degree in Mechanical Engineering, I have taken all the required courses to teach math. I am also a ski instructor and swimming instructor, and I find teaching math is similar in many ways, as there can be a big fear factor attached to students of all three. My experience teaching skiing and swimming makes me a better math teacher—addressing the fear and building the self-confidence go a long way towards insuring success.
Looking back over your many decades as a competitive endurance athlete, what advice would you share with aspiring endurance athletes or runners and triathletes striving to take their sport to the next level?
Life comes in chapters, and not all of them are conducive to peak performance. I have been an endurance athlete my whole life, through several careers, two pregnancies, a bout with breast cancer, countless military moves, several bothersome injuries, etc. Endurance sports have anchored me and help me face life’s challenges. The times when peak performance has been possible are fun, but equally important is being consistent through the down times. I continued to bicycle all through my year of breast cancer treatments, even racing during chemo. My self-identity wasn’t one of cancer patient but of athlete who happens to have cancer.
As far as taking it to the next level, the recipe is trite but true: it’s a whole body thing, including good nutrition, adequate rest, consistent training, appropriate weight and maintaining the passion.
What motivates you?
I am entirely motivated from within. I love competition and I love training. I love the way it makes me feel and the places that it takes me. I don’t care about awards or press or exterior motivation.
Describe the impact that pursuing endurance sports and participating in various races have had on your careers as an army Major and now professor.
The military is generally very supportive of athletes. What other career MAKES you do physical training and gives you time and resources for it? Being in shape is an admired trait in the military, so pursuing endurance sports was always a big positive. And now, as a professor, students say that it makes me the coolest math teacher ever!
What race(s) are you currently training for?
Masters World Cyclocross Championships are in December in Belgium. So I’m trying to peak every two months for the rest of the year. (During our time interviewing Pfluke, she competed in the Masters World Road Championships in Albi, France, placing 7th in the Time Trial and 4th in the Road Race AND in the Masters Track Championships in LA, where she won a bronze medal in the Points race and a bronze medal in the Sprint.)
Describe a typical day for you in terms of training.
When the weather is good, I try to ride my bike to work and back as often as possible. Its 52 kms each way, so 60 miles a day gets me good mileage in. On rainy days or days that I need to drive for some reason, I spend a few hours in the gym lifting weights, on the stairmaster, or on the spincycle. I race almost every weekend year-round. In the winter I have a nice computrainer set up in the basement, as well as a weight room. My outside rides are shorter and mostly on the mountain bike or on fat bike once the snow falls.
Do you have a specific diet that you follow to help nourish your body and prepare it for such vigorous training?
I definitely pay attention to my diet but am not fanatic about it. I eat fresh, wholesome foods, limit fat and alcohol, and don’t have any junk food in the house. I weigh myself every day and make adjustments right away if the weight starts moving up. I’m always amazed at how much difference just a few pounds make to how you feel and perform.
Your alarm goes off and you’re just not “feeling it”. How do you motivate yourself?
I teach lunchtime and evening classes so I don’t have to set an alarm! But I do still have to motivate myself some days. I don’t plan a strict periodization of my workouts because life always seems to hand you a rest day when you need it. The weather sucks or you get busy at work or some unexpected obligation comes up and then you don’t have to worry about taking a day or two off or easy as you need a rest anyway. And at 58 I really need to listen to my body and recover just as seriously as I train.
How will you celebrate this Veteran’s Day?
In my role as Executive Director of American War Memorials Overseas, I will be attending ceremonies throughout the weekend. Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, and marks the end of WWI on 11 Nov 1918. I will be participating in various ceremonies at sites honoring American sacrifice in France.
Please join us this Veteran's Day in thanking Lillian and all of our devoted veterans for the dedication and sacrifices they've given in their service.