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DAF announces 2023 athletes of the year  

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – A Space Systems Command handball player and an Air Mobility Command triathlete were recently announced as the 2023 Department of the Air Force Athletes of the Year. 

Congratulations to Capt. Andrew Donlin, SSC’s Resilient Global Capabilities Branch deputy chief in El Segundo, California, and 1st Lt. Rose Smith, the 436th Healthcare Operations Squadron’s Resource Management Flight commander at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. 

“Our major commands and field commands submitted their best and our team took the evaluation process very seriously,” said Maj. Tiffany Lewis, DAF Fitness and Sports Division chief at the Air Force Services Center.  

“It was extremely difficult choosing our DAF-level winners but I’m confident we got it right with Captain Donlin and Lieutenant Smith. Although all of the packages we received were incredibly strong, their accomplishments represented the athletic community and DAF in a way few others can,” she said. 

Female Athlete of the Year 
Smith, who is also AMC’s Female Athlete of the Year, excelled during numerous triathlon competitions in 2023. 

In the Rock Hall Triathlon in Maryland, she finished first in her age group and 93rd overall, earning her a spot in the 2023/2024 USA Triathlon National Championships.  
Over the summer, she was rated 165th among 4,532 female triathletes and earned a Bronze All World Athlete Status in her age group after finishing 35 of 56 in the Ironman 70.3 Musselman. 

A few months later, Smith was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she qualified for the 2024 Ironman World Championships. In the same month, she did the Waterman’s Triathlon Festival Relay and received five different triathlon club offers before deciding on Team Zoot, the largest triathlon organization in the U.S.  

She rounded out the award period with October’s Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., where she finished 5,348 in a field of more than 230,000.  
Smith attributed her success to the people who surround her. 

“One of my best friends in Dover, Jessica Heckman, challenged me to do a half Ironman this year, then as we pushed each other we figured we may as well do a full since we are half trained,” she said. “I’ve had so many wonderful people around me helping me succeed though that I have this mindset of ‘how could I not do great things.’”

Smith also believes being an endurance athlete carries over to her ability to be a resilient Airman.

“What makes us different is our ability to tolerate pain and discomfort, because I can push through physically hard things, it makes a lot of other challenges seem easier to manage,” she said. “For example, my Ironman took me 13 hours and 25 minutes. About 4 hours in, everything was already sore. In comparison, completing tasks I don’t want to do, but need to get done are easy to mentally justify.”

Endurance sports have also taught her discipline, she said.

“One doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to do an Ironman. You need to train for months in advance, which could mean early mornings, two-a-days and giving up certain habits that don’t serve the bigger goal. Having increased discipline has also allowed me to change my mind set to get the work done because I understand long-term pay off.”

Smith, who joined the Air Force Reserve in 2015 as an enlisted Airman, said she always knew she wanted to be an officer and started her bachelor’s degree program when she learned about healthcare administration officers. She started triathlon training during COVID about 2 years before her first race in 2021.

“I say all this to show that waiting for what you want is worth it, but also don’t wait for one dream to finish to start a new one,” she said. “Also, believe in yourself when others don’t, and if those around you don’t believe in you find a better community. I wouldn’t be where I am without the encouragement from many people in my life, but I also remember there were times where people doubted my path because their perception of what was possible was limited. The human body is capable of so many incredible things if given the opportunity.”

Outside of her passion for triathlons, Smith coached Dover’s Medical Group volleyball team to a championship win, biked more than 500 miles across Iowa with the Air Force Cycling Team to promote the Air Force mission, raised more than $15,000 for the Air Force Association’s Wounded Airmen and Guardians Program with her cycling teammates, and led a three-person team in a 26.2 mile ruck to honor the fallen while also raising more than $1,000 for the Military Friends Foundation. 

Male Athlete of the Year 
During the award period, Donlin led the Men's USA National Handball Team to their first and second victories ever in the International Handball Federation Men's World Championships. He also led his club team, the Cal Heat, to a gold medal in the California Cup and was selected as the tournament’s most valuable player.  

Additionally, the captain led Team USA in the Pan American Games Qualifier in Colorado Springs, Colorado, helping the team earn a spot in the 2023 Pan American Games, a primary qualifying competition for the Summer Olympics. He was also the leading scorer in both the qualifier and games with a total of 21 goals. 

Donlin continued as leading scorer at the National Championship game with eight goals, leading his Cal Heat team to first out of 20 teams at the 2023 USA Handball National Championship. Because of the win, his team represented the U.S. at the North American and Caribbean Club Championships where they earned gold, and he was selected for the All-Tournament Team.  

Looking at his athletic success, he attributes it in large part to the support from people around him.

“Family, friends, military leadership, coaches, teammates, medical staff and others … without them I wouldn’t be able to continue competing and training at a high level,” he said. 

He also believes always being ready to take advantage of opportunities when they’re presented contributed as well.

“So many of the opportunities I’ve had in my athletic career have been ‘right place and right time moments.’ A lot of that has to do with coaches who have believed in me and taken a chance on me, but the other part of it is being prepared physically and mentally to step up when your number is called,” Donlin said. 

As with many careers or past times that require focus, commitment and just plain hard work, resiliency plays a key factor in both military service and athletic prowess.

“Resiliency can mean a lot of different things to different people, depending on their circumstances but for me it’s about being able to stay on the path toward my goals and my team’s goals even when it’s difficult,” he said. “The two biggest things that helped me in the area of resiliency in my sport and life have been knowing the ‘why’ behind what I’m doing as well as having a great support system around me.”

In addition to his work on the handball court, the captain serves as the elected representative of the Men's National Team on Team USA Handball's Athlete Advisory Council, representing and advocating for national team athletes to the board of directors. 

During the award period, he also provided an instruction clinic to more than 100 students at a Colorado Springs middle school to introduce them to the sport. 
“I’m thankful for everyone who has supported me,” Donlin said, “and feel extremely blessed to get to wear the two best uniforms in the world and represent our great country and what it stands for on and off the court.”

(Editor’s Note: Donlin was recently selected as one of two American male athletes for the International Handball Federation’s Beach Handball Showcase at the Paris Olympic Games this summer. The showcase is viewed as the next step in making beach handball an official sport in future games. For more on the showcase, visit