Diver uses sports to help military daughters cope

Courtesy of Molinda Hern

Moranda Hern came into diving after an ankle injury ended her competitive gymnastics career.

Moranda Hern is not your typical 20-year-old. In the first two decades of her life, she has had two successful athletic careers, undergone five surgeries and launched her own nonprofit. Oh, and this past April she introduced first lady Michelle Obama at a White House event.

Hern achieved a lot of those feats while her father, Rick Hern, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, was deployed to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Actually, it was because of his deployment that Hern, who will be a junior at the Air Force Academy this fall, formed the organization, the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs, a playful reference to the "blue dress uniform" worn by members of the military. The organization aims to be a safe, online destination for girls with deployed parents to meet and support each other.

"I was struggling when my dad was away," Hern said. "I felt like I was the only one going through this."

Then she met Kaylei Deakin at a National Guard Youth Symposium in 2007. Deakin's father was also overseas.

"It felt so good knowing I wasn't alone," Hern said. "I wanted to help other girls out there who would benefit from the same sense of support."

To launch a nonprofit at age 15 is rare indeed, but Hern credits a lot of her determination and drive to her background in sports.

"You learn in athletics to never give up," she said. "The perseverance and determination it takes to succeed as an athlete is the same skill set it takes to overcome other challenges in life."

Springboard for success

Hern spent her early years as a competitive gymnast, training four hours a day, six days a week, until an ankle injury took her out by age 12. She underwent two surgeries to correct the problem, but the ankle never really healed. When she realized a return to competitive gymnastics was not in the cards, she wasn't sure what to do. That's when her mom suggested Hern take her tumbling skills and apply them to diving.

Courtey of Molinda Hern

Moranda Hern, center, poses with co-founder Kaylei Deakin, third from right, and teens they have helped through their Sisterhood of the Traveling BDU's charity.

"It took a while to get used to it," Hern admitted. "I had to adjust to landing in the water on my head -- if you land on your head in gymnastics, it's almost never a good thing!"

But soon enough, Hern discovered the thrills of soaring through the air and falling back down to earth at tremendous speeds. ("I'm an adrenalin junkie," she admitted. "I'm addicted to speed.") Throughout high school, her diving continued to improve, though she spent a frustrating amount of time on the sidelines, undergoing three additional surgeries for her ankle.

Hern's life hit a bumpy spot after her father was deployed when she was 15. Balancing school, sports and normal teenage turbulence was hard enough; grappling with her dad's absence in top of it all made her feel isolated and depressed. Hern's hope in launching the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs was that girls from military families could use each other for support during times of parental deployment.

"It's not necessarily like these girls are dealing with totally different issues than the average teen," she explained. "It's more that all the issues teenagers might face -- low self-esteem, feeling withdrawn, eating disorders -- become that much more intense because you are also dealing with an absent parent."

The goal of the program, she said, was to create a network of teens who could talk with each other about what they were going through. Self-esteem, sister support, community service and leadership form the pillars of her organization.

"I took a lot of the lessons I learned when I was injured playing sports and applied them to the nonprofit," Hern said. "My mom told me, 'You need to turn obstacles into opportunities.' I couldn't dive, but I could use that time to hit the weight room and fine-tune the basic mechanics, so I would be stronger when I returned to diving."

It is this positive attitude that she hopes to impart to the girls who contact the nonprofit. "Just because you are hurting in one part of your life, don't overlook opportunities to grow in other areas," she said.

Leading by example

Though neither of her parents were divers or gymnasts, they both played sports growing up (baseball and softball) and encouraged their daughter to pursue her diving passion. Training with the Air Force involves pool sessions after classes and military activities, as well as a fair amount of dry-land workouts -- jumping on a trampoline and hitting the weight room. Hern competes in both the one- and three-meter events, but her favorite is platform diving.

"It terrifies me," she said. "But I just love how it feels to go through the water that fast."

Given Hern's passion for soaring through the air, it's not a surprise to learn her ultimate career goal is to become a pilot. "There is a sign hanging up at the pool that says, 'Two parts test pilot, one part acrobat,' or something like that. Diving and flying are definitely related," she said.

For now, her plate is full as a student-athlete. This past April, she was asked to introduce the first lady at a White House event recognizing the country's military families.

"I am still like, 'I can't believe that was me on stage!'" Hern said. "It was totally surreal and amazing."

She's also getting a bit of business-school exposure: This summer she is in Europe as part of an IBM program that introduces students to different approaches for running an international organization. Come fall, she'll be back at the Air Force Academy, ready to resume her role as the team's best diver.

"Dealing with so many injuries has really shaped who I am," said Hern. "I look forward to every minute I have diving, and really appreciate the chance to give it my all, every time I compete."

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