ATLANTIC CITY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.J. – For Tech Sgt. Danielle R. Todman, assigned to the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing, being an athlete and an Airman go hand-in-hand.
So do trainer, coach and mentor.
Not only was she named an Air National Guard Athlete of the Year, but Todman is also a championship powerlifter, a high school track and field coach and a mentor to special needs children.
It all began in high school, where she competed in track and field, and continued at Bucknell University, again in track and field.
Though she excelled at athletics, Todman said during high school she was often teased for it.
"I was bullied and heavily mocked for my physique and how strong I was," she said. "So, I originally strayed away from those things that showcased that."
But she moved past the taunts and teasing.
"It took me a long time, but I finally saw the strength and beauty behind being strong," said Todman.
In 2006 Todman enlisted in the Air Force and eventually competed as a member of both the U.S. Air Force Track Team and the United States National Track and Field Team.
Olympic competition was a possibility, but life events got in the way.
"I had just missed out on competing in the Olympics in Italy, so I had taken myself out of the game for a while," said Todman. "At that time I was going through a tough marriage, so the battle took me out of the opportunities and the blessings."
She transitioned to the New Jersey Air Guard in 2013. Two years later, she was selected as part of the team to represent the U.S. in the Military World Games, where she competed in the 400-meter hurdles. In 2017, Todman was named the Air National Guard Female Athlete of the Year.
For Todman, the recognition is nice, she said, but more importantly, it can carry on to those just starting out on their journey through life.
"Your story opens doors for others," she said. "You plant the seed that they can have the same opportunities. That's what you want to do as a coach or supervisor - inspire those you teach to see the bigger picture."
Her drive to provide that motivation isn't limited to the Airmen she supervises. In her civilian career, she coaches the track team at Newark Technical High School in Newark, New Jersey. Many of those she coaches have found success on and off the athletic field.
"All 11 of my high school seniors that I coached in track and field [this year] received academic scholarships," said Todman.
She also teaches and mentors special needs children.
"I do one-on-one special education for children in preschool and kindergarten," said Todman, adding the work is challenging and rewarding, especially watching others grow and succeed. For Todman, one student who had trouble speaking stands out.
"He had a hard time speaking, so I asked him to show me [what he was trying to say]," she said. "He had someone who finally understood and could communicate with him. It was amazing to be with him through his progress, and every day off the bus, he would run and give me the biggest hug."
Todman still challenges herself through athletics and has taken up powerlifting, which she became interested in while deployed overseas.
"I didn't choose powerlifting," said Todman. "I fell in love with powerlifting, though it was very new to me. It mirrors so much of what we face in life, every single day. The weights are heavy, the stress, the pressure, the judgment, but through all of that, you still have to push and pull through the journey."
During that deployment she met her powerlifting coach. With a coach, that led to competing in powerlifting competitions, including this year's North American Regional Powerlifting Championships in Costa Rica, where she took second place for overall qualifying total points.
"After I lifted my last lift and they called my name, I had tears in my eyes," she said. "I thought, 'This is real, I'm on an international stage.' It's like something you read about in someone else's story, but it's my story."
Placing second in the regional championship qualified her to compete in the 2020 world championship.
"Powerlifting opened so many doors, but I didn't think it was going to open the door to this past competition," said Todman. "You're competing against everyone in the Caribbean, Latin American, North American and Canadian powerlifting federations. It was very humbling."
That's led to other possibilities in powerlifting and track.
"Other opportunities have opened up for me to compete in the World Master's Track and Field Championship and probably representing the Virgin Islands in both track and field and powerlifting," said Todman. "Originally, I'm from New Jersey, but I was raised in St. Thomas, [Virgin Islands]. The majority of my family still lives there."
And her family is where much of her inspiration has come from, she said, notably her mother, who was a runner on the Rutgers University track team.
"I don't know how my mother did what she did by herself, but her strength was unreal," said Todman, taking a deep breath. "My mother truly raised me on strength and love."
And she said she tries to carry that through to her students and the Airmen she supervises.
"When you teach, coach and supervise you don't realize what eyes are on you, not because they're judging you but because they are looking to you," said Todman. "They are looking to you for support, encouragement, or inspiration."
She said she hopes some of the encouragement she puts out takes hold.
"Through all the years of hard work, it takes perseverance," said Todman. "I know the battles will be hard. But I know whatever story is meant to be is meant to be, and hopefully whoever I'm meant to inspire will be inspired."