Air Force Falcons gymnast Mac Ritchie spent part of his four years at the Academy swinging through the air while breaking school records on the high bar.
After graduating in May, the air in which he moves will be ever rarer.
Last week, Ritchie reported to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, to fulfill a goal he had when he entered the Academy four years ago: to be a pilot.
Ritchie said that if it had not been for his supportive teammates, coaches and family members, he never would have made it past the first semester at the Academy.
Ritchie graduated from Concord High in 2010. Over a nine-year period, he competed for Cabarrus County Gymnastics and G&J Gymnastics in Concord.
A nine-time NC Gymnastics academic All-American and a four-time USA Gymnastics All-American in high school, Ritchie drew attention from both the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. He chose Air Force because of the picturesque scenery of the Rocky Mountains and because he wanted to be a pilot.
But once Ritchie reached Colorado Springs, he found the lifestyle of a first-year cadet was more than he bargained for.
“It was definitely more challenging,” he said. “Basic training and freshman year were very hard. I almost left after the first year.
“You don’t have much freedom. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole. You’re still learning to be part of the military. You were always enclosed, always in uniform.”
Although his freshman gymnastics season had not yet started, Ritchie’s friends on the team and his coaches convinced him that life after the first year would be much more tolerable.
Having a successful gymnastics season helped ease his frustrations. Ritchie was named the team’s Freshman of the Year, and the Falcons reached the NCAA Championships.
During his sophomore year, Ritchie set an Air Force Academy record by scoring a 14.9 on the high bar, an event in which he was the USA Gymnastics college champion.
Air Force Academy cadets decide before their junior year whether they will commit to the military when they graduate. Settled into his environment after two years, Ritchie had no problem committing.
His junior season may have been his best. Ritchie broke his own school high bar record, and for the third straight year the Falcons made the NCAA championships.
At the NCAAs, Ritchie qualified for the semifinal round in the high bar for the only time in his career. The team finished in 10th place, which satisfied one of its goals entering the season.
Although he was one of five seniors in 2014, his final season, Ritchie was the only one named team captain. The team fell short of its goal of placing in the top six at the NCAAs, but during the season Ritchie broke his school high bar record again, with a score of 15.35.
Ritchie received word in December that he was accepted into pilot school. He graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering.
Ritchie was on leave for most of June and July. He reported to Laughlin Air Force Base on July 30.
Ritchie says he will be on “casual status” for his first three months, as he and his class of 460 student pilots get introduced to Laughlin.
Then it’s off to Pueblo, Colo., where he will take introductory courses on flying for six weeks.
Upon his return to Laughlin, Ritchie and his fellow students will begin flying T-6 single-engine prop planes and eventually graduate to either a T-1 or T-38, both jets.
Ritchie says his pilot training will help him fill the void left by finishing his gymnastics career.
“I will miss the competitiveness of it,” said Ritchie. “I really want to do well in terms of pilot training. I will commit myself and my competitiveness to the pilot training. I will also try to play a lot of golf and keep a competitive nature on the golf course instead of in the gym.”