By Mary Hookham, for the Dairy Business Association
Resurgence, hope, humility, courage — they’re all part of the story of Nicole Malachowski.
The retired U.S. Air Force officer and first female pilot selected to fly with the Thunderbirds, brought her twists-and-turns story to hundreds of dairy farmers and agribusiness professionals on Jan. 23 at the Dairy Business Association’s annual Dairy Strong conference in Madison, Wis.
“Nobody wants to live a scripted life,” Malachowski said.
At the age of 5, Malachowski decided she wanted to become a fighter pilot. For many years, she harbored this dream in her heart but never believed in herself enough to try. In 2005, she finally applied, knowing she had every certification the Air Force required, but if selected she would be the first female Thunderbird pilot. Overcoming self-doubt as well as that of other people who knew she was applying was a monumental task for her.
Finally, a superior in the Air Force encouraged her to dream big, be different and risk failure. These motivating words changed her attitude and began to clear up the doubt. She submitted her application and was selected.
“I learned risk is required for growth and positive change,” she said. “We can’t censor our strengths.”
After 21 years and 2,300 hours of flying, Malachowski’s life suddenly, and very dramatically, changed. She was diagnosed with a tick-borne neurological illness and faced numerous health issues, including temporary paralysis and loss of speech.
She was medically discharged from the Air Force and felt defeated and sad because her flying career was over. As she completed therapy to overcome the effects of the illness, she began to gain new perspectives.
“Nicole’s message isn’t just about surviving; it’s about resurgence, and I never thought about it that way before today,” Ruth Lainez of GLC Minerals in Green Bay said after the presentation. “We’ve all had struggles and difficulties and we tell ourselves we’re bouncing back, but it’s not about bouncing back; it’s about reinventing yourself. I was really inspired.”
Malachowski’s lessons learned in the Air Force played a significant role in motivating her to overcome the illness. Her message: Know your unique role within your industry, become indispensable at your job, don’t be afraid of change and learn to trust others.
“When people in your industry require your trust, afford yourself a moment of grace and maturity and remind yourself that person takes as much pride in his or her job as you do in yours,” she said. “The only way to build trust is to be trustworthy yourself.”
Lainez found Malachowski relatable to anybody dealing with challenges.
“She got to this level by being so humble, and then wrapping up her message with her personal life was so effective,” Lainez said. “It’s not about her titles and awards she earned. It’s really about reinventing herself.”
Malachowski encouraged the dairy farmers to get to know one another and form as many networks as possible so they can help each other out during the tough times. Leaning on each other is the only way to move the industry forward, she said.
“The runway behind you is always unusable, so all you have is what’s in front of you,” she said. “So, learn to cultivate a new perspective and a high level of compassion.”