In their footsteps: USAF Maj. and DAF athlete draws influence from sports and family to break racial barriers

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class De'Quan Simmons
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing

Competing in sports where not many others look like you can be challenging, but one officer at Scott doesn’t have to look far for inspiration.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Neil Samson, 932nd Airlift Wing chief of public affairs, and Department of the Air Force Sports triathlon athlete, draws influences from his family and martial arts legends to break barriers.

“I view competing in triathlon as breaking down racial barriers and common biases,” said Samson. “I’ve gained the respect, understanding, and friendship of fellow elite competitors with consistent results, especially when I’ve earned a step on the podium at a race.”

This is particularly meaningful, as only about 2% of triathletes are of minority backgrounds, according to the Triathlon Industry Association. In addition, Samson cites his family as one of his inspirations, noting how their remarkable journeys have instilled in him the courage and ambition to strive for excellence in all aspects of his life.

“My immediate family, mother, and sister inspire me,” said Samson. “My mom instilled a sense of being gracious and humble and following my calling. My sister modeled wisdom and poise.”

While Samson’s family laid the groundwork for him, he also drew inspiration from influential figures outside his circle.

“Bruce Lee inspires me because he used his passion and efficacy in martial arts to break down racial barriers,” said Samson, citing the cultural impact and significance of the martial arts legend. “Many only see him as an amazing martial artist, but he was also an agent for changing racial perceptions. He changed how people were presented in films, showing that Asians have a strong mental and physical presence as anyone else.”

The influence of sports on Samson's life also includes the surprising story of his grandparents' decision to immigrate from the Philippines to San Francisco. In the 1950s, they immigrated to the city, mostly because his grandfather was a San Francisco Giants and Willie Mays fan.

Samson’s mother and grandmother were able to immigrate as a result of his grandfather earning U.S. citizenship for his service in the U.S. Coast Guard in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

“Despite experiencing racism before, during, and after his military service, he still felt a calling to serve,” said Samson, reminiscing on the sacrifices of his family. “My grandfather continued to serve in the U.S. civil service even after immigrating to San Francisco. My mother served in the Air Force civil service as a commander’s executive assistant before retiring as a Civilian Airman assigned to Los Angeles Air Force Base, California.”

Samson, a Los Angeles, California, native, hails from Filipino, Cantonese, Chinese, and Polynesian lineages, with his Polynesian ancestry being Hawaiian and New Zealand Māori. Before joining the Air Force, he was able to live across various islands in Hawaii and dive into his Asian and Pacific Islander roots while studying at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and earning his degree.

“Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month is important to honor the history and contributions of Americans who immigrated from Asia and the Pacific Islands and to celebrate our culture, such as that of my family,” said Samson.

Samson's educational journey in Hawaii deepened his connection to his diverse heritage, prompting him to gain insight into the significance of AANHPIHM as a platform for honoring the resilience and contributions of immigrants.