Beqir Gjoka and Samantha Lief

Beqir Gjoka and Samantha Lief

An U.S. Army intelligence officer who had never considered herself an athlete, Samantha Lief, had her live changed forever on a cold Christmas Eve in Mosul, Iraq when she met a member of the Albanian Special Forces, Beqir Gjoka .

One night in 2007, Lief decided to participate in a four-mile race against a group of soldiers from a variety of other units.

“It was freezing cold, but I ran anyway,” recalled Lief, 36. “I just didn’t want to come in last. I ended up coming in second to last.”

As she finished the race, an exhausted Lief was reaching for a bottle of water when she was approached by the winner of the race Beqir Gjoka.

“I had grabbed the water and began guzzling it down, and he said, ‘not so fast,'” Lief said. “Take small sips.”

Leif and Gjoka began working out and running together after that. Lief, who “never even took up running until I was in graduate school,” hadn’t expected that physical fitness would become such an important part of her life — or that an Albanian soldier would become an even bigger part of it.

“I definitely didn’t come to a war zone looking for love,” Lief said. “But we were together in a place where something exciting was happening every day. It’s a cliché to say that you just know it when the right person comes along, but that’s what happened.”

In addition to a husband, Lief said she also found the perfect coach in Gjoka, whose passion for physical fitness had helped him become one of the first members of the Albanian Special Forces.

“We teach you how to eat and how to exercise,” said Lief, who keeps in constant contact with her clients through social media. “We change the way you look at yourself, change what you say to yourself. And that begins to have a ripple effect throughout your life.”

“You become more confident,” Gjoka added. “You feel healthier and act healthier.”

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