Military arms Olympic Games with athletes

4 members of New York Army National Guard will compete in Pyeongchang
John Napier of Schenectady, as a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athletes Program, competes in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
John Napier of Schenectady, as a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athletes Program, competes in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

For decades, Olympic-caliber athletes throughout the world have had ties to the military as a way to make it possible for them to focus on the training required for elite-level competition.

In Pyeongchang, four members of the New York Army National Guard will be competing as part of the U.S. Army World Class Athletes Program: lugers Emily Sweeney and Matt Mortensen, and bobsledders Justin Olsen and Nick Cunningham. 

The program began in 1997 and involves more than 75 active athletes, all of whom had met world-class competition standards before being accepted into the program. 

Most of those involved are summer event participants, predominantly track and field, boxing, and wrestling. The winter athletes are primarily involved in the sliding sports; bobsled, luge and skeleton. 

The program is based at Ft. Carson, Colorado, near the US Olympic Training facility at Colorado Springs. The four New York Army National Guard athletes who will be competing in South Korea are posted at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.

While the current World Class Athletes program is just over 20 years old, there have been US Olympians affiliated with the military going back decades, especially in bobsled. The US Air Force fielded a competitive team in the 1960s, and the US Navy had a team in Lake Placid throughout the 1970s. Those were teams representing their respective services. In the program today, the military affiliated athletes are mixed and matched with other individuals. 

Those involved in the World Class Athletes program do have military assignments and serve active duty stints when not involved in athletic training and competition. After they finish their athletic careers, they have a commitment to serve out their enlistment.

While the main purpose of the program is to represent the US in international competition and to create a positive image of the US Army at home, participants can perform more traditional military roles.

Schenectady native John Napier drove a bobsled in the 2010 Games in Vancouver as a part of this program through the Vermont National Guard — and served a tour as a combat infantry sergeant in Afghanistan.

Schenectady native and current US Skeleton coach Tuffy Latour was a member of this program, as was the late Steve Holcomb, the former bobsled Olympic gold medalist and world champion.

Matt Mortensen was part of the luge doubles team that wound up fifth in the just-completed Luge World Cup season standings.  With partner Jayson Terdiman,  the 32-year-old from Huntington Station knows he wouldn’t be competing for an Olympic medal at Pyeongchang if it weren’t for the Army World Class Athletes program.

“The WCAP has been crucial to the last eight years of my athletic career.” he wrote earlier this week. “Without that support, I don’t think I would have been able to continue as an athlete after the 2010 Winter Olympics.”

Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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