Defense Update: Our Military Vying for Olympic Gold

When we think of our fighting men and women we do not necessarily think of them as athletes, sports enthusiasts and probably not as Olympic gold contenders.

So, our readers might be pleasantly surprised to hear that the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) will send what it describes as its strongest contingent of athletes and coaches ever to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

According to the American Forces Press Service, 11 WCAP coaches and athletes have already qualified to participate. Several more are competing for spots on Team USA at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team trials in Eugene, Ore., which began June 21 and will conclude July 1.

WCAP not only provides soldier-athletes the support and training needed to successfully compete in Olympic sports in the summer and winter Olympics, but also in the Pan American Games, world championships and Conseil International du Sport Militaire’s Military World Games.

Since 1948, more than 600 soldiers have represented the United States as Olympic athletes and coaches. They have collected more than 140 medals in a variety of sports, including boxing, wrestling, rowing, shooting, bobsled and track and field.

Some of these Olympics’ Army participants:

WCAP wrestling head coach Shon Lewis, a retired staff sergeant who has led the Army to 11 national team titles in Greco-Roman wrestling, will lead three of his wrestlers to London as an assistant coach for Team USA.

Two-time Olympian Sgt. 1st Class Dremiel Byers, 37, of Kings Mountain, N.C., will wrestle in the 120-kilogram/264.5-pound Greco-Roman division. He is the only U.S. wrestler who has won gold, silver and bronze medals at the world championships

Spc. Justin Lester is a strong medal contender in the 66-kilogram/145.5 pound Greco-Roman division

Two-time Olympian Sgt. Spenser Mango, 25, of St. Louis, will compete in the 55-kilogram/121-pound Greco-Roman class.

Four-time Olympian Sgt. 1st Class Daryl Szarenski, 44, of Saginaw, Mich., will compete in both the 50-meter free pistol and 10-meter air pistol. He struck gold with the air pistol and silver with the free pistol at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Two-time Olympian Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson, 37, of San Antonio, will compete in the 25-meter rapid-fire pistol event. He set an Olympic record during the qualification rounds in Beijing but left China without a medal.

Four-time Olympian Maj. David Johnson, 48, of Hampton, Va., has coached three athletes to Olympic medals and led shooters to 25 medals in World Cup events. He will again coach Team USA’s rifle shooters in London.

Two-time Olympian Staff Sgt. John Nunn, 34, of Evansville, Ind., already qualified for the 50-meter race walk and might attempt to qualify in the 20-kilometer race walk on June 30 at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials in Eugene, Ore

Spc. Dennis Bowsher, 29, of Dallas, will compete in modern pentathlon, a five-sport event that includes fencing, and swimming, equestrian show jumping, cross country and laser pistol shooting all in the same day.

Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, 39, of Brent, Ala., will serve as Team USA’s assistant boxing coach in London. A former WCAP heavyweight boxer, Leverette was a bronze medalist at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team Trials.

Staff Sgt. Joe Guzman, 32, of Eloy, Ariz., will serve as the trainer and help work the corners for Team USA’s boxers in London. As a WCAP boxer, Guzman was a three-time armed forces champion.

Four-time Olympian Basheer Abdullah, a retired staff sergeant and head coach of the WCAP boxing team from St. Louis, will serve as Team USA’s head boxing coach in London.

Military from other services will also be vying for Olympic Gold. For example, Air Force Capt. Weston Kelsey who will be a third-time Olympian as part of the U.S. Men’s Epee Team for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

We have seen the athletic prowess of our wounded warriors before.

The 2012 Warrior Games, hosted by the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Paralympics Military Program, started on April 30, with over 200 wounded, injured and ill service members and veterans from the U.S. Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Special Operations Command and from the British armed forces participating.

Among the players in the various Warrior Games events are amputees, cancer survivors, partially paralyzed men and women and those recovering from traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress.

Lance Cpl. Joshua Wege of the All-Marine wheelchair basketball team plays tight defense against an All-Army member during the Marines vs. Army wheelchair basketball game May 17, 2011, at the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Photo by Sgt. Michael S. Cifuentes)

Warriors compete for gold medals in cycling, swimming, track and field, archery, wheelchair basketball and even sitting volleyball.

Some of them will go on to the Paralympic Games. At least one wounded warrior — see below — has qualified for the London Paralympic Games and WCAP has sights set on qualifying several more for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

On Monday, speaking at the Defense Department and U.S. Olympic Committee Warrior recognition ceremony, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta praised the program, the organizers and especially the warrior athletes and their families.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta applauds the athletes at the 2012 Warrior Games recognition ceremony held in the Pentagon courtyard, June 25, 2012.

“These men and women who overcome immense odds to suddenly come out and compete in these games represents I believe the strength, the integrity, the character of many American service members who have persevered — persevered in the face of huge challenges, challenges that they’ve had to recover from the wounds of war. Their stories represent the fighting spirit of the brave men and women who serve on the front lines around the world,” he said.

Panetta singled out one wounded warrior: “Take for example, Navy Lieutenant Brad Snyder who’s with us here today,” “he said and continued:

While serving as a bomb disposal technician in Afghanistan last year, he was blinded by an IED explosion. But Brad was determined to not let the loss of his sight stop him.

Last month, he competed in the Warrior Games winning a total of seven gold medals. Including three in track.

Seven gold medals, three in track, four in swimming. And at last week’s U.S. Paralympic swimming trials, Brad won all five events he competed in and set a new world best time for vision impaired athletes in both the 100 meter and the 400 meter freestyle.

When Brad steps up to the blocks in London on September 7th to compete in the Paralympic games, it will be one year to the day since his injury.

Brad, we’re all in awe of your determination and your personal spirit, and all of us are going to be cheering your success in London. God bless you.

Panetta continued to describe how difficult it must be for these wounded warriors to overcome the obstacles they face, “the sheer guts to overcome the wounds … their determination to return to a new normal is not just inspiring. It is nothing short of a miracle — a miracle of emotional and physical and mental strength.”

(Added) Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta congratulates Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ronald Sullivan at the 2012 Warrior Games recognition ceremony.

Olympics Image: www.shutterstock.com

Other Images: DOD

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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