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US Army trains its own Olympians to be all they can be

The World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) seeks to find and train Olympic-caliber athletes both inside and outside the Army's ranks.

By / June 23, 2008

Mark Sappenfield

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Colorado Springs, Colo.

The day Dremiel Byers turned down a college football scholarship to enlist in the Army he thought his athletic career was finished. In reality, it was just beginning.A career that began in the most ordinary way – a private stuck in a supply room – has since taken him to the pinnacle of a sport he had never even heard of before he joined the Army: he's a world champion Greco-Roman wrestler, and an Olympian headed for Beijing.

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Staff Sergeant Byers is a part of the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) – the Army's effort to find and train Olympic-caliber athletes both inside and outside its ranks.

For prospects plucked from infantry units and maintenance shops, it is a chance to represent America on the field of sport rather than war.

Along the way, however, is training unlike that of any other would-be Olympian – from repelling 3 a.m. surprise attacks during officer training to predawn PT runs amid colleagues preparing to deploy for Iraq.

"There's some guy in Iraq doing the same job I'm doing, and he's doing that so that I can be here wrestling," says Byers. "I say, 'The least I can do for you is win.' "

With 52 athletes and a budget of $700,000 – roughly the cost of five armored Humvees – WCAP is not the Soviet Red Army team of old. The program was founded in 1994 to give soldier-athletes "the opportunity to compete in national and international events that lead to qualifying for the Olympics," says Capt. Dominic Black, program director at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, near the Olympic Training Center.

It is the outgrowth of the longstanding All-Army team – a collection of soldier-athletes who compete in events against the other military services. With WCAP, the Army is trying to go one step further and help America's Olympic cause by training the best soldier-athletes to Olympic levels.

Yet only Byers has a realistic hope of winning a medal. The program's other top athlete, modern pentathlete Michelle "Mickey" Kelly, only missed out on the Olympics because of the last-minute appeal of a fellow teammate, unseating her after she thought she had already qualified.

The pair mark the ambitions of WCAP as surely as they mark its opposite poles – Lieutenant Kelly the wire-limbed runner who came into the Army solely to further her athletic career and Byers, the broad-shouldered geologic landform in a singlet who became a soldier-athlete almost by accident.

Indeed, he joined the Army for far more mundane reasons: to help his mother pay her bills. But in the wrestling room of the Olympic Training Center here in Colorado Springs – where WCAP wrestlers often come to train with other Olympic hopefuls – it is easy to see what first caught the Army wrestling coaches' eyes. In a sport that requires tossing square-jawed Latvians as large and furry as bears, Byers is a slab of pure power – an isosceles triangle inverted and made of solid muscle.