U.S. 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.

Mark Sappenfield

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.

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.

When he recalls his introduction to wrestling, however, it is with the voice of bemused disbelief. His first three years he was "being beaten by everybody." Yet the coaches never lost faith, he says: "They kept telling me I could do it."

And so he has, becoming a world champion in 2002 and winning the bronze at last year's World Championships. This, say Byers and Kelly, is the wonder of WCAP: patience, optimism, and support beyond all realms of the ordinary.

Kelly readily admits that she was not a top American modern pentathlon prospect. And with a limited number of people who know how to run, swim, fence, shoot, and ride a horse – the five disciplines of modern pentathlon – those few coaches who exist generally flow toward the top talent. Which means people like her are left to fend for themselves for coaching, equipment, and travel.

Kelly did it for six months before turning to WCAP. With Kelly, WCAP gets a world-class athlete to elevate its profile; Kelly now has the entire Army behind her. Earlier this year, when a particular fencing maneuver was not working, for example, WCAP flew her to San Antonio on a week's notice to work with a fencing coach.

"It's things like that that make you feel better about going into competition," she says. "If I have a need, they're going to go to any length to find the answer."

The attitude is at the very core of what the Army is, says Byers. "It's how we survive," he adds. "It's hard to find people who want to be there for you – then you find a whole organization that wants to be there for you."

For him, there is no question of giving back; he intends to make the Army a career. But for Kelly, the transformation into a soldier-athlete has been as unexpected and, at times, unsettling. There are the courses and training to keep up basic soldiering skills. Yet it is every fourth year – directly after the Olympics – that WCAP members earn their stripes, often literally.

While some act as recruiters and others have elected to serve in Iraq, Kelly went through officer training school after the Athens Games. Her succinct summary: "Not very fun." At times, officers would call her out of the mess hall line and demand that she recite arcane school facts and history under threat of pushups or other not very fun pursuits like swabbing and sweeping.

Today, she can't remember a single question – much less the answers. "I've blocked that out of my mind," she says, grinning sheepishly.

Yet there are other memories, too. Of the two weeks her unit spent training in the field and the early-morning raid she as unit leader successfully rebuffed amid billows of smoke and the piped-in sounds of bomb explosions, loud as jet engines. Of the friend she met in an ordnance course who is now serving in Iraq. Of being "the girl who can run faster than the guys."

It was a crucible that, in some ways, helped her sporting career as nothing else could. "I definitely feel like I can handle more [stress] now," she says.

And it has accomplished something altogether more remarkable. It has made her a soldier. "I feel fortunate that they allow me to represent them," she says. "I am trying to live up to their expectations."

Next year, there is a good chance she will be deployed to Kuwait. "Will it be fun? No. But I don't have a problem with it," she says. "I wouldn't be where I am without the Army."

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