Soldier-Olympians share tales with Army leaders
October 16, 2008
By Tim Hipps
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 16, 2008) - Ten Army Olympians visited the nation's capital last week to spread the word about Soldiers' involvement in the Beijing Games and to thank senior military leaders for their support.
The U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, Army Marksmanship Unit and Army Reserve athletes posed for photographs and signed autographs at the Association of the United States Army's annual meeting and other military workplaces around town.
They joined a group of Paralympians Oct. 6 to visit Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon and then attended an Olympic banquet in Baltimore.
They accompanied more than 500 Olympians and Paralympians on a White House visit to say thanks to President Bush and first lady Laura Oct 7. They also posed for photographs and signed autographs at the AUSA annual meeting.
The athletes again mingled with fellow Soldiers and sports fans Oct. 8 at the AUSA exposition and signed autographs at the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command headquarters in Alexandria, Va.
They met Oct. 9 with Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George Casey Jr., Director of the Army Staff Lt. Gen. David Huntoon Jr. and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston at the Pentagon.
"I think it's important that we meet the Secretary of Defense and all the leadership of the Army to thank them for their support and the opportunity to represent not only the U.S. Army but the United States," said WCAP Maj. Michael Anti, a four-time Olympian who won a silver medal in three-position rifle shooting at the Athens Games in 2004.
Anti, who placed ninth in the 50-meter rifle prone event in Beijing, was touched by a patriotic display of the U.S. Army's history during the opening ceremony of the AUSA Convention.
"If you're an American and don't get a lump in your throat watching some of the videos and hearing the commentary, there's probably something wrong," he said.
Having visited two President Bushes and President Clinton, Anti said the White House tour never grows old.
"This was my fourth trip to the White House, and it's always exciting," he said. "It's just a special time. Not many Americans get the opportunity to stand on the White House steps and get their picture taken with the president."
Anti was joined by fellow WCAP Olympians Staff Sgt. Dremiel Byers, a Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler; Staff Sgt. Keith Sanderson, who finished fifth in the Olympic rapid fire pistol event in Beijing; and Maj. David Johnson, Team USA's rifle coach during the last two Summer Olympics who competed in two events at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
"It's great to be here," Byers said of visiting the Pentagon for the first time. "I can see the history on the walls and the professionalism of our country being represented. A lot of powerful things have happened here and a lot of great things have happened here.
"Getting to meet key leaders of our country is an honor. I consider myself fortunate to be here. This is a great experience."
Sanderson had run around the Pentagon but had never been inside.
"It's like the Mall of America, but they don't let you in all the shops," he quipped.
Spcs. Walton Glenn Eller III and Vincent Hancock, who won gold medals in double trap and skeet shotgun shooting respectively in Beijing, represented the Army Marksmanship Unit, along with Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker, Sgt. 1st Class Daryl Szarenski and Spc. Jeffrey Holguin.
"We get a lot of support here at the Pentagon, but it starts all the way at the top with President Bush coming over and visiting us at the Olympics," Parker said. "It just makes you want to compete better just because they are around. And the Paralympians are a source of hope and inspiration for everybody."
Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Elizabeth "Libby" Callahan, 56, the oldest female competitor in U.S. Olympic history, completed the group.
Gold medalists Eller and Hancock received the troops' preferential treatment, which included a personal visit with Vice President Richard Cheney in the west wing of the White House.
"This is still more than I can believe, to tell you the truth," Hancock said. "It really is a dream come true. I've said that since the moment I got the gold medal around my neck. Every day is surprising what new comes about. I couldn't ask for anything better."
Hancock shared with Geren and Casey the story of how he was recruited to join the Army as a 16-year-old shotgun-shooting star who won seven international competitions before completing basic training between his junior and senior years of high school.
"I started beating guys they had on their team, so they asked me to join," Hancock said, which elicited a round of laughter from the group. "My brother and my father were competitive shooters when I was growing up, and I was playing a lot of baseball and I didn't really want to shoot. But my dad asked to go out and try it when I was about 10 years old. I went out and fell in love with it and have been doing it ever since.
"My brother is in the military, too. He's been through two tours of Iraq and he's going to Afghanistan next February. He's now a warrant officer."
The marksmen shared stories with the senior Army leaders of how they evolved from young slingshot and pellet-gun shooters into world-class competitors.
Casey turned the conversation to Byers with "Who needs guns, right, as long as you can wrestle'" Byers replied, "Arms end up on the ground, sir," which elicited another rousing round of laughter.
Byers plans to wrestle for another Olympic berth in the 2012 London Games, which would keep him on the mat until age 38. He was inspired by a retired Marine Corps master sergeant who wrestled for four decades.
"One of my heroes, Greg Gibson, wrestled until he was almost 50," Byers said. "I want to go at least a year longer, or at least until there's an intervention saying, 'Hey, guy, you're too old - you need to get out.'"
The Olympians presented framed photo displays to the Army senior leaders.
"It means an awful lot to us to have folks like you out there competing and demonstrating what the Army can do," Geren told the athletes.
"And you shall have continued support," Casey added.
(Tim Hipps writes for FMWRC Public Affairs.)