Vermont guardsman crashes truck, then wins bobsled event
January 12, 2009
By Tim Hipps
ALEXANDRIA, Va., - Despite rolling his truck on a snowy road while driving to the 2009 U.S. National Bobsled Championships on Jan. 3, Pfc. John Napier of the Vermont National Guard won the two-man crown at the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Napier was driving his 1999 Dodge Ram along an unplowed, snowy, back road from Saranac Lake when he lost control, drove into a snow bank, and rolled the truck onto its top and side for an upside-down slide on the icy road.
"My tire just went off the pavement, and it was on a corner so I couldn't correct -- it was a bad spot -- and it just sucked my truck right off the road into a bank, and the bank flipped the car," Napier said. "The snow was only a couple feet deep, but it was just enough to flip me over.
"It slid about 30 feet on the icy road," he said. "While I was upside down, I thought, 'This is just like being in a bobsled.' I eventually had to crawl out the passenger window."
Napier, a bobsledder in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, was fortunate to walk away with only bruised ribs and his bobsled gear. He called a friend, who gave him a ride to the track while his truck was being towed away.
The accident occurred around 11 a.m., and Napier planned to arrive at the track at 11:30. He got there at 12:30 p.m. -- just in time to make his warm-up runs before completing two heats that left Napier and teammate Cory Butner in first place by one-tenth of a second. Their combined time was 1 minute, 53.5 seconds.
"I was just a little beat up with some bruised ribs," said Napier, who added that the setback did not affect his bobsled driving ability.
The next day, the duo held on to win the event by .30 of a second over former WCAP driver Sgt. Mike Kohn, now a member of the National Guard Outstanding Athlete Program, who finished runner-up in the two-man championships.
With the victory, Napier earned a berth in the 2009 World Championships, scheduled for Feb. 20 through March 1 in Lake Placid.
Napier, 22, the son of former bobsled national contender Bill Napier, has been bobsledding since he was 8. He enlisted in the Vermont Army National Guard in June 2007 as an engineer, and joined WCAP last May. He said he credits the Army and WCAP/Team USA Bobsled coach Army Sgt. William Tavares for helping to further his Olympic dream.
"When I joined the Army, I knew a couple of our best bobsledders had been in the World Class Athlete Program, and I had seen what it did for them," Napier recalled of his developmental years competing against the likes of former WCAP athletes Kohn and Steven Holcomb.
"I saw how difficult my future was going to be in this sport," he said. "Right now, I wouldn't be able to slide without WCAP -- there's no way because all of the bills we have to pay are the driver's responsibility.
"Equipment is on the driver," he explained. "The runners we buy are about $5,000 a pair, and we have to have multiple pairs because different runners go faster at different tracks. I saw how great the program was for those guys and how it made it feasible for them to slide. Without it, there's no other income for a driver, and it's a full-time job.
"We're trying to be the best in the world so we need to dedicate our time to training, to bobsledding. There's just no other program out there that makes it possible," he added.
Napier will compete in the Four-man Bobsled National Championships this weekend on his hometown track in Lake Placid. He needs to finish first or runner-up to Holcomb's sled to earn another berth on Team USA for the upcoming World Championships.
"In the past, I've been a little bit stronger in the four-man sled because I'm able to make up a little more distance on the push," said Napier, a 6-foot, 200-pounder. "My deficit is that I'm just a little bit smaller of a driver, size-wise and weight-wise, so I'm not able to contribute as much on the push. That's why in four-man I'm a little bit better."
The national championships was held in conjunction with the 4th Annual Whelen Bodine Bobsled Challenge, which was supported by the New York National Guard and where Guard combat veterans had a chance to race.
SPEED channel will televise four hours of the championships and the Bodine Bobsled Challenge on Jan. 18 at noon and Jan. 25 at 2 pm.
(Tim Hipps serves in the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center public affairs office.)