Soldiers on track to make U.S. Olympic bobsled team
December 15, 2009
By Tim Hipps
PARK CITY, Utah (Dec. 15, 2009) -- U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program bobsledders Sgt. John Napier and 2nd Lt. Chris Fogt are on track to make Team USA for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Several other Soldiers and former WCAP bobsledders are in the wintry mix that will be settled in January by a selection committee.
Napier and Fogt took their first major step by making Team USA for the 2009-1010 World Cup circuit Oct. 24 in Park City.
"God, the Army, my mother," Napier said. "That's who helped me get here."
The WCAP duo further etched their bid in ice at the World Cup event Nov. 21-22 in Lake Placid, N.Y., when pilot Napier won a gold medal in the two-man race and took silver in the four-man event with brakeman Fogt aboard his sled.
Former WCAP bobsled driver Steven Holcomb, the pilot for the reigning four-man world champions, also is a virtual lock to drive one of Team USA's three sleds in Whistler, Canada --site of the Olympic bobsled races in February.
Holcomb finished second behind Napier in the two-man competition at Lake Placid and topped Napier's team the next day in the four-man event. Napier teamed with Charles Berkeley to win the two-man chase with a cumulative time of 1 minute, 53.62 seconds for two runs down the one-mile track. Holcomb and teammate Justin Olsen finished second in 1:53.88.
"I relied on great guys like Steve Holcomb, who have been there before, about what it feels like, and I asked him, 'What the heck do I do'" Napier said. "He told me to just hang out and chill out and act like it's a practice run. So I did."
Holcomb was one of the first people to congratulate Napier when he climbed from his sled.
"I told Napier to relax between heats," Holcomb said. "I told him to try not to think about it because the more you think about, the more pressure you put on yourself and the harder it is. I tried to keep him calm and let him do his thing on his home track."
Napier's mother, Betsy, was at the finish clanging a large cowbell she purchased several years ago at Innsbruck, Austria. Napier took a moment to remember his father, William, a former president of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and an accomplished bobsled pilot who lost his battle with cancer in June 2005.
"I have so much support back here," said Napier, who began bobsledding as an 8-year-old living in Lake Placid. "It's great to be on my home track. I was up in the old 1980 start house thinking about how ironic it was that 30 years ago my father was in there warming up."
"In the back of my mind, he's always there with me."
The next day, Holcomb and Napier finished first and second in the four-man event.
"We did an awesome job," Napier said. "All the pieces of the puzzle fit together. We went one-two over two consecutive days with Holcomb. It's an amazing feeling to be up there on the podium with him."
Holcomb was happy to share the podium with a U.S. Soldier.
"All summer we've said we have the strongest U.S. team we've ever had," Holcomb said. "Today shows that we're going to be a fighting force out there. It's going to be a good year, and I'm excited."
So, too, is U.S. bobsled head coach Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympic competitor who all but declared Napier the future of USA bobsleigh. Shimer said the bulked-up Napier is the most improved among the Olympic driver candidates.
"Not in his driving skills on the track, because he's one of our best and one of the best in the world, but in his athletic ability and developing into an athlete," Shimer explained. "John is a unique case in that he started at 8 years old driving little junior bobsleds. We usually recruit athletes from some collegiate sport - track and field, football or baseball - so they are established as an athlete in another sport. John, being a bobsledder since 8, has never established himself as an athlete, per se. In this last year, he has done that."
Napier gained about 30 pounds of muscle since March.
"He just started training like a champion," WCAP bobsled and Team USA assistant coach Sgt. Bill Tavares said. "He did the right things. He ate the right things. And when he started putting on the weight and the muscle in the weight room, it was like a drug. He realized, 'Holy cow, I can get really get stronger and bigger and get that little extra.' He did that little extra and he found the weight. ... And the scary thing is: he's just begun. He's just begun."
Napier then went out and won Team USA's push championships for drivers.
"It's a good feeling as a coach, looking into the future," Shimer said. "He made huge gains this year that I thought wouldn't be possible within a year. That was great to see. How far can he take this as an athlete' That's up to him. If any indication what he did this past year, the future looks good."
"He's right where we expect him to be. ... Todd Hays is finishing up his career in bobsled and you've got Napier nipping at his heels and making sure that he pushes him out. It's great to see John's success. Of all the pilots that we have, he's probably the most experienced on the ice. Not the most experienced athlete, but he's well on his way now. I'm happy with John and how far he's come."
Shimer also predicted a great future for Fogt, 26, a speed merchant who mans the brakes. Fogt, who holds five school track and field records for Utah Valley University, has personal-bests of 10.53 seconds in the 100 meters, 21.3 in the 200, and 48.7 in the indoor 400. At 6-foot-0, 205-pounds, he ran the 60 meters indoors in 6.9 seconds.
"Chris Fogt is an extraordinary athlete," Shimer said. "I'm not sure we've had an athlete with his potential. He came out and put down a 30-meter time, which is like a 40-yard time for the NFL, with a 3.43. Our next-fastest was a 3.48 and the next was a 3.50, so he set himself apart from our elite athletes."
"His chances in the sport are absolutely as good as they can get with those numbers. ... By February, we look at him being one of our best."
Sgt. Mike Kohn, a bobsled pilot in the Army National Guard Outstanding Athlete Program, is competing on the America's Cup circuit to bid for a spot on the Olympic team, as is WCAP brakeman Capt. Garrett Hines, a 2002 Olympic silver medalist.
"Mike's still there," Shimer said. "His chances are not done by any means. He can qualify for the Olympic Games through the America's Cup circuit if he dominates and puts himself in a position that he should be in Vancouver."
Team USA is fielding three sleds on the World Cup tour, but if one finishes out of the top 13, the selection committee might send a sled from the America's Cup circuit to Canada for the Olympics.
"It's still a possibility," Shimer said of Kohn's chances. "I'm not going to say it's even a slim chance -- it could be a decent chance if everything goes right for him on America's Cup."
Ditto for Hines, the 40-year-old self-professed "old man in the bunch."
"Garrett really impressed me in terms of how (little) he's actually been on the ice the last four years and his age, still being a brakeman," Shimer said. "The drivers are typically a little bit older because it takes more years of experience to reach that level. As a brakeman, for him to be at this level and still vying for a spot on our national team, that says a lot for Garrett. Whether or not it works out is going to be up to the selection committee to crunch those numbers."
"Obviously, we take input from the drivers, as well, because that's who is riding behind them. It's not going to be an easy choice for us, but he's right there in the mix."
Tavares, a 27-year Army veteran, finished ninth at the 1992 Olympics as a luge competitor. He coached Team USA's women bobsled teams at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics. Along the way, he's helped coach athletes to five world championships and 70 World Cup medals.
Shimer believes the military is the biggest bobsled supporter in America.
"I think every athlete in the sport of bobsled should go through the military," Shimer said. "Absolutely, it's the best program I've ever seen. In my last year in 2002, my best sponsor was the military. I had two WCAP athletes, Mike Kohn and Doug Sharp, on my team in those Olympics. I was contracted, basically, to drive for the military team. They bought a sled. They bought runners. It was the best sponsor I ever had in my 17 years of seeking sponsorship."
"I owe a lot to the Army."
Tavares pointed out another advantage Soldiers have over their American peers.
"WCAP athletes from any sport have the biggest upper hand on any other athlete," he said. "Because this is sport, it's not the end of the world. And WCAP athletes have a better understanding of that than any other athlete that I know."
"We can be deployed at any time. Let's get some things under perspective here, you know'" Tavares said with a stern smile. "We know what our jobs are. We might be athletes and coaches now, but we're Soldiers. This is sport."
(Tim Hipps writes for the Family and MWR Command Public Affairs Office.)