Preston Griffall
Preston Griffall, shown here before his graduation from Basic Combat Training, is one of three Soldier-athletes who passed through Fort Jackson this summer with plans to join the Army's World Class Athlete Program.

FORT JACKSON, SC -- The GI Bill, excellent benefits, superior training and a chance to serve one's country are just some of the reasons people join the Army. Some people, however, are signing up to train and compete in the Olympics.

At least three former Olympic athletes passed through Fort Jackson this summer with the goal of being accepted into the Army's World Class Athlete Program, which provides outstanding Soldier-athletes with support and training to compete in national and international competitions leading to the Olympic and Paralympic games. The Air Force also has a WCAP.

Some of the sports include boxing, archery, bobsledding, track and field, shooting, wrestling and team handball.

"I hope to get into the program this fall," said Preston Griffall, an Olympic luge athlete who graduated earlier this month from Company D, 369th Adjutant General Battalion as a human resource specialist. "I know a lot of people in it, and the program has helped them grow in their sport tremendously."

Griffall competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy and placed eighth overall in doubles luge with teammate Matt Mortensen. Incidentally, Mortensen, along with his brother, graduated from Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson this past summer. Griffall said he can already see the positive influence Army training has had in his luge career.

"BCT and AIT in the Army have helped tremendously for me mentally," he said. "(The training) has also taught me about teamwork and persevering in stressful situations."

Luge is a winter sport in which athletes race on sleds, doubles or single, down a mile or longer track with speeds up to 90 mph.

"It is an incredible sport. It is like being on a roller coaster ride on ice going 90 mph," he said. "I have been in the sport for 15 years and I still get butterflies at the top of the track."

Pfc. Joseph Mortensen, who also graduated from BCT this past summer from Company E, 1st Bn., 34th Inf. Reg., also plans to enter the program.He missed the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada in luge by one slot

"It is a very mentally and physically challenging sport," he said. "The training is very much like BCT. We do a lot of pushups ... and pretty much anything you can think of that works the upper body."

Since the WCAP inception in 1997, 40 Soldier-athletes have competed in the Summer and Winter Olympics winning gold, silver and bronze medals.

"Once you are in the program your sole mission is to make the Olympics," said 1st Lt. Jonathan Harmeling, commander of the Fort Carson, Colo.-based WCAP. "You continue to go to your military courses, but once you are in the program, your whole job is to do whatever you have to do to be the best at your sport."

Currently, there are 67 Soldiers in the program. To qualify for consideration into WCAP, a Soldier must be a nationally ranked athlete in his or her sport. The program is open to active-duty, Reserve and National Guard Soldiers.

"We are only interested in the best athletes who are typically in the top five of their sports," Harmeling said. "Once you finish WCAP you still have to go out and serve in the big military. We have plenty of Soldiers who have gone on to the Rangers and Special Forces who initially only joined to continue their sports careers."

WCAP Soldiers also support the Army Recruiting Command's mission by making appearances at high schools and colleges.

"Our Soldiers go to about 50 events every year promoting the Army and bridging the gap between students and recruiters," Harmeling said.

Page last updated Wed September 29th, 2010 at 15:29