ARLINGTON, Va. – When the XXIV Olympic Winter Games begin the first week of February, several National Guard members will be among the hundreds of athletes and coaches representing Team USA in Beijing.
While most of these Guard members have competed in past Olympic Games, Sgt. Deedra Irwin of the Vermont Army National Guard will be making her Olympic debut.
“I think it’s so cool to be able to represent, not only the United States, but the Vermont National Guard, the Army, and the entire community that helped me get to this point,” said Irwin. “I haven’t been able to really process the excitement of it yet. To think back to when I was younger, watching the Olympics, I wanted to be a part of it. Hopefully, young people will watch me and feel inspired as well.”
Irwin competes in the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship. She is one of three Vermont Army Guard 2022 Olympians. An additional Vermont Guard member is an alternate in the men’s biathlon.
Irwin enlisted in the Vermont Army Guard in 2019 as a human resource specialist and has been Nordic skiing since her childhood in Wisconsin. Her journey to the Olympics has been a lifetime in the making, aided by her military training.
“Coming back to biathlon after Army basic training, I noticed that my shooting had improved a ton,” Irwin said. “I was much more relaxed on the range. I was able to focus a lot better than before I went to basic. I remember coming back, and my coach was like, ‘We need to send everybody there. You’re shooting so well.’”
Capt. Michael Kohn, a Virginia Army National Guard Soldier, said there is nothing better than experiencing the Olympics for the first time. Though he has been to The Games before, he said it is still special to be a part of Team USA this year.
“To represent the United States at the Olympics never gets old,” said Kohn. “I think that’s the thing that keeps bringing me back, is the opportunity to wear those three letters on my chest or on my back. I never get tired of that.”
This will be Kohn’s sixth Olympic Games, but his first as the head coach of the men’s bobsled team. He debuted at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where he helped push the four-man Team USA bobsled to a bronze medal, ending a lengthy medal drought for the United States in that event. He also competed in 2010 in the two- and four-man bobsled events and was selected as a coach shortly after.
His sense of duty and love of service and sport drive him. He said his dual career as a service member and an athlete-turned-coach is possible through the support of the National Guard and the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. WCAP allows top-ranked Soldier-athletes to perform at the international level while also serving in the military.
“I’m very fortunate, blessed and grateful that the Virginia Army National Guard, as well as the active component, has permitted me to serve in this role as a head coach and simultaneously as a service member,” said Kohn.
Those in the WCAP train and compete throughout the year, aiming for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, according to the WCAP website. Four of the National Guard members competing in the 2022 Games are WCAP athletes.
While Kohn will be coaching, most National Guard Olympians will compete, including a pair of skiers with the Utah Army National Guard. Spcs. Jasper Good and Benjamin Loomis will compete in Nordic combined, mixing cross-country skiing with ski jumping. This is their second time qualifying for the Olympics – they both competed in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“It was a dream that I’ve been working towards since I was young and to fulfill that was incredible,” Good said of his 2018 experience at The Games. “One of the best memories I have was walking into the opening ceremony with everyone behind the American flag and seeing the whole world represented. It was pretty cool.”
Good anticipates this year’s opening ceremony to be subdued because of the pandemic but said that shouldn’t diminish the experience.
“When it’s time to compete, all of those parts of the actual competition day remain the same,” he said. “I am super excited about that. Wearing ‘USA’ on your back with your teammates is a lasting memory. It is special.”
Good said he is a full-time athlete, training and competing around the world year-round. Enlisting in the Utah Army Guard allowed him to join the WCAP.
“We’re full-time athletes because of what the National Guard has given us,” he said. “That is, the support and ability to compete. And that’s why it’s really cool to be able to represent them because of the opportunities they give us.”
Staff Sgt. Shauna Rohbock, also of the Utah Army Guard, is another Olympic veteran, winning a silver medal in the two-man bobsled event at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. She will serve as an assistant coach for the women’s bobsled team in China.
Rohbock said the Olympic spirit of competition has a way of uniting people, and she expects the same this year.
“Whatever side of the fence you’re on, you’re an American,” said Rohbock. “I think global athletic events like the Olympics can bring people together and bring out their patriotism.”