COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (May 2, 2012) -- Secretary of the Army John McHugh visited with nine Soldier-Olympians and Paralympic hopefuls from Installation Management Command's U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program May 1, at the Olympic Training Center here.
"It was a special day for the World Class Athlete Program," WCAP chief Willie Wilson said. "It was a special day for the nine Olympic Soldiers who had the opportunity to spend lunch with the Secretary of the Army. They got the chance to share some of their experiences."
"Oftentimes, Soldiers see leadership when things haven't gone well, but Soldiers always want to tell their story -- the successes that they've had. Today was an opportunity for them to do that," he continued. "We've never had the opportunity for the Soldiers to sit down and spend personal time with senior leadership of the Army as they did today -- to have lunch and talk one-on-one."
During lunch at the OTC cafeteria, McHugh learned that WCAP athletes train and compete at Lake Placid, N.Y., where several of the winter athletes are stationed, along with others at Salt Lake City, Utah, and Chula Vista, Calif. Most WCAP Soldiers are stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., and many train at the Olympic Training Center.
"Being married, I live almost exactly halfway between the Olympic Training Center and Fort Carson," Olympic pistol shooter Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson told McHugh. "I train here at the training center, exclusively, because it has an Olympic-style shooting range where we can train literally 24-7."
McHugh asked how competing in athletics at the world-class level melds with the Army.
"I think it's a great example for us to be leaders by example," Sanderson replied. "You want all Soldiers and all NCOs to be the best they can be -- to put forth that ultimate effort. Having a Soldier-athlete, I personally believe, is the great face to have for the Army. Everybody wants to join a winning team.
"Even though we're going to be downsizing I'm sure here in the next couple of years, I think the plan is to still add in newer Soldiers. We want to get the good guys," he said. "We want to get the good kids from high school, and all I know is sitting at this table we have guys who can walk faster than most people can run."
Sanderson was referring to Staff Sgt. John Nunn, a 2004 Olympian who won the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the 50-kilometer race walk.
"I won the Olympic Trials this year for 50K and I walked it in 4 hours and 4 minutes," Nunn chimed in. "So I averaged 7 minutes and 50 seconds a mile."
That comment seriously caught McHugh's attention.
"Sub-8s?" the secretary said with a look of astonishment. "And you won the Olympic Trials? Incredible."
McHugh turned to Olympic wrestler Sgt. Spenser Mango, and said: "You're Greco-Roman, right? Nobody's going to laugh at you, at least to and live to tell about it."
McHugh turned to Sgt. 1st Class Dremiel Byers and asked: "You're a wrestler, as well?"
"Yes, sir -- heavyweight," replied Byers, who is headed to London to make his second Olympic appearance for Team USA at 264.5 pounds.
"I can see that," McHugh said with a smile.
McHugh asked Nunn what brought a talented track and field athlete to the Army.
"I had a handful of other friends who were in the Army, and one friend in particular who was in the World Class Athlete Program," Nunn said. "He said if you're looking to represent something bigger than yourself and continue to pursue your athletic endeavors, this may be a route that you might be interested in.
"I was told you're going to join the Army, and like everybody else, you're a Soldier first," Nunn continued. "You need to be willing to accept that and be prepared if asked to serve elsewhere. As I weighed the options, I thought what a great opportunity to be representing something much larger than myself and be having the opportunity to be a part of an organization that's going to help people and get a potential career opportunity in the military."
"So it's worked out pretty well for you?" McHugh asked.
"It's worked out fantastic," Nunn replied.
The roundtable discussion revealed tale after tale of athletes whose competitive careers were extended for several years by WCAP.
McHugh told the athletes about one of the honors of his job: serving as honorary starter for the Army Ten-Miler road race at the Pentagon.
"We place the wounded warriors up front," he said. "And the first time I did that, I thought it was because we want to honor these people -- and it is that, but it's also because with many of the prosthetics, they're faster than half the 30,000 people behind them. You've got to get them out there; otherwise they'd be running over the top of people."
Former quarterback Spc. Justin Olsen talked about walking away from the U.S. Air Force Academy and returning home to San Antonio, where he found his calling at a tryout for bobsled pushers. Eventually that led to a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, B.C., as part of Team USA's four-man bobsled champions. Former WCAP bobsledder Steven Holcomb drove that quartet to victory.
"I thought it was the best thing ever," Olsen said of the sport that is more violent than it appears. "I saw every curve from upside-down crashing. We crashed so much I thought every bobsledder sees that. I said, man, these guys are tough. I thought I was tough, but I was pretty sore. My shoulders hurt. Head hurt. My ribs hurt. You're first trip down Lake Placid is like playing a whole football game -- that's how you feel afterward."
McHugh revealed that he, too, had gone for a bobsled ride at Lake Placid.
"It's violent, it really is," McHugh said. "I was shocked by how I got thrown around going down that run."
McHugh reminded the Soldiers that they were talking with the Secretary of the Army and asked what he could do to help them accomplish their mission, which primarily is putting athletes on Team USA for the Olympics, World Championships, Pan American Games and World Military Games. The athletes said they were honored to receive such undying support.
"I've never been a part of a program that has this much backing or support," Nunn said. "The idea of when I put on the Army singlet when I go to race, there are so many people out there yelling constantly, Go Army! Go Army!
"I think it has the potential to be used in an even a broader way. It's a great marketing program for the Army itself. Every Soldier in the program is a top-notch Soldier," Nunn added. "This program has almost the cream of the crop as far as Soldiers go, and it's not just as athletes, it's as Soldiers."
"When you think about it, the kind of qualities that you have to bring as world-class athletes to sport -- discipline, thoroughness, you've got to be fit -- those are the kind of foundational principles we hope to instill in Soldiers, too, so it seems it's a very good fit," he said. "We're awfully proud of you, as athletes, and obviously as Soldiers. It's an honor to get a chance to spend some time with you."
After lunch, the Soldier athletes presented a Road To London 2012 plaque to McHugh, who said he was honored to wear Olsen's gold medal for a photo opportunity. McHugh, in turn, presented each of the Soldier athletes with his personal coin.
"Someone like myself, who decides to do a little exercise each and every day, can only imagine the dedication and effort you bring to just make the Olympic team and to be a part of this great Army team," McHugh concluded. "I'd say you're all heroes and champions, no matter what else happens. I wish you all the best."