JANUARY 13, 2022 — When the announcement came, it dealt a devastating blow to the Army’s Olympic hopefuls.
After the onset of COVID-19, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation informed the Army World Class Athlete program’s winter athletes that they could not compete in World Cup events at North American sites including Lake Placid, New York, and Park City, Utah, due to pandemic concerns.
The news hit especially hard for the Soldier-athletes competing in bobsled, skeleton, luge and Nordic skiing as they prepared for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. The athletes took pride in the opportunity to compete on their home track before friends and family, but would be forced to travel to World Cup events in Europe to qualify for the Games.
The pandemic already had a severe impact on the athletes’ training; Soldiers had limited access to the Olympic training center in Lake Placid — cutting back time on the track. Some athletes even tested positive for the virus.
However, Soldier athletes in the Army’s World Class Training Program did not let the challenges deter their training for the Games which begin in February.
“It’s a great group of individuals,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Willie Wilson, WCAP director. “They’ve been working extremely hard dealing with really some of the same challenges that the 2020 Olympic Games athletes faced. We’re extremely proud of them. And we look forward to this last push, right before the [U.S. Olympic team selections].”
Capt. Michael Kohn, U.S. Bobsled coach, said that WCAP athletes, because of their military training have an edge over traditional competitors. WCAP athletes adjusted their training routines during the pandemic, utilizing makeshift gyms and moving training equipment to other locations.
“They fight just a little bit harder because of their Army training and Army life,” said Kohn, a former Bobsled push athlete and member of the Virginia National Guard. “I think that helps them to be prepared for high level competitions, high pressure, and high stakes … They’re also better because they’re a little more grounded in life.”
In sports athletes need every available training advantage. Limited access to the facilities could have had a significant impact on their strength and conditioning. As a result, more athletes suffered from more physical ailments.
“I’ve never seen so many injuries,” Kohn said by phone call from Austria, where he coached the U.S. Bobsled team during World Cup competition at the Olympic Sliding Centre Innsbruck. “Just about everybody’s got a little tweak here and there.”
“They’re not getting the normal training that they would normally get,” he added. “They’re not getting the normal physical therapy or physiotherapy or massages.”
The Army WCAP program has 12 athletes who hope to land a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
The Olympic hopefuls
Sgt. Emily Sweeney, who suffered a frightening fall on the track during the 2018 Games, has bounced back and has been selected to the 2022 U.S. Olympic team in women’s luge singles.
Sweeney, who currently ranks No. 18 in the world, edged the U.S. top-ranked competitor, Ashley Farquharson by 0.2 seconds to win the World Cup selection race in October.
Five years ago, Spc. Lake Kwaza competed for the University of Iowa track and field squad. Now, the Sycamore, Illinois native will vie for a spot on the U.S. Olympic bobsled team as a brakewoman.
Kwaza and doubles teammate Elana Meyers-Taylor took first place at World Cup competition in Siguilda, Latvia on Jan. 2.
“Great leader,” Kohn said. “Anytime I need something, I can go to her and it gets done quick. She’s a solid athlete, Soldier and person. She’s just very reliable.”
During the 2020-21, Capt. Megan Henry posted a solid competitive season in skeleton which included five straight North American Cup and lower-level victories despite a pandemic-limited season where she could not compete internationally for safety precautions.
The Roxbury, Connecticut native remains one of Team USA’s top contenders to claim one of two spots on the U.S. National Team that will compete in Beijing this February.
Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Weber, a Green Beret-turned WCAP athlete, competed on the four-man U.S. bobsled squad that finished in 19th place at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeong Chang, South Korea. The pilot of that squad, 2010 gold medalist Sgt. Justin Olsen, has transitioned to coaching after recovering from a serious neck injury he sustained two seasons ago.
Weber’s teammate on the four-man team, Spc. Hakeem Abdul-Saboor, who joined the Army in 2019, remains one of WCAP’s strongest candidates for Beijing. Weber and Abdul-Saboor also placed 21st in the two-man race in 2018
“I feel very comfortable that [Abdul-Saboor] will be on the Olympic team,” Kohn said.
Spc. Ben Loomis, the nation’s top-ranked Nordic combined competitor, hopes for a return trip to the Winter Games, while Spc. Jasper Good, of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, also will attempt to earn a spot in Beijing. Loomis placed second at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Lake Placid, Dec. 24-25, while Good finished fourth.
Loomis, who hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, joined the Army in 2019 after finishing 40th in the large hill and 41st in the normal hill at the 2018 Games. Good finished at 43rd in the large hill and 45th in the normal.
Specialists Frank Del Duca and Samuel Moeller and Capt. Mike Fogt, a brakeman, will challenge for spots on the U.S. Bobsled team. Del Duca, a pilot driver from Maine, has participated in the Olympic trials before and hopes to make the team as a pilot. “He’s been performing for us very well,” Kohn said. “I think he has a very good shot of making the Olympic team.”
A former special teams player for Texas A&M’s football team, Moeller transitioned to bobsled after college and now hopes to qualify for the games as a pilot. Fogt and Moeller have dealt with injuries and face a steep challenge to make the squad. “They’ve got a little bit of a struggle ahead of up to make the team,” Kohn said. “But they’re still hanging in there trying to be ready.”
In the pandemic’s early stages in the spring and summer of 2020, a limited number of WCAP athletes could train at the facility at a time. WCAP staff compromised with the International Olympic Committee to take some of the training equipment offsite to allow the Soldier Athletes to resume training while adhering to the Army’s safety guidelines.
Further complicating matters, WCAP athletes had to adhere to safety guidelines, by the IOC, USA Luge and New York state, which governed use of the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run.
“It’s like having 10 different contracts,” Kohn said. “We were trying to write one out of these 10 that reflects a little bit of each one. For our Soldier-athletes, it was tough.”
At the start of the 2020-2021 season pandemic restrictions also prevented WCAP athletes from travelling to overseas tournaments.
The athletes must still qualify to be eligible to make the U.S. Olympic team in their respective sports by winning enough points in World Cup competition. But Wilson remains confident in his Soldier-Athletes will rise to the challenge.
“We’re excited about the group that we have,” Wilson said. “And we think that they have a chance to do well at the Games.”
By Joe Lacdan
Army News Service