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FORT BLISS, Texas -- Servicemembers have participated in the Olympics since 1896 as athletes and as coaches in both the summer and winter games. In 1997, the Army created the World Class Athlete Program with the explicit goal of competing -- and winning medals -- in the Olympic Games.
Since its founding, 40 World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, Soldiers have brought home gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals.
This summer, the Army's World Class Athlete Program will send eight noncomissioned officers, or NCOs, to London; four of them have competed in the Olympics in previous years, and four of them stand ready to show what it means to serve in WCAP. These NCOs are charged with one task: to bring home medals. After the games, these NCOs will continue to serve the Army by supporting U.S. Army Recruiting Command, hosting clinics and promoting the Army. Then, they will either serve in WCAP by training for national and international competitions, or they will return to the operational Army to serve in their military occupational specialty.
U.S. Army Soldiers compete alongside other Americans at the Olympics. They wear the Team USA gear, and when they win, they step up to the podium to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" play. But these Soldier-athletes continually represent the Army on and off the field -- through their discipline and determination.
Sgt. 1st Class Daryl Szarenski, an air pistol Olympian, will return to the Olympics for the fourth time in the shooting event. Previously, Szarenski has gone to the Olympics with the Army Marksmanship Unit, which also sends Soldiers to the Olympics. The difference, Szarenski said, is that the World Class Athlete Program's focus is solely on the Olympics.
"Our mission is to go to the Olympics and win the Olympics," Szarenski said. "Not everyone here will make the Olympic team, but we're all pulling together to try to get the mission accomplished. We're there to win."
Szarenski started shooting in the sixth grade and started competing in the eighth grade. He earned a full scholarship to Tennessee Tech Rifle University after winning state and national competitions.
He was recruited by the Army Marksmanship Unit out of college to compete. After 21 years of service, Szarenski will retire from the Army after this year's Olympics.
"I was in ROTC and had a chance to be an officer, and I turned it down in college because I wanted to be an NCO," Szarenski said. "I wanted to be in with the troops, and I wanted to be more in with the guys and leading and helping the guys out."
Szarenski said representing the Army means even more when it comes to the Olympic shooting events.
"The importance of the Army competing in the Olympics, especially in shooting, is we're showcasing," Szarenski said. "I came in during the Cold War, and [when] you would beat the Russians and Chinese in shooting, it was peace through sports. You look and say, 'Those guys can shoot and those guys are competitive; let's not poke the bear.' The strength that I give back to the Army is when I win something that makes everyone say, 'OK, he's from the Army and the rest of those guys can probably do that, too.' It makes them realize we are on top, and we're not slacking. And don't test us, because we do have the strength."
Staff Sgt. John Nunn has served in the Army and the Army Reserves for 11 and a half years. Originally an infantryman, he has since changed his military occupational specialty, known as an MOS, to dental hygienist with hopes to one day be an Army dentist. He will compete in the 50-kilometer racewalk event in the Olympics, an event he has only competed in three times. He won the Olympic trials for the 50-kilometer racewalk and has competed in the 20-kilometer racewalk in the 2004 Olympics. He puts in 100 miles a week in training, and says he supports the other WCAP athletes as they head to London later this month.
"Within the Army, everyone is striving for success and being the best that they can be in whatever the Army is asking them to do," Nunn said. "This is a situation with the program when we make the Olympic team. It's an honor, one, to make an Olympic team and represent your country. But for us, it's even more of an honor because we get to represent the Army along the way. It gives you something to cheer on and be a part of something bigger than just yourself."
The World Class Athlete Program has benchmarks for those hoping to compete in the Olympics. If Soldiers fail to meet those benchmarks, they are sent back to the operational Army to serve in their primary MOSs. When the program begins to recruit, usually two years before the Olympic trials, NCOs in the program are charged with setting the example for younger Soldiers. The unit, which serves under Installation and Management Command's Morale, Welfare and Recreation department, consists of a company with a commander and support staff.
"You're still an NCO, and still in the absence of orders or the absence of leadership, take charge," Szarenski said. "There's not a squad or teams, but you're still an NCO, and how I carry myself influences those younger guys. You have to maintain your military bearing."
Sgt. 1st Class Dremiel Byers has served on and off with WCAP since 1997, when it was stood up at Fort Carson, Colo. Byers, who competes in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 120 kg weight group, said being professional and disciplined is a part of his training. Byers and other wrestlers also teach combative clinics for other Soldiers.
"It's Soldiering all around," Byers said. "There's discipline that you have to have to be a highly competitive athlete and even more discipline to be a Soldier. The two go hand in hand, and they complement each other."
Byers said he sees bringing home the medal on the international stage as a win for Soldiers everywhere.
"This victory is our victory," Byers said. "Sometimes when we're overseas, and I know I'm going to be the one on top of the podium, I love seeing the flag and love hearing our anthem being played. It feels good."
As NCOs and competitors, many Soldiers in the program compete against one another when it comes to Army standards and tests -- especially the Army Physical Fitness Test.
"The Soldiers in this program are some of the cream of the crop that the Army has to offer," Nunn said. "Every Soldier in this program is not working to just get the bare minimum on their PT test or the bare minimum to pass so they can get a promotion. Everyone is striving for perfection. With that, it carries over into the Army aspect of being a Soldier. We're constantly going to competitions, working to beat each other at PT tests and who can become Soldier of the month or NCO of the quarter and who maxes their boards when they go. It provides a great asset to the Army itself as far as deploying Soldiers and giving them opportunities to train for the Olympics. But then those Soldiers are put back into regular units and are incredible assets to those units by the discipline and things that they've learned being part of the World Class Athlete Program."
Most WCAP Soldiers come into the Army with the explicit intent of serving the Army by winning Olympic medals. Most, though, say that Army training has helped them compete at the higher level by teaching them mental strength.
"The Army has taught me with discipline and being able to train every day," Szarenski said. "With periodization, many people will taper down to 20 or 40 shots. With me, I've learned through the Army drilling and doing something over and over again until it's second nature. Like anything you do in the Army, you do it until you can't. It's just second nature. The Army has taught me that if you think you have it down, you're about halfway there and you just need to keep beating it down to the ground."
Staff Sgt. Keith Sanderson served in the Marine Corps for eight years before joining the Army Reserve. He served for 12 years as an infantryman before he started to compete nationally in shooting events. Sanderson credits the Marines for his ability to shoot; before he joined the Marine Corps, the only thing he shot was a sling.
"WCAP is the ultimate expression of leadership by example that you can have in the Army for both physical fitness and shooting ability, which is the most fundamental skill anyone can have in the Army," Sanderson said.
The techniques used to win gold medals at the Olympics are the same tools Soldiers use when under stress of combat, Sanderson said.
"I'm an infantryman," Sanderson said, "Because [the Olympics is a] competition, the will to fight is very important. In the Olympic Games, it can get kind of stressful and the ability to deal with that stress is critical to be successful. The things you learn to deal with stress in competition are the same ways you deal with stress in combat -- it's the same techniques."
Nunn said his time during basic training has helped him mentally prepare for competition.
"Physically, basic training was very easy for me," Nunn said. "I actually got out of shape going through basic training since I was training at such a higher level. Mentally, I'd never been in a situation where they break you down by being mean and angry and building you up the way they want you to be. After I got out of basic, it really helped with my training. I was already a decent athlete, but racewalking requires so much mentally of you."
Nunn said basic training allowed him to understand the bigger picture of what he was doing and why he was there. Those lessons, he said, are important when it comes to competing on the international stage.
Though their primary goal is to bring home medals, Soldiers with the World Class Athlete Program also make time to give back to the Army. They support recruiting efforts in which they can tell their Army story and inspire athletes to join, and they host wrestling and shooting clinics to make Soldiers more proficient in their warrior tasks.
"People should know we're the same," Byers said. "We learn from everybody around us; I'm truly humbled in the presence of every Soldier.
"The people who are out there doing it every day cast a shadow over anything that I do."
Their mission to win the Olympics makes them unique among Army units. It also means that many of them will come in and out of the program every two or three years. When not training for the Olympics, they maintain proficiency in their primary MOSs and work within the operational Army.
"Every job you can train a Soldier to standard and hold them accountable for failure," Byers said. "There's a handful of jobs where you just have to have it or you don't. How many Soldiers can you pull out of the ranks and say, 'Go get a gold medal'? We can be number one in the nation and bring home world medals."