FORT BLISS, Texas (July 16, 2012) — Service members 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.”
OLYMPIAN AND NCO
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.”