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Speed in winter

Bobsledders, biathlete take military pride and skill to Vancouver Olympics

Feb. 9, 2010 - 02:43PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 9, 2010 - 02:43PM  |  
Sgt. John Napier pumps his fist in victory after a bobsled World Cup race in Lake Placid, N.Y. Napier will drive the USA-2 bobsled at the Winter Olympics.
Sgt. John Napier pumps his fist in victory after a bobsled World Cup race in Lake Placid, N.Y. Napier will drive the USA-2 bobsled at the Winter Olympics. (Lou Reuter / The Associated Press)
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Sgt. Jeremy Teela fires his rifle during the prone section of a men's 10-kilometer biathlon sprint. Teela will compete in his third Olympics. (Scott Sady / Gannett News Service)

Look for them sliding down an icy track at speeds approaching 90 mph, or target shooting with a pulse rate of 180 beats per minute. They are four bobsledders and one biathlete who will represent both their country and the U.S. military at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which start Feb. 12 in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia.

Team USA's five military Olympians are all soldier-athletes who train under the Army's World Class Athlete Program or the Army National Guard Outstanding Athlete Program. Three talked to Military Times about their sports and the upcoming competition.

The bobsledders

In bobsledding also known as "bobsleigh" teams of two or four racers sprint 50 meters while pushing a fiberglass sled, and then jump in. The sled descends on a frozen track, guided by the driver and stopped at the bottom by the brakeman. In four-man races, the two men in the middle are called pushers. Women compete only in teams of two. Olympic medal winners will have the lowest combined times after four heats.

The sport requires extreme focus and precision in lightning-fast conditions. The sprinting power of all team members plays a critical role at the start of a run. Once all team members are in the sled, the burden is on the driver to stay tight in the turns and avoid scraping walls losing even a few hundredths of a second easily spells the difference between winning a medal and going home empty-handed.

Soldiers are driving all three of the men's bobsleds in both the two- and four-man competitions, as well as Team USA's top-seeded sled in the women's races.

Utah Army National Guard Sgt. Shauna Rohbock, a silver medalist in the 2006 Winter Olympics, is driving the women's USA-1 bobsled.

Utah National Guard veteran and former combat engineer Steven Holcomb, from Park City, Utah, will drive the USA-1 sleds in both the two- and four-man races.

Vermont Army National Guard Sgt. John Napier is driving the men's USA-2 bobsleds in both races. Napier's four-man team includes Army 1st Lt. Christopher Fogt also a member of Napier's four-man squad that placed fourth overall in the 2009-10 bobsled World Cup.

Virginia Army National Guard Sgt. Mike Kohn, an Olympic bronze medalist in 2002, is driving the men's USA-3 bobsleds.

The assistant coach of Team USA's men's bobsledders also has a military connection: He is Sgt. Bill Tavares, a five-time Olympian who is serving as men's assistant coach for this year's games.

Tavares has coached all four bobsledders as part of WCAP.

Napier and Fogt talked to Military Times about their sport and their thoughts on the upcoming Olympics:

Q. How were you introduced to bobsledding?

Napier: Both my mother and father were bobsledders it seems it was my fate to bobsled. I started at the age of 8 in a peewee bobsled program out of Lake Placid, N.Y., and have been sliding ever since.

Fogt: I was running track at Utah Valley University. At one of my track meets, I was approached by two World Cup athletes who said they wanted me to come try out for their team. I went and did some testing, sprints, jumps and lifts for them. They gave me a call and told me I was in. We practiced that fall and competed at team trials in Lake Placid.

Q. What's the most fun element of bobsledding?

Napier: I enjoy the rush I get from going 90 mph down an ice track.

Fogt: Competing against all the other countries. It is awesome to hear all the languages and see all the countries' flags at the races. The races are so intense because, as an amateur sport, not many people are making a whole lot of money. They do it because they love the sport and representing their country.

Q. What's the biggest misunderstanding people outside of bobsledding have about the sport?

Napier: Most people do not understand the physical requirements. Three of the guys on my team run under a 10.5 [-second] 100-meter sprint and squat well over 450 pounds. To accelerate the sled at the start, we need to be fast and powerful. The push start is one key element to a successful run.

Fogt: Being a winter sport, a lot of people think we only train for a few months out of the year. Although we don't race or slide in the spring and summer, we are lifting weights, running sprints and pushing on the push track (basically, a bobsled on wheels).

Q. What are the keys to a successful run?

Napier: A skillful driver, fast push athletes and good equipment.

Fogt: As a brakeman, my main focus is on two things a fast push and good riding position. We need to have great timing coming off the starting block. We then have to have a clean load. This can be hard when you have four guys over 200 pounds, wearing shoes with about 350 nail-like spikes on their shoes, trying to fit in a very small space quickly. Once we get in, we have to get as low as we can and stay as still as we can, going over 90 mph, so we don't disrupt the aerodynamics. The other obvious key is the drive down the track, and I leave that to Sgt. Napier.

Q. What are you most looking forward to in Vancouver?

Napier: Competing in the Olympics and for my country has been my dream since the first day I started sliding. Not a day goes by where I do not think about the experience and envy those who have been. I am most looking forward to the opening ceremonies and marching in the parade of nations.

Fogt: I can't really think of one thing I look forward to above another. This is my first Games, so I am excited about the athlete village, watching other events, the opening ceremonies, getting some gear, a chance to medal, representing the Army and WCAP, hearing the national anthem when an American wins basically the whole experience of the Olympic Games.

The biathlete

Biathlon combines precision target shooting and physically demanding cross-country skiing in men's and women's relay, sprint, pursuit, mass start and individual events. Depending on the event, biathletes stop either two or four times to fire their rifles at targets in both prone and standing positions. Whoever completes a course the quickest with the fewest time penalties for missed targets wins.

Seven-time national champion Vermont Army National Guard Sgt. Jeremy Teela will be competing in his third Olympics. He's never won an Olympic medal, but he did win bronze at the Biathlon World Cup event in Whistler in 2009. Here's what he had to say:

Q. How were you introduced to biathlon?

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and raced cross-country skiing. After my coach let me shoot for a week one winter, I was hooked.

Q. What's the most fun element of biathlon?

Trying to shoot with a heart rate of 180 beats per minute.

Q. What's the biggest misunderstanding people outside of biathlon have about the sport?

It's skiing and shooting, people! Not running and swimming.

Q. What is the key to success?


Q. What are you most looking forward to if you qualify for Vancouver?

Getting another chance to prove myself.

Adam Elder is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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