From front to back, Steve Holcomb, Curt Tomasevicz, Steve Langton, and Army Capt. Chris Fogt climb in to their sled during the United States four-man bobsled team trials in 2013. Holcomb and Vogt are two of the athletes competing in Sochi who have military ties. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
When Team USA arrives in Sochi in the coming days, it will be the largest contingent any nation has ever deployed to the Olympic Winter Games. Make no mistake, the Americans are invading.
Among those in the hunt for precious metal in the mountains of Russia will be a squad of military athletes competing in the downhill speed sports of bobsled and luge.
They include six Army National Guardsmen on active duty with the service’s World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, as well as one veteran — a former WCAPer — who will be defending his Olympic championship title.
Rounding out Team USA’s active-duty contingent are three WCAP coaches for bobsled, luge and skeleton.
Meanwhile, a handful of military family members will take to the ice as well, including the daughter of a retired Army officer hoping to carve out gold in ladies figure skating and twin hockey players who are sisters of an Air Force officer.
Team USA’s 229-strong roster — with 124 men and 105 women — will put athletes in all 15 disciplines, across seven sports. They’ll be vying for as many as 94 medals, U.S. Olympic officials say.
“This distinguished group of athletes represents the largest delegation in the history of the Olympic Winter Games, which is a true testament to the growing number of winter sport opportunities across the United States,” says Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. “With 106 returning Olympians, this year’s team is an exceptional blend of youth and experience and represents the finest our nation has to offer.”
Here are your military Olympians for the 2014 Winter Games:
Competes Feb. 16-23
In the men’s events, Team USA will field two four-man teams as well as three two-man teams. The four-man crews are already set between sleds USA-1 and USA-2, but the two-man teams — drawn from those eight athletes — may not be finalized until as late as a few days before competition begins. The women will field three teams in the doubles event.
Events: Driver, USA-1, four-man and two-man
Hometown: Park City, Utah
The reigning Olympic world champion driver, this 33-year-old former Utah National Guard combat engineer almost had his athletic career cut short even as he found out his military job was KIA. Competing in his first Winter Games in 2006, a degenerative eye disease was already slowly blinding him. While the Army barred him from reenlisting, he was able to get corrective surgery, going on to take gold in the 2010 games in Vancouver. With his eyesight now, as he puts it, “in perfect HD,” his team is a favorite for gold again in Russia.
Capt. Chris Fogt
Hometown: Orange Park, Fla.
Events: Brakeman for USA-1, four-man
A 30-year-old intelligence officer with the Vermont Army National Guard, Fogt deployed to Iraq for a year immediately after his Olympic debut in 2010, where his four-man bobsled crashed on Vancouver’s deadly track. Fogt has made a strong comeback since returning from that tour of duty downrange, earning a record win to garner the U.S. National Push Championship title in 2013.
Sgt. Nick Cunningham
Hometown: Monterey, Calif.
Events: Driver, USA-2, four-man and two-man
This 28-year-old New York Army National Guard combat engineer has moved from the back of the bobsled as a brakeman to the driver’s seat since his first trip to the Olympics in 2010. Growing up in central California, he split his time between surfing and the rodeo. These days, when he’s not training on the ice, you’ll likely find him on horseback working as a ranch hand in upstate New York.
Sgt. Justin Olsen
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Events: Pusher for USA-2
A quarterback in high school, Olsen, 26, had just finished his first year as a tight end at the Air Force Academy when he discovered he had a knack for bobsledding in 2007. Three years later, after enlisting in the New York Army National Guard and joining the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, he was wearing Olympic gold as a member of Holcomb’s crew in the 2010 Winter Games.
Sgt. Dallas Robinson
Hometown: Georgetown, Ky.
Events: Brakeman for USA-2
One of Team USA’s newest bobsledders, this 31-year-old athlete told a reporter five years ago that he would go to the Olympics. He just thought it would be in a different sport.
A football player in high school and a sprinter in college, Robinson ran the 100-meter in 10.33 seconds for Eastern Kentucky University. He was training for a spot on Team USA’s track and field squad in 2008, until he tore a hamstring. He made another stab in rugby but suffered another injury.
His Olympic hopes dashed, he retired from elite-level sports and started working as a coach at Berea College in Kentucky. In 2011, he was recruited directly onto the national bobsledding team after one his students made it onto the team. Now part of the Kentucky Army National Guard, he and Cunningham volunteered to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy hit.
Competes Feb. 6-20
Team USA will take 15 skaters to Sochi. The daughter of a retired Army lieutenant colonel has become the most controversial to make the team.
Event: Ladies figure skating
Hometown: Alexandria, Va.
Ashley Wagner first strapped on a pair of skates in Alaska when she was just 5 years old. Her father, now-retired Lt. Col. Eric Wagner, was serving at Fort Richardson. Now 22, Wagner credits her dad with toughening her up in the face of adversity.
“One thing my Army dad always said was, ‘Don’t be weak,’ ” she told ESPN recently.
With two national championships, Wagner was considered an early favorite for Team USA. But after two falls and a fourth-place finish in the last major qualifying event before the Olympics, her ticket to Sochi was in doubt. She made the team, but not without a storm of controversy.
Now, with “don’t be weak” ringing in her ears, Wagner has made the bold decision to scrap the “Romeo and Juliet”-themed routine that she developed this year.
Juliet is “a soft and almost weak character,” Wagner told USA Today. “I never found a way to turn Juliet into the strong, hard-headed, fierce woman I wanted her to be.”
Instead, she says she’ll skate for Olympic gold with a retooled set built around the story of a much harder-edged character.
“To be able to go back to Delilah, this feisty, strong, powerful woman ... that’s where I’m going to feel the strongest,” Wagner said.
Competes Feb. 8-20
Team USA’s long gold drought in women’s hockey almost broke at the 2010 Winter Games when the ladies struck silver.
With an impressive 21-strong roster that includes a slew of recent college standouts and a seasoned stable of 11 Olympic veterans, this time they say they’re ready to dig deep for the big prize.
The U.S. team won its first and only Olympic gold medal in 1998, when the sport debuted at the Winter Games. The road to gold starts by beating Finland on Feb. 8.
Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux
Hometown: Grand Forks, N.D.
Event: Women’s hockey
If you think you’re seeing double while watching the women’s hockey team at Sochi, you probably are. Beneath those two Lamoureux jerseys are 24-year-old twin sisters Jocelyne and Monique.
Both are going to Russia for their second Olympic tours after winning silver in the 2010 Games.
Growing up with four hard-skating, hockey-playing brothers through the long winters of North Dakota, it’s no surprise the twins can backhand and body check with the best.
They credit one brother in particular with helping them step up their game.
Air Force 1st Lt. Jacques Lamoureux is a contracting officer stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. When he’s not deployed downrange, he’s also a pro player with the Alaska Aces.
“They’re the best ones in our family,” he said of his sisters in 2011, after winning a top athletic award as he prepared to graduate from the Air Force Academy, where he played forward for the Falcons.
“When you have four older brothers who do the same things you do and play the same sports, you can learn a lot of things really quick. If you’re going to play with the boys, you’re not going to get cut any slack. At least that’s the way it was out on the pond behind our house. When we would play, it was ‘either keep up or don’t play.’ They were able to keep up.”
Competes Feb. 8-10
Team USA’s luge squad consists of three men’s singles, three women’s singles and two men’s doubles. Two soldiers — Sgt. Preston Griffall and Sgt. Matt Mortensen — make up one of the doubles teams.
After training together as civilians for three years, they narrowly missed qualifying for the 2010 Winter Games. They wouldn’t speak to each for months afterward.
“I took it so hard. To me, it was the equivalent of someone dying,” Mortensen says. I couldn’t fathom not going. I felt like I let myself down, let my team down, my friends and family. It was a domino effect of misery.”
“I didn’t even want to think about the sport anymore,” says Griffall, who already was an Olympic veteran after competing in the 2006 Winter Games with another double’s teammate. “More than anything I blamed myself.”
Within a few months, however, the pair decided to give it another shot and accepted an offer from the Army’s World Class Athlete Program to train together full time after joining the National Guard.
Four years after their near miss, they found redemption in Park City, Utah, on Dec. 19, with their final qualifying run for the Sochi games.
“It was pure relief,” Mortensen says. “It’s been 16 years in the making for me. To fight for so long, for something you might never achieve, and then get it — it’s indescribable.”
In a sport dominated by the Germans and Italians, the pair know they’re a long shot for a podium berth.
But if they have the best U.S. score in the doubles run, they’ll get another chance to medal competing in a new event, the luge relay, which makes its Olympic debut at Sochi.
The clock starts with a run by each team’s best female luger, followed by the best male, and then anchored with a men’s doubles run for a combined time.
Sgt. Preston Griffall
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Event: Men’s doubles
An avid skier, Griffall first started sailing down mountainsides at 3 years old and enjoys mountain biking in the summer. But it’s luge that still gets his heart pumping.
“Luge is like the most extreme roller coaster you could ever imagine, but lying on your back at speeds in excess of 90 mph and without a seat belt,” says Griffall, now 29 and a human resources specialist with the Utah Army National Guard.
“It’s a huge adrenaline rush. Sometimes you’re hitting five Gs. It’s the Formula One of sliding sports.”
Sgt. Matt Mortensen
Hometown: Huntington Station, N.Y.
Event: Men’s doubles
An electrician with the New York Army National Guard, Mortensen, 28, fulfills his need for speed in the off season riding his Kawasaki Ninja 650R. He also likes to fish. He credits the World Class Athlete Program with his and Griffall’s turnaround in the sport.
“It really allows you to focus on the sport and being better as an athlete,” he says. “I immediately gained 15 pounds in muscle, which I’d been trying to do for years.”