Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Taking Recreational Sports to the Limits: Military Athletes Go for Gold

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Taking Recreational Sports to the Limits: Military Athletes Go for Gold

Article excerpt

When you or I go out to play a sport do it for recreation - to relax, to relieve stress, to stay healthy, or to have fun. If you're in the military you play sports for all those reasons as well as to stay fit to fight. In the business of national defense, physical fitness isn't an option; it's a requirement.

But a handful of military members take recreational sports beyond the limits of fitness for military readiness and fun. These soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who go for the gold are the athletes that qualify for the United States Olympic teams. In 1996, out of nearly two million U.S. active duty and reserve component military, 16 athletes and six coaches were selected to participate on United States Olympic teams.

Soldiers have competed in the Olympics as early as 1912, when 1st. Lt. George S. Patton finished fifth in the modern pentathlon at the summer games in Stockholm, Sweden. However, the military's most recent Olympic accomplishments have taken place since 1948, when Congress enacted Public Law 11 which legislated that no outstanding athlete be denied the opportunity to represent the United States in the Olympics and other major international sports events simply because he or she was in military service. PL 11 also stipulated that every qualified individual be given the opportunity to try out for national teams, and if selected, be permitted to compete The athletes who competed in this summer's games join the ranks of more than 500 active duty military personnel who have achieved Olympic status since 1948.

Thirty years later, in 1978, the Army established the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) to assist aspiring Olympians. This MWR activity was allowed under the auspices of the Alexandria, Virginia-based U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center. (The Air Force recently established a similar program.) Serious athletes from all four services progress through service and inter-service competition to levels at which they can compete in national championships, the Pan American Games, the Goodwill Games, and the Olympic Games. As long as they win, maintain their military occupational skills to service standards, and continue their education, military athletes can participate in their chosen sport, and take advantage of the best training facilities and coaching available.

The road is long, sweaty, lonesome, and sometimes painful. Each athlete's story is one of courage, resilience, toughness and determination, a story they share with youth in public appearances at high schools and colleges around the nation. As ambassadors for their services, athletes provide positive role models to peer groups and youth as well as attract young adults to military service.

In an NBC television interview during the Olympics, Army Reservist 1st Lt. Ruthie Bolton, a Mississippi native, talked about how her Army career influenced her life, crediting the service for instilling the discipline she needed to excel. Bolton, a five-foot eight-inch guard on the U.S. women's basketball team, earned the military's only medal - a gold.

U.S. military athletes brought home a medal in 1992 from Barcelona, Spain, as well. There, Army Spc. Rodney Smith earned a bronze medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. Smith was back on the Olympic wrestling team in 1996, together with long-time teammate Staff Sgt. Derrick Waldroup. Smith and Waldroup were included in NBC commentator Dick Engberg's portrait of the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team, an emotionally charged segment that showed Smith tearfully apologizing to his mother for failing to bring home the medal he'd come so far and fought so hard for.

The whole world joined Waldroup's wife and two-year-old son, Derrick II, as Waldroup took off his shoes, covered them with a black bandanna, and walked from the mat, symbolizing his retirement from Greco-Roman wrestling competition after a seventh-place finish. A member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, Waldroup had much to be proud of, even if he didn't have a medal to show for it. …

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