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All about the Army’s Athlete Program sending a marathoner to the Olympics

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Korir Army marathon runner
Staff Sgt. Leonard Korir, a Soldier-Athlete with the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, smiles before the start of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 3 in Orlando, Florida. Korir won the bronze medal with a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 57 seconds, but will have to wait and find out if he made the U.S. Olympic team. (Photo by Maj. Nathaniel Garcia/U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program)

At the Olympic Marathon trials in Orlando on February 3, an Army staff sergeant surged from several places back to win third place with a sizzling time of 2:09:57, all but guaranteeing him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. He was followed to the finish by an Army captain, positioned to be the team’s alternate.

Staff Sgt. Leonard Korir and Capt. Elkanah Kibet are not typical Soldiers: they’re members of the Army’s World-Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, an enterprise begun in 1997 and headquartered at Fort Carson, Colorado that allows Soldiers to train like professionals and compete at the international level, all while staying current on Army training and readiness standards. It’s a promotional program for the Army as WCAP members typically compete in distinctive service-branded gear; it’s also a recruitment arm, as the athlete-soldiers have to participate in various outreach events.

With Korir’s almost-certain place in the Paris 2024 Olympics – the first WCAP athlete to make the U.S. Olympic marathon team since Dan Browne in 2004 – the program is poised to get a special influx of attention this year. (Korir’s place is not guaranteed due to complicated time-qualifying rules, but experts believe his finish coupled with his standing in world ranking will be enough to punch his ticket to Paris.)

Staff Sgt. Leonard Korir, a Soldier-Athlete with the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, wraps himself with the American flag after the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. (Photo by Nathaniel Garcia/U.S. Army)

Korir, who was born in Iten, Kenya, and became a runner in high school, enlisted in the Army in 2015 as a Motor Transport Operator. He wasted no time, though, in proving his value to the WCAP. After graduating basic training, he qualified for the 2016 Olympics in the 10,000-meter track event, becoming one of nine athletes the Army sent to the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro that year.

He dedicated his February finish to his Army leaders, who he said never stopped believing in him, even after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the last Olympic marathon trials, ahead for the 2020/2021 games.

“They told me ‘Don’t worry about it,'” Korir said, “You will make the next one.”

@nbcsports

Leonard Korir dedicates his third place finish in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials to everyone serving in the Army. #marathon #running #leonardkorir #marathontrials24

♬ original sound – NBC Sports

Kibet, a Kenyan-born financial management technician who joined the Army in 2013, set an American Master’s record at the Olympic marathon trials with his fourth-place finish at the age of 40. Kibet has even deployed in his Army role, shipping to Iraq and Kuwait as part of a financial management support unit while continuing to train on bases there.

Despite the disappointment of finishing fourth, Kibet was in good spirits in a post-race interview.

“It’s OK,” he said in an interview after the race. “I’m very proud of this country that’s given me the opportunity.

While Track and Field events perhaps generate the most Olympics buzz, WCAP trains and sends athletes from a wide range of disciplines. Thirteen WCAP athletes went to the last summer games, including three in Modern Pentathlon, two in Greco-Roman Wrestling, and five in Olympic and Paralympic Shooting. Two Soldiers took home medals: 1st Lt. Amber English won the gold in Skeet Shooting, while Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Marks took gold, silver, and bronze in Paralympic Swimming events.

If you’re interested in joining WCAP, there are a few things you should know. First, you must already be ready to compete at the international level to be accepted to the program; the Army doesn’t promise to make you a world-class athlete the way it promises to make you a Soldier. “We take only the very best,” WCAP says on its website.

Taekwondo Soldier-athletes, Sgt. David Kim, and Spc. Juancarlos Norzagaray, demonstrate their sport to educators visiting from Tucson, Arizona, at the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, April 28, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Hunnisett)

Second, being an Army athlete may limit other sponsorship opportunities. Paul Chelimo, one of the most successful WCAP athletes, earned his U.S. citizenship through the now-defunct Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, getting a water treatment specialist military occupational specialty before joining WCAP in 2014. He earned the Olympic silver medal in the 5,000-meter track event in 2016, but left the Army in 2018 to sign with sponsors Total Sports and Nike. 

In a moving letter posted to his personal website, Chelimo describes what his Army training and experience had meant to him.

In this file photo, Spc. Paul Chelimo, left, wins the Army Ten-Miler, Oct. 11, 2015, with a time of 48:19, less than a step ahead of his teammate Spc. Nicholas Kipruto. Chelimo took first-place in an indoor 3,000-meter race in Portland, Jan. 22, 2016, with a finish of 7:44.68, the fastest 3K this year worldwide. (Photo by David Vergun)

“Feels like it was yesterday, however, it was May 14, 2014 when I shipped off for Basic Training. I thought I was already ‘tough’ and mentally ready but man was I wrong,” Chelimo wrote. “Boot camp, formally known as Basic Combat Training (BCT) evolved me as much as an individual as an athlete. From 3:00 wake-up calls to 22:00 bedtime, A LOT of my mental tenacity is directly credited to BCT.”

The four-and-a-half years Chelimo spent in the Army, he said, represented “all of my dreams coming true.”

“The Army taught me so much more than just being physically and mentally tough,” he wrote. “From patriotism and self-sacrifice, I learned the ability of seeing [sic] my brothers and those around me succeed was just as important.”

Since 1948, according to WCAP, 446 soldiers have gone to the Olympics, bringing home 111 medals for the United States.

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Hope Seck

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter who has been covering military issues since 2009. She is the former managing editor for Military.com.

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