The U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program enables enlisted soldiers to also pursue their Olympic dreams.
But, although this recruitment effort ran through the 1980s and 1990s, it wasn’t totally true, not for our soldiers—regular, reserve, or National Guard—who were additionally gifted in athletics and harbored Olympic dreams. So how could an elite soldier-athlete somehow manage to be the best at both and represent on both levels while not sacrifice something along the way?
That solution was realized in 1997 when the Army established the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), providing all soldiers an opportunity to train and participate in the Olympic and Paralympic games while, of course, upholding their status as soldiers first.
“With great leadership, you never forget you’re a soldier first,” says Charles Leverette, aka Coach Lev, who hones his boxers at Colorado Springs–based Triple Threat Gym following a career in the Army from 1986 to 2001. He was also the U.S. Olympic team assistant coach in 2012. “We have a great organization with great support.”
Leverette knows both sides. When he was an up-and-coming boxer, the WCAP was still a decade from coming into existence. Then, he witnessed firsthand the start of a new era. “When that support channel opened up, and the Army chose to make it into a unit to give athletes who were already top tier the opportunity to actually compete and train on a full-time basis, that’s when the floodgates opened,” Leverette says. “That’s why we’ve had so many soldier-athletes compete internationally and at the Olympic Games.”
By the latest count, some 500 Army soldiers have represented our country at the Olympic and Paralympic games, and more are on the way to the upcoming summer games in Tokyo, still slated for July after the coronavirus pandemic delayed competition for the past year.
Unknown Program Helps Prolong Careers, Service
Even with all the success WCAP has provided, many who have benefitted from the program had no idea it even existed before fate stepped in.
SFC Elizabeth Marks entered the Army as a combat medic, but in 2010, she suffered crippling injuries to her hips in Iraq. During a long recovery, those injuries led to other serious health issues that ultimately led to the amputation of her left leg below the knee. She spent much of her time in the pool at the Warrior Transition Battalion Rehabilitation Clinic in San Antonio when a bug was put in her ear.
By 2012, she was accepted into WCAP as a freestyle swimmer while continuing her Army service. She later earned gold and bronze medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games. “I was not personally aware of the program until we had a liaison come to San Antonio while I was rehabbing,” says Marks, who lives at Fort Carson and remains on the national team. “For me, it was fortunate that I fell in love with swimming. I was very encouraged to achieve for the program I didn’t know existed. I am incredibly grateful to be a part of WCAP and honored to serve under the leaders we have.”
SSG Nickolaus Mowrer took a much different path to WCAP. An accomplished college shooter, he earned a spot on the national team in 2012 after three years as a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center (OTC). He joined the Army following the London games, but he still longed to finish what he started on the range while being pulled to serve his country.
Then he found out about WCAP. “If it wasn’t for WCAP, I wouldn’t be competing anymore,” says Mowrer, who will compete in the 10-meter air pistol event at the upcoming summer games. “Joining the Army was a big deal, but I was a little disheartened because I wanted to do better as a competitor. About two years into my Army career, I really wanted to give competitive shooting one more go and found out about WCAP. What an amazing opportunity and an amazing group of people. Honestly, it’s everything I liked about being a resident athlete at the OTC and being a soldier at the same time.”
Remember, all members of WCAP are counted on for service first and athletic endeavors second.
“We call them soldier-athletes, and they truly are soldiers first,” says 1SG Franklin Pipes, the WCAP first sergeant. “They are not someone off the street who wears a uniform and goes and runs a 5K in less than 15 minutes. They go to basic training, they get trained in a skill, they serve in traditional units within the Army before and after their careers in WCAP. It shows the multidimensional aspect of these soldiers. They are the best of what our nation has to offer.”
Just like the old motto, these Army soldiers really are all they can be.