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The High-Flying Soldiers From Sochi

Only the most elite athletes get to compete in the Olympics. Rarer still are the ones who are Soldiers, too. Meet the five warriors who did the Guard proud in the winter games.
Team USA-2, featuring Cunningham, Olsen and Robinson, starts its third run during the men’s four-man bobsled final. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
Team USA-2, featuring Cunningham, Olsen and Robinson, starts its third run during the men’s four-man bobsled final. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
The Soldier-athletes among the 230-strong American delegation entering the opening ceremony experienced a unique sense of pride. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
The Soldier-athletes among the 230-strong American delegation entering the opening ceremony experienced a unique sense of pride. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
Cunningham and Robinson (left) push USA-3 in a third-heat run. For Robinson, being in the World Class Athlete Program has been an honor. “I always wanted to be a Soldier,” he says. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
Robinson (left) and Cunningham push USA-3 in a third-heat run. For Robinson, being in the World Class Athlete Program has been an honor. “I always wanted to be a Soldier,” he says. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
Mortensen (No. 11) and Griffall in a training run at Sochi. The two met when they were teens. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
Mortensen (No. 11) and Griffall in a training run at Sochi. The two met when they were teens. Photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
 

For Sergeant Matt Mortensen, the thrill of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in luge was nearly indescribable. But he did his best to put the experience into words: Minutes before making his entrance with the rest of the American contingent at the opening ceremony in Sochi, Russia, in February, Mortensen tweeted photos of himself, his teammates and the gala, typing “#unbelievable” and “#incredible.” Posting a picture of the fireworks finale, he wrote, “LET THE GAMES BEGIN!!!!”

“We started a bunch of ‘U-S-A!’ chants, and that got the blood going,” he says. “Everyone was cheering, shouting, taking pictures.”

The competition ahead may not have been far from his thoughts, but this was the moment Mortensen was anticipating. “The number one thing I was looking forward to was walking into that stadium as part of Team USA,” he says.

For an athlete, there is no honor like competing in the Olympics. But for Mortensen and four other members of the 230-strong U.S. delegation to the 2014 Winter Games, the sense of pride was compounded: They were representing their country as Soldier-athletes from the National Guard, having trained in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP).

Mortensen (New York National Guard) was joined by luge teammate Sergeant Preston Griffall (Utah Guard) and bobsledders Sergeants Nick Cunningham and Justin Olsen (both New York Guard), and Sergeant Dallas Robinson (Kentucky Guard).

They were coached and mentored by Guard Soldiers as well: Luge coach Staff Sergeant Bill Tavares of the New York National Guard is a former Olympic luger himself (1992), and bobsled coach First Lieutenant Michael Kohn of the Virginia National Guard is a two-time Olympian who won a bronze medal in four-man bobsled in the 2002 games. (A third coach, Sergeant First Class Tuffy Latour of the Vermont National Guard, helped two civilian athletes win medals in skeleton.)

In luge and bobsled, the margin for error coming down the mountain track is infinitesimal, and the Soldiers finished out of the running for medals. The luge doubles team of Mortensen and Griffall placed 14th; Cunningham, Robinson and Olsen (along with teammate Johnny Quinn) finished 12th in four-man bobsled; and Cunningham and Robinson finished 13th in the two-man bobsled.

But the athletes made no excuses, Tavares says. “Every track has corners that are considered tricky,” he says. “That’s part of the sport.” And the results, which certainly don’t diminish their overall achievement, haven’t dampened the Soldiers’ pride, as shown in their reflections below. After all, it’s not every day the world witnesses elite athletes who give so much of themselves to their country on two different levels.

“It just makes all the sacrifice worth it, walking in with the best of the best,” Cunningham says. “That’s why I keep coming back—knowing my name isn’t on my back, only ‘USA.’ ”

 


 

Photo from United States Olympic CommitteeSGT MATTHEW MORTENSEN

1156th Engineer Company

New York Army National Guard

Home: Huntington Station, New York

MOS: 12R Interior Electrician

Age: 28

Pre-Sochi Success:

- Silver medalist, 2013 World Cup team relay, Lake Placid, NY

- Three-time USA Luge Start champion

 

A lifetime climb up the mountain

Mortensen was just 13 years old when he began his luge training in Lake Placid, NY. He’d seen a poster of the sport in his father’s office and was hooked. He met his current teammate, Sergeant Preston Griffall, when they were still in their teens. 

They both joined the National Guard after learning the benefits of WCAP, which provides elite training and job security for Olympic prospects whose high-profile challenges help promote the U.S. military.

“We paired ourselves up,” says Mortensen. 

“By our early twenties, we thought we might make a medal-winning team.”

The tandem’s finish in Sochi “is kind of a fifty-fifty road,” he says. “I’m disappointed in the actual showing, but I’m still satisfied knowing we made it to the games. Things could have always gone worse—we could have crashed or not finished. I’m not one to dwell on it. It’s still a huge accolade to go to the Olympics itself. We fought a long time to get there.”

Now Mortensen, who has his sights set on the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, may have to contend with adjusting to a new teammate: Griffall is considering retirement.

“You just take it all in stride,” Mortensen says. “We’ve all been living together, and we’re good friends. But whenever we get on the sled, it’s business. This is what we do, and we’re good at it.”

 


 

Photo from United States Olympic CommitteeSGT PRESTON GRIFFALL

300th Military Intelligence Brigade

Utah Army National Guard

Home: Salt Lake City, Utah

Age: 29

MOS: 42A Human Resources Specialist

Pre-Sochi Success: Silver medalist, 2013 World Cup team relay, Park City, UT, and Lake Placid, NY

 

 

 

Inner calm at 90 mph

Unlike some of his colleagues, Griffall grew up in a region where winter sports are commonplace: Salt Lake City, UT. When the city won the bid for the 2002 Winter Games, he watched as construction began on the tracks and venues. 

“Before I started, I had no idea what luge was,” Griffall says. But he’d been skiing from the age of 3, and he began ski jumping on the suggestion of a family friend. 

When luge was explained to him as “extreme sledding,” he jumped at the opportunity.

“For a ten-year-old kid, that sounds like the coolest thing you could possibly do,” he recalls.

Two-man luge, which requires the team to lie supine (one atop the other) on a tiny sled steered by subtle pressure of the athletes’ calves or shoulders, is “a very big mental sport,” Griffall explains. “Once you’re lying down on the sled, it becomes less physical. People within our sport always say luge is ninety percent mental. 

You’re screaming down a frozen slide at ninety miles per hour, and you have to keep as calm as possible.”

It could be some time before he comes to a decision whether or not to pursue another run at the Olympics. “Since I was fourteen, I’ve pretty much been on the same schedule, racing internationally,” Griffall says. “I’d like to see what the rest of the world holds for me.”

 


 

Photo from United States Olympic CommitteeSGT JUSTIN OLSEN

Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, Joint Force Headquarters 

New York Army National Guard

Home: San Antonio, Texas

Age: 27

MOS: 42A Human Resources Specialist

Pre-Sochi Success: Gold medalist, 2010 Winter Olympics

 

 

 

An endless push for perfection

Olsen was still a relative newcomer to the sport of bobsledding when he won a gold medal as part of Steven Holcomb’s four-man team at the 2010 Winter Games. “Winning at Vancouver happened so fast, I’m still trying to digest it,” he says.

The team stayed on a hot streak, medaling each of the next three years (including one gold) in the World Championships. “We were at the podium every year at the big race,” says Olsen. “You get it in your mindset—this is what we’re about, kicking tail all season. Even if it was a rocky season, we always put it together for the big race.”

As a result, the team’s showing in Sochi has given Olsen only more fuel to fire his training for the next “quad”—the four years leading up to the next Winter Games.

“I had every intention of going into Russia and bringing home some hardware,” he says. “I’m upset that didn’t happen, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to represent my country at the Olympic Games.”

Unlike luge, which requires core and upper-body strength for a pull start, bobsledders focus on the lower body for a combination of strength and explosive sprinters’ power, explains Olsen. “Just because you can bench five hundred pounds doesn’t mean you can push a bobsled.” 

He started training for next season not long after the Olympics. Beginning with high-volume strength training, eventually he’ll decrease the volume to increase his power: “I might be running sprints in the snow,” he says.

For all the training, bobsled can be unforgiving, with tiny mistakes creating disproportionate disparity. With 4 miles of track and 68 curves spread over four heats, Olsen says, “there are hundreds of opportunities to have one mistake. It’s insane when people come out and they’re perfect.”

Which makes him only more determined to achieve it.

 


 

Photo from United States Olympic CommitteeSGT NICK CUNNINGHAM

1156th Engineer Company

New York Army National Guard

Home: Monterey, California

Age: 28

MOS: 12W Carpentry and Masonry Specialist

Pre-Sochi Success:

- Gold medalist in four-man and two-man bobsled, 2009 America’s Cup, Lake Placid, NY

- Team member, 2010 Winter Olympics 

 

Fast times in the driver’s seat

“At the end of the day, we’re there for a job, and that’s to win medals,” Cunningham says. “It makes me hungrier for when I go to the games in 2018.”

Cunningham, the four-man Team USA bobsled driver, also piloted a two-man team in Sochi with Sergeant Dallas Robinson. Though they finished 13th, one spot behind another U.S. tandem, Cunningham was excited for fellow driver Steven Holcomb, whose bronze medal broke a 62-year drought for U.S. teams in the two-man bobsled.

“It was great to have Holcomb there, so we could work with each other,” says Cunningham.

Four-man bobsled presents more variables than two-man, according to Cunningham. Behind the driver, the push athletes and the brakeman are almost competing against one another as they’re working together, he explains. 

“It’s a very unique position in that it’s every man for himself, yet it’s teamwork. It’s almost like the TV show ‘Survivor,’ ” he says. “The only clear spot on the sled is mine. Everyone else is trying to figure all the spots out.”

A former track and football standout, Cunningham assumed the driver’s seat after helping push his current coach, First Lieutenant Michael Kohn, to two gold medals on the America’s Cup tour. As a sprinter, Cunningham was easily convinced to try bobsledding when his parents half-jokingly suggested the sport could be his path to the Olympics.

“My mom said to imagine the road we were driving on as a bobsled track,” he recalls. When Kohn first suggested the World Class Athlete Program, “I said, ‘Oh, this has to be too good to be true.’ Less than a month later, I’m getting shipped off to Basic Training. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.”

 


 

Photo from United States Olympic CommitteeSGT DALLAS ROBINSON

2123rd Transportation Company

Kentucky Army National Guard

Home: Georgetown, Kentucky

Age: 32

MOS: 88M Senior Vehicle Operator

Pre-Sochi Success: Gold medalist, two-man bobsled, 2011 America’s Cup, Lake Placid, NY

 

 

 

Savoring every moment

Of the Guard bobsledders, Robinson is the only one whose Olympic experience will likely begin and end with the 2014 games. He has a farm in Kentucky, and he and his wife, an occupational therapist, would like to start a family.

“We have one crack at this—one life,” Robinson says. “My faith in family and country are all really important to me.”

As a result, he thinks he might have been “even a little more wide-eyed and willing to absorb and experience everything” at the Olympic ceremonies in Sochi. “I took so many pictures and videos. I know it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

He’ll remember his first time on a sled, too. After urging a Berea College runner he had coached to pursue bobsled, Robinson let the athlete recruit him to Park City, UT. He couldn’t deny his competitive spirit—after missing the cut in the 100-meter dash for the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to injury, he’d made the U.S. national rugby team with just a few months of training.

His first bobsled run, he recalls with a laugh, was “cold, violent and not enjoyable. I was wearing a pair of gardening gloves and an XXL helmet, and I usually wear a medium.”

But when his coach, First Lieutenant Michael Kohn, “kept bugging” him to stick with the sport, he agreed. It was the prospect of joining WCAP that sealed the deal.

“I always wanted to be a Soldier,” Robinson says.

“It’s been an honor,” he continues. “If I had it to do again, I’d do everything the same way.”

Now, though, it might be time to move on. “There’s probably another Soldier-athlete out there as good as me,” he says, “who’s eagerly awaiting the chance to represent the U.S.”

 


 

HOW THEY BUILT SPEED AND POWER

Though they’re both sliding sports, luge and bobsled require very different sets of muscles for success. Lugers, who lie on their backs on the sled, need exceptional core and upper-body strength to pull the sled off the start. One rule of thumb claims that a 0.01-second advantage at the start of a race will multiply into a 0.03-second advantage by the finish—a considerable figure in one of the few Olympic events timed to the millisecond.

Luge athletes typically combine plyometric training and medicine ball drills with upper-body-specific lifts such as lat pull-downs, prone rows, bicep curls, dumbbell flyes and tricep extensions, to name a few. “Our main focus is the upper body,” Sergeant Matt Mortensen says. “We want to have an explosive start.”

By contrast, bobsled teams start their races by pushing their sled at high speed before jumping in. They sprint about 50 meters, until just before the first turn. That emphasis on explosive pushing power made Sergeant Dallas Robinson—an accomplished sprinter who might have run the 100 meters in the 2008 Olympics were it not for a hamstring injury—an ideal candidate to be an elite “push” athlete on a bobsled team. 

A typical workout for the bobsledders includes squats, jump squats, box jumps, lunges and similar lower-body exercises. An example fitness regimen would start on Monday and might feature the heavier lifts, such as squats and lunges; Wednesdays would focus on jumps and cleans, for maximizing the athlete’s explosive power. Later in the week, the teams focus on racing.

The bottom line: “If you’re an All-American sprinter and you have some size about you,” Robinson says, “you could probably be a successful bobsledder.”

 

JOIN WCAP

To learn how to apply to WCAP, visit TheArmyWCAP.com/apply