Families, Friends Support Military Olympians
By Gary Sheftick
Army News Service
LONDON, Aug. 14, 2012 U.S. military athletes at the London 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony the night of Aug. 12 had more than just fans cheering them on throughout the games.
Zurriana Lester, 2, waves a U.S. flag to cheer on her father, Army World Class Athlete Program's Spc. Justin Lester, as he competes in Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling at ExCel Centre in London, Aug. 7, 2012. Her mother, Staci Lester, holds Zurriana, and to her left is Al McIntosh, who coached Lester in wrestling when he was 10 years old in Akron, Ohio. U.S. Army photo by Gary Sheftick
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Service members competing in London had a support network of family members and fellow soldiers who came to help them train and to provide motivation.
U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program wrestler Spc. Justin Lester had his wife, daughter, parents and more than a dozen friends and family members from Akron, Ohio, here to see him compete in the Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling tournament. The group -- all wearing the same London 2012 T-shirts emblazoned with Lester’s name -- included two of his former wrestling coaches and three teammates from his high school wrestling squad.
The Akron community raised about $26,000 so the Lester family could travel to London and see him compete. Cradle Gear made a substantial donation, family members said, and so did an 82nd Airborne Division veteran, who donated $3,000.
Lester stopped in Akron to visit family and friends before coming here for the Olympics. The mayor declared June 30 as Justin Lester Day, and the Akron Bible Church held a community day attended by many, including the president of the city council. Lester also participated in a free wrestling clinic that day for youth in Akron.
“The whole community got behind us and supported us, and we are so grateful,” said Lester’s sister, Kenya Young.
Brad Sanderson was one of three of Lester’s former high school wrestling teammates who came to the Olympics to support him. “He was an inspiration to our team,” Sanderson said of their high school days.
Al McIntosh, a former wrestling coach at Cuyanoga Valley Christian Academy, provided Lester wrestling pointers when the athlete was only 10 years old. Young Lester would come to high school wrestling practice with his older brother, Damian.
“I saw his talent then,” McIntosh said while sitting in the bleachers at London’s ExCel Centre before Lester’s match against Germany's Frank Staebler.
The academy’s current head coach, Dave Bergen, was also at the arena to cheer on his former wrestler.
“I’m going to think of this as a huge positive,” Bergen said of Lester’s wrestling after he lost to Staebler in the repechage wrestle-back and finished the tournament in eighth place. Bergen said only 15 wrestlers worldwide, at most, are of Lester’s caliber in the 66-kilogram weight class, which is 145.5 pounds. He said just making it to the Olympics is a major achievement.
The wrestler’s father, Fred B. Lester, agreed, and added that he is proud of his son just making it to the Olympics. He has followed Justin to tournaments all over the world, including one in Azerbaijan, where Lester earned a bronze medal. Despite failing to make it to the bronze-medal match in London, Fred said, the family is going to tour the city and celebrate.
The family got to see the London Bridge, Jubilee Bridge and the Tower of London, among other sites.
“All day long we’re walking the streets, and there’s so much to see,” said the wrestler’s sister, Sandra Lester. “My camera’s all full. This is so amazing.”
Lester’s wife, Staci, and 2-year-old daughter, Zurriana, were also in London. At the ExCel Centre, Staci held young Zurriana, who enthusiastically waved an American flag in the grandstands while her father wrestled on the mat.
Lester is a three-time U.S. national champion and a six-time U.S. World Team member. He made the decision two years ago to join the military and the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
Lester’s mother, Verleane, said it was a good decision because the Army has helped her son. “It helped him a lot with his training and his diet,” she said. “I think it was a good choice.”
Some of Lester’s WCAP teammates also were in London to help him and fellow wrestlers. WCAP heavyweight wrestler Spc. Timothy Taylor was there as an alternate Olympian. When he was not helping to train the three Army wrestlers who were competing in the games, he was out touring the city.
“Everybody’s super friendly here,” Taylor said. “The history is cool. We walked into one pub that said: ‘Last remodeled in 1767.’”
Taylor, however, said the language is sometimes difficult to understand in London.
“Everybody’s talking English, but you can barely understand what they’re saying,” Taylor said. “The slang is all different.”
In addition, 1st Sgt. Terrence Burkett of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson, Colo., was in London to watch his wrestlers compete.
“It’s been quite an experience,” Burkett said, even though none of his WCAP athletes earned an Olympic medal. The only soldier to win a medal in the 2012 games was Sgt. Vincent Hancock of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, who took the gold in skeet shooting and set two Olympic records in the process.
Army family member Jamie Gray, wife of Staff Sgt. Hank Gray, won an Olympic gold medal in the women’s 50-meter 3-positions rifle event Aug. 4 at the Royal Artillery Barracks.
Air Force family member Janay DeLoach also won a bronze medal in the women’s long jump Aug. 8 at Olympic Stadium. Her father, retired Chief Master Sgt. William DeLoach, now a contract employee at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., was at the stadium to see her compete.
“My dad’s here with me, cheering me on,” DeLoach said. “He’s been there the whole way through. … He’s always supported me in all my endeavors.”
While in London for the past two weeks, Staff Sgt. John Nunn did more than prepare for the Olympic 50-kilometer race walk on Aug. 11. His mother and daughter Ella, 8, joined him in London, and together they toured historic sites in the city. They also watched the musical “War Horse” together in downtown London.
Nunn appeared on a segment of the NBC “Today” show early in the Olympics to show hosts of the show -- and the American public -- how to race walk. He also cheered on other American athletes in venues including basketball, gymnastics and swimming, along with the first night of track and field.
“Friendship through sports,” is the spirit of the Olympic Games said Team USA assistant wrestling coach and retired Army Staff Sgt. Shon Lewis. He said interacting with other athletes on and off the mat is all part of that Olympic spirit.
The spirit of the games is something that excites WCAP athlete Spc. Dennis Bowsher, who competed in the modern pentathlon Aug. 11.
Bowsher said he was exhausted after the five sports in one day of the pentathlon, but that he would walk in the Olympic closing ceremony, even if it was that night instead of the next.
“I’d still go and have a blast,” Bowsher said. “It’s the spirit of the Olympic Games.”
His father, John Bowsher, his sister, Devon, and his niece came to London to see him perform. His father works for Hilton, who provided some assistance for the trip, and the athlete lauded that because he said it’s often difficult for family members to travel to international events. The Olympics were the first time his father and sister have seen him in an international competition, Bowsher said.
“To have them see me for the first time internationally on the big stage was something,” he added.