U.S. Military Athletes Leave Marks on London Olympics
By Tim Hipps
Army Installation Management Command
LONDON, Aug. 22, 2012 More than 20 U.S. military athletes, coaches, training partners, family members and support personnel served as sports ambassadors to the world during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
From Olympic Stadium to the Royal Artillery Barracks shooting halls and ranges, to the boxing rings, wrestling mats and fencing strips at London’s ExCel Centre and Copper Box, to the waters of the Olympic Aquatics Centre, to the equestrian course at Greenwich Park, to The Mall and Buckingham Palace, soldiers helped fellow world-class athletes inspire generations.
“For the thousands of athletes participating at London 2012, the Games represent the culmination of years of dedication, sacrifice and training,” said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, during the opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium on July 27.
“For many competitors, London 2012 will be the highlight of their sporting careers. Some will of course reach the podium and set records along the way. But win or lose, it will be those athletes who compete in a spirit of excellence, friendship and respect that will be an example for us all.”
For most of the next 16 days, soldiers marched alongside, competed with and against, and even slept, ate and drank around the world’s greatest athletes in their respective sports. They unquestionably inspired more than one generation.
Army Sgt. Vincent Hancock established himself as a shotgun shooter for the ages by becoming the first Olympic champion in men’s skeet to repeat as gold medalist.
Along the way, Hancock, 23, a U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit soldier from Eatonton, Ga., eclipsed his own Olympic records in qualification (123) and final (148) scores, marks he established at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He struck gold in China with a qualification score of 121 and total of 145.
Four-time Olympic shotgun shooter and Team USA shotgun coach Todd Graves, a former USAMU competitor, said nothing is beyond the realm of possibility for Hancock.
“That’s the greatest thing in the world – two in a row,” Graves said. “He shot lights out, seriously, lights out. I told him out there when I hugged him that he’s the best I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot.
“I don’t believe that’s going to be his last one,” Graves added with a wink and a sly grin. “I really don’t think that’s going to be his last one.”
Another member of the Army family, Jamie Gray, won an Olympic gold medal in women’s 50-meter rifle 3-positions shooting on Aug. 4 at the Royal Artillery Barracks.
Jamie, 28, the wife of USAMU shooter Sgt. 1st Class Hank Gray, of Phenix City, Ala., set Olympic records in qualification (592) and final (691.9) scores in the event that includes shooting from prone, standing and kneeling positions.
“I just took great shots,” she said. “Every shot was a good shot.”
Gray also finished fifth in the women’s 10-meter air rifle, the first gold-medal event of the London 2012 Olympic Games, on July 28.
It was not all about the Army. Janay DeLoach, daughter of retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. William DeLoach, won a bronze medal in the women’s long jump with a leap of 6.89 meters on Aug. 9 at Olympic Stadium.
“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.”
Air Force Reserve Capt. Seth Kelsey just missed two chances at winning an Olympic medal in men’s epee individual fencing. Kelsey lost his semifinal bout in sudden-death overtime, 6-5, to the fencer who went on to win the gold medal, Venezuela’s Ruben Limardo Gascon. Then he dropped another sudden-death decision in the bronze-medal match to Korea’s Jinsun Jung, 12-11.
Kelsey’s fourth-place finish in the event was one of Team USA’s best since Navy officer George Kalnan struck bronze in epee at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program fencer Sgt. Cody Nagengast was in London serving as Kelsey’s training partner.
Some tie to U.S. military athletics seemed to appear everywhere in London. One even looped around Team USA men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who led a group of NBA stars to another gold medal. It likely was the final game as national coach for “Coach K,” known for leading Duke University to four NCAA Championships.
Krzyzewski’s coaching roots are planted at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he coached from 1975 until 1980, after playing from 1966 to 1969 for legendary coach Bob Knight. Krzyzewski also served in the Army from 1970 until 1974. With his team's London performance, Krzyzewski joined Henry Iba (1964, 1968) as the only coaches to lead Team USA to basketball gold medals in consecutive Olympics.
Returning to active-duty soldier-Olympians, about half of Team USA’s shooting squadron is provided by the Army. This included head rifle coach Maj. David Johnson, a four-time Olympian from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. Johnson said he prefers working with a mix of military and civilian shooters at international competitions.
“I used to compete as an athlete, and I’m a very competitive guy,” Johnson said. “I compete vicariously through them, I guess, but I don’t like losing. We can do well and I think we should do well. My job is to do everything I can to help make that happen. … For me, it’s not fun and games here. There has been a tremendous amount of work for the past four years and you try to build on that momentum and execute here.
“The support [of USA Shooting] at Fort Benning is critical to the sport. We have Soldiers assigned there who get a chance to go after medals, and that’s critical for the sport. I’m a believer as a coach in mixing the civilians and military together because everybody gets stronger.”
For Team USA’s 20 starts in the London Games' shooting events, a Soldier stepped to the line 13 times.
USAMU’[s Sgt. Michael McPhail and Sgt. 1st Class Eric Uptagrafft finished ninth and 14th, respectively, in men’s 50-meter prone rifle. Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson of WCAP was 14th in men’s 25-meter rapid-fire pistol. USAMU’s Sgt. 1st Class Josh Richmond and four-time Olympian Sgt. Glenn Eller were 16th and 22nd, respectively, in men’s double trap.
Four-time Olympian Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker finished 30th in the men’s 3-positions rifle event in what likely will be his final Olympics as a competitor. T%he same is true for WCAP’s Sgt. 1st Class Daryl Szarenski, a four-time Olympian who finished 28th in the 50-meter free pistol event and 23rd in 10-meter air pistol before retiring from the Army.
“I worked really hard for this one, and I had much higher expectations,” Szarenski said. “It didn’t work out. I’m going sailing.”
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sandra Uptagrafft, wife of Eric Uptagrafft, finished 28th in both the women’s 25-meter sport pistol and the 10-meter air pistol at the Royal Artillery Barracks.
The Marine Corps supplied the only military men’s boxer on Team USA for the London Games, the first Olympics in which the United States has competed without winning a men’s boxing medal. Sgt. Jamel Herring lost 19-9 to Kazakhstan’s Daniyar Yeleussinov in the first round of light-welterweight competition at the ExCel Centre on July 31.
Although the U.S. men’s boxers left England with no medals, the U.S. women medaled in two of the three weight classes as women’s boxing made its Olympic debut in London.
Under the tutelage of Team USA and former WCAP head boxing coach Basheer Abdullah, WCAP coach Sgt. 1st Class Charles Leverette and trainer Sgt. Joseph Guzman helped to lead 17-year-old Claressa Shields of Flint, Mich., to the first Olympic women’s middleweight boxing gold medal. They also worked with Houston’s Marlen Esparza, who took the inaugural Olympic bronze in the women’s flyweight division.
“Being around all the coaches, they work together as a team,” Shields said. “One coach might have an idea, and then they give each other ideas and then just put it together to come up with one. Coach Lev just stayed on me to stay focused. He made sure that I stayed out of trouble and he made sure that I always stayed calm.
“He doesn’t even call me by my first name,” she continued. “He calls me ‘Baby Girl.’ When we worked in the gym, he was always working with me on the bag, saying, ‘Show me something spectacular.’ And I was just ripping on the bag.
“I’ve been to three training camps with coach Basheer Abdullah, and I learned a lot each time,” she added. “Coach Guzman, he doesn’t say much. He’s like a quiet storm, but he knows what we’re talking about. He had me ripping to the body and coming up to the head. He made sure that I was stepping around and keeping my hands up. Coach Guz is a real cool guy. As a matter of fact, all of them made me laugh a lot.”
Much like the USAMU in shooting, WCAP provided three of Team USA’s seven Greco-Roman wrestlers in London. Spc. Justin Lester (1-2) finished eighth in the 66-kilogram division, and Sgt. Spenser Mango (1-2) finished ninth at 55 kilograms, as did Sgt. 1st Class Dremiel Byers (1-1) at 120 kilos. WCAP’s Spc. Aaron Sieracki also was in London serving as Lester’s training partner.
“Man, the whole three days, it was just a tough tournament,” said retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Shon Lewis, who leads the WCAP wrestling squad and was one of Team USA’s Greco-Roman coaches in London. “There were 20-man brackets with 20 countries, and I think 16 countries are going to leave with medals, so that lets you know how deep it is and how tough it is.
“We were just a step behind and just couldn’t get our rhythm,” he continued. “Mango, Byers and Lester all got past their first match, but then in the second one, it just seemed like we couldn’t find our timing, we couldn’t get our groove, and we just got beat. It’s the Olympics, though. You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game.”
Lester said he’ll still take something from the Olympic experience.
“Just being in this atmosphere,” he said. “Being around 10,000 other athletes that have the same goal as you: they want to be a gold medalist. The experience is something you’ll never get anywhere else.”
WCAP’s Sgt. 1st Class John Nunn finished 43rd in the men’s 50-kilometer race walk with a personal-best time of 4 hours, 3 minutes and 28 seconds. He also made an appearance on NBC’s “Today” program, which broadcasting from London.
Nunn, 34, of Evansville, Ind., taught television personalities Al Roker, Matt Lauer and Ryan Seacrest, among others, the basics of racewalking. Byers also appeared on “Today” and let the broadcasters feel the power of an Olympic Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler.
WCAP’s Spc. Dennis Bowsher concluded the soldiers’ competitions with a 34th-place finish out of 36 competitors in men’s modern pentathlon, a one-day test of fencing, swimming, equestrian show jumping, and cross-country running combined with laser-pistol shooting on Aug. 11.
“I didn’t win a medal today, but I was here to at least have a chance at a medal,” said Bowsher, 29, a Dallas native stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. “Only 36 people in the world can say that.”