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Distance Running Propels West Point Cadet Toward Military Leadership

By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29, 2006 – Nineteen-year-old Roxanne Wegman could have written her ticket to any big-name college she wanted. Instead, she chose to pursue a far more difficult path: to compete for a coveted slot at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

She gave up a chance at college athletic stardom for the arduous course of scholarship, physical training and emotionally draining schedule West Point demands and for the minimum five-year active-duty Army commitment that follows graduation.

The Bethlehem Central High School grad from Delmar, N.Y., was a National Honor Society member and a National Latin Exam gold medalist; she also held 10 varsity letters in cross-country and track. She won a gold medal at the elite Empire State Games in the 10,000-meter run and was invited to the even more prestigious Nike Team Nationals, all before finishing high school.

But, she said, a desire to serve her country led her to West Point. “It’s my turn,” Wegman said. “I feel an obligation to serve, to use the gift God gave me.”

As a second-year student at West Point, or a “Yuk” as she and her fellow sophomores are called, Wegman led her team to a fourth-place finish at the Eastern College Athletic Conference Championships earlier this month in New York’s Van Cortland Park. Wegman finished ninth overall on the brutally hilly 5-kilometer course, cracking the 19-minute mark by two seconds. It was the fourth time this season she led her Army Black Knights to the finish tape.

She said the good showing helped her put the disappointment of her first year -- when a stress fracture in her foot sidelined her for much of the cross-country season -- behind her.

Wegman said she didn’t set out to be a runner. “I thought I was going to be a cyclist,” she said, like one of her idols, Lance Armstrong. But then she encountered the “middle school mile” in the 7th grade. She saw fellow classmates competing and thought, “Hey, they couldn’t run a mile a year ago.”

Soon Wegman was throwing herself into running with a passion that has endured since. “You have to work every day,” said Wegman, who claims to have no natural talent for running. “Hard work over time will beat talent or cause talent to rise to a higher level.”

“Train hard, win easy” is one of Wegman’s mottos. “Control the pace, control the race, destroy your opponents’ will to win,” she said.

The will to win is just a small part of a cadet’s life at West Point. Star varsity athlete or not, she’s still expected to be in breakfast formation at 6:55 a.m., attend five hours of morning classes, report for lunch formation, then attend another three hours of classes.

After all that, Wegman reports for practice, which means 10 to 12 miles of running. That could involve multiple 1-mile repeats at gut-churning race pace or 16 quarter-mile repeats run so fast her body can no longer absorb oxygen and dumps painful lactic acid into her muscles.

It’s excruciating work, but it makes runners faster. As if that’s not enough, Wegman wakes at 5:30 a.m. to get in a quick five miles before the regular training and academic day begins. On top of an academic schedule that often includes studying until midnight, the sophomore cranks out 80 miles a week. “It’s hard to stay awake,” she said. “We have so many demands on us here.”

Wegman said she remembers seeing former track star Emily Perez during a recruiting visit to the West Point campus. Second Lt. Perez would become the first female USMA graduate to die in combat when a roadside bomb exploded near her vehicle Sept. 12 in Kifl, Iraq. She was 23. “I felt so horrible for her family,” Wegman said. “She’s still a part of our team.”

Wegman said her teammates were told of Perez’s death at a trackside meeting that included many tears. “It’s pretty frightening,” she said about the chance of dying during deployment. “It’s definitely sobering. But it’s a personal choice, and you have to want to (serve). You can’t complain.”

Wegman’s parents did not want her to enroll in West Point and face the possibility of their only child serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. But once she made the decision, Wegman said, her parents were nothing but supportive.

After a Thanksgiving visit home, Wegman said she realized what her choices could mean. “I could potentially never have another Thanksgiving break again,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be able to go home.”

While she was home, Wegman and her parents watched a documentary on today’s wounded warriors. “I try to be as informed as I can,” she said. “You have to see what’s going on. You have to know what it’s like.”

Wegman will know exactly what it’s like two years from now when she and her classmates are called upon to be platoon leaders. “We’re going to be confronted by 35 or 40 war veterans, and we’re expected to lead them,” she said. She believes her competitive running will be an asset in leading soldiers. “You have to be an athlete to be an officer,” she said.

The December issue of “Runner’s World” magazine features an extensive look at servicemembers who are also distance runners -- from brand-new enlistees to top leaders, such as Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force Iraq. The article details how deployed troops use running to relieve stress and focus on their missions. Wegman e-mailed the story to her teammates. “I’m honored I share the same activity as so many other soldiers,” she said, noting that fitness derived from running can directly relate to fitness on the battlefield. “That’s the nature of the profession, and that’s the essence of the warrior spirit. That’s the mission.”

Now that the cross-country season is over, Wegman can focus on the Dec. 2 Army-Navy football showdown in Philadelphia, during which she and of her 4400 fellow cadets will march in formation, as will the U.S. Naval Academy’s midshipman. Wegman brings her running-tough attitude to the brigade drill, just like she does all aspects of her discipline-driven life. “There’s nothing more mentally toughening than running,” Wegman said. “You have to have the commitment to run every single day, mile after mile.”

(David Mays works for the Pentagon Channel.)

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