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Sports Heroes Who Served: Bobsledder Volunteered for Combat in Afghanistan

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Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Bobsledding is in Olympian John Napier's DNA.

Two people wearing helmets push a bobsled as a man and woman watch.
Bobsled Team
Army Pfc. John Napier, right, a bobsledder in the Army's World Class Athlete Program, and Cory Butner get set to push off during one of four heats in the two-man U.S. National Bobsled Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., Jan. 3, 2009.
Photo By: Tim Hipps, Army
VIRIN: 090103-O-ZZ999-001C

Napier's father, William, a former Marine, was a bobsled driver from the 1960s to the 1980s and later became president of USA Bobsled and Skeleton, the sport's official governing body in the U.S. Napier's mother, Betsy, also drove bobsleds.

The family often traveled from their Schenectady, New York, home to Lake Placid, New York, to bobsled. John learned how at age 8 in 1994.

Napier started competing professionally for Team USA in 2002, placing 9th overall in the America's Cup in the two-man bobsled at Lake Placid. 

In 2003, he placed seventh in the same America's Cup event in Calgary, Canada.

Napier took home the gold in Calgary in 2004 in the four-man bobsled America's Cup event.

Two men wearing helmets are seated in a bobsled as others crowd around them.
Bobsled Race
Army Sgt. John Napier, a bobsled pilot in the Army's World Class Athlete Program bobsled pilot, and teammate Steve Langton are greeted at the finish line in the Olympic two-man bobsled finals at Whistler Sliding Centre in Vancouver, Canada, Feb. 21, 2010. Napier drove USA II to a 10th-place finish with a four-run combined time of 3 minutes, 29.40 seconds.
Photo By: Tim Hipps, Army
VIRIN: 100221-A-YG824-090

The 2005-2006 season at Lake Placid also yielded gold for Napier in the four-man America's Cup.

In 2006, shortly after his father died of cancer, Napier enlisted in the Vermont Army National Guard and trained to become an engineer.

However, the Guard recognized Napier's athletic ability. He was placed in the Army's World Class Athlete Program, which provides coaching and a full salary for a variety of sports, including bobsledding.

Napier continued to excel in bobsled competitions every year, and, in 2009, he won the U.S. National Bobsled Championships at Lake Placid.

At the 2009–2010 Bobsleigh World Cup event in Lake Placid, he won the two-man event and took a silver medal in the four-man event.

Napier qualified for the U.S. Winter Olympic team; in 2010 in Vancouver, Canada, he finished 10th in the two-man, but he crashed in the four-man event.

Two men stand beside a bobsled.
Bobsled Duo
Army Sgt. John Napier, right, a bobsled pilot in the Army's World Class Athlete Program, and Army 1st Lt. Chris Fogt, WCAP brakeman, stand beside their bobsled at Whistler Sliding Centre in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010.
Photo By: Tim Hipps, Army
VIRIN: 101015-O-ZZ999-002

In 2010, Napier asked to leave the Army's WCAP program and join his Guard unit, which was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. His coach said it was relatively rare for someone in the program to ask to take leave for a combat assignment.

"I just kept asking to go because I couldn't get away from the guilt of being here while other guys were over there fighting," Napier said in a 2010 interview in The New York Times.

Napier served, first as an engineer and then as a gunner with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, humping a M-249 machine gun on foot patrols near the Pakistan border.

During his first day as a gunner, his unit came under attack from enemy mortar. Later, his unit was nearly surrounded during a particularly vicious attack, he said.

Two soldiers sit on the ground.
John Napier
John Napier, right, and another soldier sit on an embankment in Afghanistan in 2010.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 101015-O-ZZ999-001C

Napier was slightly wounded when an IED exploded nearby during a patrol, and he later suffered nightmares, he said.

Just two weeks after returning from his deployment to Afghanistan in December 2010, Napier was back at Lake Placid, competing in the bobsled. He competed in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 World Cup, as well as the 2011-2012 Europa Cup, but he didn't medal in any of the two- and four-man events. 

In 2012 he retired from the sport, but he continues to serve in the Guard.

His bobsled career has come full circle. Napier is a chiropractor in Saratoga Springs, New York, and now directs youth and junior bobsled programs in Lake Placid. Bobsledding is in his DNA.

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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903

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