Run Soldier Run! From Kenya, To U.S., To Rio Olympics
At the crowded start of the men's 5000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials last weekend, the elite runners at the line mostly wore the brightly-colored uniforms of their shoe company sponsors.
But there was also a pair of slender guys in beige, black and camouflage with the word "Army" in big block letters across their chests.
The U.S. Army is having remarkable success this summer qualifying soldiers to compete at the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil. The Army supports a corps of runners who nearly all come from the cradle of distance running champions in Kenya. Some live and train in Beaverton, Oregon, and others are based at Fort Carson in Colorado.
So why is the Army is grooming Olympic athletes, a bunch of whom only recently became U.S. citizens?
Fast-track to citizenship
The top three finishers at the U.S. trials qualified for Team USA and a trip to the Summer Olympics. After twelve laps around the track, the race came down to a furious sprint to the finish. U.S. Army soldier Paul Chelimo finished in the top three.
"I was like, 'You know what, let it be what it can be,’” Chelimo said. “So I decided to push."
Spc. Chelimo, 25, was the fifth Army soldier to make the Olympic team in track and field. Four of these five followed similar paths to get here. They were born and raised and started running in the highlands of Kenya. They got athletic scholarships to American universities. After college, they enlisted in the U.S. Army, which non-citizens with legal residency can do.
''Being an Olympian is the best way to represent the United States. So as soon as I joined, I knew about WCAP.''
Chelimo signed up for four years in 2014.
"Actually, my main goal was to represent the United States,” Chelimo said. “Being an Olympian is the best way to represent the United States. So as soon as I joined, I knew about WCAP."
WCAP is the Army's World Class Athlete Program.
"That was the best program because I could do my career as a soldier and also focus on my talent,” Chelimo said.
Military service provides a fast-track to U.S. citizenship. Normally, a green card holder has to wait five years to apply to naturalize. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Congress voted to allow immigrants in the military to apply as soon as they wanted during "time of hostilities," such as now.
Because of this, Chelimo and his Kenyan countrymen could and did receive citizenship quickly -- in time to compete for a slot on this year's U.S. Olympic team.
Expedited naturalization is broadly available to non-citizen service members. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 7,700 to 10,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen per year have taken advantage in recent years. Athletes do not appear to receive any special treatment.
‘They are great ambassadors for the Army’
Soldier Shadrack Kipchirchir, 27, qualified in the 10,000-meters.
"It's not about me. It's all about all the soldiers that sacrificed their lives and dedication and hard work,” he said. “I'm not going to let them down."
''They are great ambassadors for the Army. They represent sacrifice, determination, loyalty, commitment -- all of our ethos.''
The Army's head coach for track and field, Dan Browne, is a former Olympian himself -- he competed in the 10,000 meters and marathon in Athens in 2004 -- and a major in the Oregon National Guard on active duty. He explained why the Army created a unit where soldiers collect regular pay while focusing on training for upcoming world competitions such as the Olympics and Paralympics.
"They are great ambassadors for the Army,” Browne said. “They represent sacrifice, determination, loyalty, commitment -- all of our ethos."
It was Browne who convinced his superiors to let some of the Army runners relocate to his hometown of Beaverton, Oregon. That's far from the nearest Army post, but home to Nike world headquarters and a cadre of other professional runners to work out with.
A Nike spokesperson said the company supports the Army team informally by providing shoes and running gear along with access to the first class training facilities on its campus.
Kipchirchir said training at the highest level and attending to Army tasks like making recruiting appearances is not easy.
"You know the Nike athletes, their job is just running. They concentrate on just running,” Kipchirchir said. “But ours, we are soldiers first, soldiers first.”
The Army's three other track and field Olympians in 2016 are Fort Carson, Colorado-based Sergeant Hillary Bor in the 3000-meter steeplechase, Spc. Leonard Korir in the 10,000-meters and Staff Sgt. John Nunn in the 50K race walk.
''In Kenya, running is like soccer in Brazil.''
Bor and Korir are Kenyan natives. Nunn is U.S.-born.
The Army said 65 soldier-athletes have competed at the Olympic and Paralympic Games since it established its world class athlete training program at Fort Carson in 1997. Those male and female soldiers competed in everything from target shooting, boxing and wrestling to sled hockey and cross-country skiing.
This year, the Army is sending a total of eleven soldier-athletes to the Summer Games in Brazil -- the four runners, the race walker, five marksmen, and one competitor in modern pentathlon. In addition, an Army archer and a swimmer qualified for the Paralympic Games for physically-disabled athletes, which follow the Summer Games.
The Rio-bound crew also includes a recently naturalized champion wrestler from Uzbekistan who is going to the Olympics as an alternate on the U.S. wrestling team.
The Kenyan natives in the U.S. Army training program all come from Rift Valley province, a region long recognized as a cradle of champion runners. On those legs, Kenyans have dominated the Olympic medals podium in distance running for more than 20 years.
"In Kenya, running is like soccer in Brazil," Korir explained.
Kenyan-born runners also dominate the roster of the U.S. Army WCAP track and field team. Coach Browne stresses WCAP is open to everyone in the Army who can meet the tough entry standards. He guessed the Army training program's popularity among Kenyan-American runners was spread through “word-of-mouth.”
"I think it is because of the passion. Many people in Kenya like to run. Many people here in America, they want to do other stuff... like football, soccer," Korir said in a separate interview.
In May, the president of track and field's world governing body IAAF raised the delicate issue of athletes switching national allegiance during a keynote address to a sports conference in London.
"I've asked our corporate governance review to look at this, to come back with a set of proposals," Lord Sebastian Coe said. "In the past, these transfer of allegiance requests have been, sometimes, a little flimsy and we need to address that."
"My instinct is that we need to settle upon a principle that if an athlete starts their international career competing for a particular country, they finish their career for a particular country," Coe continued. "This is a concern that's been expressed to me through all our continental associations."
On Monday, the president of the European Athletics federation, Svein Arne Hanson, said he planned to bring up the issue at the next IAAF Council meeting, to be held on the sidelines of the Rio Games.
"We in European Athletics believe there is a need to look more closely at the appropriate conditions for a change in nationality and the length of time before eligibility is granted to compete," Hanson said in a statement.
But Hanson acknowledged there are a range of personal reasons that drive athletes to switch allegiance, including refugee status.
KRCC reporter Holly Pretsky contributed to this report.