You may have first noticed them when watching the Olympic Track and Field Trials last summer, where they took the distance events by swarm, sending four athletes in the steeplechase, 5K and 10K. They’ve continued their success over the past year, placing in the top spots or winning elite U.S. races and National Championships.
You might have seen Olympic Silver Medalist Paul Chelimo, who recently set a meet record in the men’s 5K at the USATF Outdoor Championships, Augustus Maiyo, one of the top American finishers in Boston this year, named to the 2017 World Championship Marathon Team, or Leonard Korir, who won the Cross Country Championships back in February, alongside three other Army athletes placing in the top 20, just to name a few.
Kenyan-born runners representing the U.S. Army? So what’s the deal?
They run for the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). Essentially, WCAP is their sponsor. WCAP differs from traditional athlete sponsors in that WCAP is an actual Army unit, where Soldiers assigned to it are given a duty: to train full-time in their sport for the purpose of representing the U.S. Army in high level national and world competitions.
According to the Army, WCAP is:
A program that provides outstanding Soldier-athletes the support and training to compete and succeed in national and international competitions leading to Olympic and Paralympic Games, while maintaining a professional military career and promoting the U.S. Army to the world.
Although WCAP athletes are sponsored by and represent the Army, they may train with other groups. For example, when you see some of the current WCAP athletes listed in track meets, it may say American Distance Project as their affiliation. WCAP explains it like this:
Soldiers in WCAP receive elite level training from some of the best coaches and trainers in America. The Army has its own established training centers for sports such as boxing, taekwondo, and wrestling. If you compete in another sport, you may be assigned to a location near an Olympic Training Center, college or club with a proven record in international competition, where you will receive the best possible training. Your assignment coach may be civilian or military.
There are a lot of misconceptions, as well as opinions and controversy about the program. As a former WCAP athlete, I’d like to give an insider’s take and help clear a few things up about the Army WCAP runners.
How hard is it to make it into this program?
Increasingly hard. As you might remember, I was in the Army and during my tenure was assigned to WCAP twice, from 2006-2008, and again from 2010-2012. At that time, the qualification for each sport was the Olympic Trials standard, and if one didn’t exist, a similar equivalent such as national or international ranking. There was a little bit of subjective wiggle room, with athletes close to, but not quite meeting the standard allowed into the program for a trial period in hopes she might reach it.
Since my time in WCAP, with military budget cuts and increased scrutiny, the entry standards have become more strict. The caliber of athlete has become better- shifting from Soldiers representing the Army at the Olympic Trials, to more making the Olympics, to some actually medaling.
With this shift though, it seems the once Soldier-athlete who came to WCAP (WCAP tenet: Recognition of outstanding Soldier-athletes) has been replaced by the athlete-Soldier (WCAP tenet: promoting the US Army to the world).
How are the Soldiers selected?
WCAP offers all members of the Army, including Active, Reserve, and National Guard, the same opportunity for selection. Their sport must be an Olympic sport.
If not already in the Army, joining is the first step. Basically, anyone can apply to join the Army, and then are screened to see if they meet the standards. But everything is not always cut and dry:
Only Soldier-athletes who meet the criteria below will be considered for admittance into the program. Any athlete applying to the WCAP who fails to meet the criteria should expect to have their application denied. Furthermore, merely meeting the entry standard does not guarantee admittance into the program. The standards laid out are the minimum for consideration of a potential applicant.
The specific minimum standards for each sport are currently listed on their website.
With limited defense budgets, and ongoing overseas engagements, why is the U.S. Military spending money to fund athletes?
Aside from the politically correct answer that it helps the Army’s image and it’s important to reward and help exceptional Soldiers excel, the money spent on this program is a mere drop in the bucket. The overall yearly WCAP budget is probably less than what many other units spend in one day. And the funds are of a different type (non-appropriated) than the funds conventional Army units receive, so it’s not like they’re taking anything away from the traditional war fighting units.
Are these WCAP athletes really “Soldiers”?
Yes. They signed on the dotted line and joined the Army just like any other Soldier. They went through basic training and their specialty course. Some of them were assigned to conventional units before they were accepted into WCAP, while others may have gone straight there, so have never been in a traditional Army unit. But that’s really where it ends.
Their life in WCAP is very, very different then the life of Soldiers in other divisions. Their full time job is to train in their sport. And while they may occasionally have to put on a uniform for required Army training, it’s not anywhere close to what most Soldiers do. Conversely, their life is also different than civilian sponsored athletes. They still have to maintain Army standards and regulations, and fulfill obligations to their military commitment.
There are many Soldiers in the program who have been there for years, and go to Army schools or take required career progression courses in their off (out of unit) time — meaning they never go to a normal unit or deploy — and then immediately return to WCAP. While they certainly are at risk to go to a normal unit or deploy, WCAP explains it like this:
All WCAP Soldiers are monitored for selection and attendance to required military schools. Coordination is made with Human Resources Command for active duty Soldiers, and appropriate Reserve and National Guard personnel offices, to ensure WCAP Soldiers remain competitive with their counterparts assigned to regular Army units.
All they really do is train?
Mostly. That’s the main priority for Soldier-Athletes in the unit. They still have to meet regular Army requirements, but these are normally lumped together in a training block to knock out over the course of a few days. When I was in WCAP, I rarely put on my uniform or went to formation while assigned there. Instead, I “reported” to my coach or training site.
WCAP has a secondary mission as well.
WCAP Soldiers support the U.S. Army Recruiting Command mission by conducting clinics and making appearances at high schools and colleges. WCAP Soldiers participate in numerous Total Army Involvement in Recruiting (TAIR) missions each year, speaking to groups including high school students and athletic teams, in support of Army recruiting stations.
You could compare this to a civilian runner making promotional appearances, except you’re promoting the Army. While I enjoyed traveling and talking to people about the Army, I did feel like there should be a caveat with this. The number of people who join the Army and actually make it into this program is very small, so the people who have never been in a conventional unit outside of WCAP don’t, or can’t, fully represent the real Army. It’s hard to speak for something you haven’t experienced.
So did these guys join the Army just to be in WCAP?
Well, maybe. But there’s no guarantee you’ll get into the program, no matter how exceptional an athlete you are. Big Army and your branch have to release you, and there are other steps in the bureaucratic chain to get through. And once you’re in, there’s no guarantee how long you’ll stay in the program — it’s entirely based off your performance and results. But in all likelihood, they may have joined hoping to get in and did. As for foreign-born Soldiers, joining the Army is a fast track to U.S. citizenship, so that may have influenced these particular athletes’ decisions as well.
Where are all the women?
The world’s population is roughly 51% female. And while in many ways the Army is a great representation of the diverse population of the U.S. through many different ethnicities, races, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, citizens and immigrants, the Army is still largely a man’s world. Women comprise less than 15% of the Army. In my first job as a logistics platoon leader, I walked into the motor pool to meet my platoon of 58 Soldiers, and was surprised to see only two females. That’s just how it was. So statistically speaking, giving the small size of WCAP, there aren’t very many females in the program. There is currently one woman listed in the running program, and like all of the current men, she’s Kenyan-born.
What are my personal thoughts on all of this as a WCAP veteran?
In concept, I think it’s a great program. It was such an honor to be able to represent the U.S. Army through running. It made me feel good to be running for something bigger than myself. It gave me the opportunity to compete in races I otherwise would never have made it into. Athletes who do well in this program provide a positive image for the Army and are a good news story. It’s exciting to see Army athletes do well and even medal at the Olympics!
I do take issue with people joining the Army with the sole purpose of joining this program. I strongly think WCAP should be for Soldiers first. While this might not immediately produce the best athletic results, it will at least give a true representation when these athletes compete for the Army. I deployed for the second time, and attended two Army schools in between my WCAP assignments. While the two years away certainly hampered my competitive running, at least when I returned to WCAP I felt like I had earned my place back to representing Soldiers.
It does bother me when WCAP Soldiers who have never actually been deployed or otherwise a “real Soldier” speak for all Soldiers about what it’s like to be in the Army. It seems disingenuous. And when someone makes the analogy that racing is like “going to war,” having done both, I can unequivocally tell you it is not. I can only assume the many, many Soldiers who have actually gone to war would feel the same way.
But all that being said, of course I’ll cheer for the professional Army athlete over the professional (fill in the blank shoe sponsor) any day. No matter their motives, they did commit to serving their country by joining the Army.
What are your thoughts on the program? Do you have any questions about WCAP?