Military service members who succeeded in the Games


Military Service Members Enjoy Olympic and Paralympic Success

The discipline and drive required to serve in the military and succeed in athletics are similar characteristics. Many active-duty and veteran U.S. service members have enjoyed Olympic and Paralympic success through the years.

It is not surprising to Dan Cnossen that several current or veteran U.S. service members have done well at the Olympic and Paralympic games. The training regimen and discipline often required of elite athletes is similar to that needed by those in the military.

“There are many parallels,” said Cnossen, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and two-time Paralympian who won a gold medal, four silvers and one bronze in biathlon and cross-country skiing at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. “The number one difference is I’m not putting my life on the line. But I’m representing the United States and there’s the importance of discipline, being part of a team, fitting into a larger structure, knowing your role, taking care of yourself. These broad concepts exist in both.”

Cnossen said he looks at his daily training plan – conditioning, strength training, stretching, nutrition and more – as his orders to follow.

“I’ve been following it for eight or nine years at this point, so it does make you feel like you’re in the military again,” he said. “For many veterans, there is the question: What’s next? Physical fitness and setting a goal can provide some structure. I’ve really benefited from the Paralympic organization. If it did not exist, I have no idea what I’d be doing and wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilled.”

Cnossen, 39, is not alone among recent athletes with military background.

Swimmer Melissa Stockwell was the first Iraqi War veteran to participate in the Paralympic Games at Beijing 2008, where the was the U.S. flag bearer at the Closing Ceremony. Stockwell was a bronze in the triathlon at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games

At the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, 16 service members or veterans made the U.S. team, including Vincent Hancock (a gold medalist in shooting at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and London 2012 Olympic Games) and Glenn Eller (a five-time Olympian shooter who won gold at Beijing).

Additionally, the Army World Class Athlete Program and Air Force World Class Athlete Program are designed to help develop service men and women into Olympians and Paralympians. Bobsledder Shauna Rohback, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, was part of the Army World Class Athlete Program; she was a two-time Olympian, winning a silver medal in the Turin 2006 Olympic Winter Games, and is now a Team USA bobsled coach.

These men and women are just the latest in a long line of service members to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics. Among the most successful former U.S. service members in the Olympics were:

  • In between serving in the U.S. Army during World War I and the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, sprinter Charley Paddock competed in the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games and Paris 1924 Olympic Games, winning two gold medals and two silver medals. Paddock died in a military plane crash during World War II.
  • Rower Jack Kelly Sr. served three years in the U.S. Army during World War I and later won three gold medals over two Olympic Games.
  • A U.S. Army artillery lieutenant during World War I, Eddie Eagan won gold medals in boxing and bobsledding, becoming the only person to win Olympic gold in the Winter Games and Summer Games in different events.
  • John Woodruff won a gold medal in the 800-meter run at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games and later served in World War II and the Korean War.
  • Runner Louis Zamperini competed in the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games and later served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. His story of surviving a plane crash into the Pacific Ocean, adrift for 47 days at sea before being captured by Japanese forces, was written in the book Unbroken.
  • Sprinter Harrison Dillard restarted his athletic career after serving three years in the U.S. Army during World War II as a member of the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers. He won four gold medals over two Olympics Games and is the only man ever to win Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash and 110-meter hurdles.
  • Weightlifter John Davis served four years in the U.S. Army during World War II, stationed in the South Pacific; he won gold at the London 1948 Olympic Games and the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games.
  • Diver Sammy Lee joined the U.S. Army Reserves and served in the Korean War; he won two gold medals and one bronze in two Olympic Games.
  • Runner Mal Whitfield served in World War II as a member of the Air Force’s famed Tuskegee Airmen and later served in the Korean War; he participated in two Olympic Games and won five medals, three gold.
  • Runner Willie Davenport was in the U.S Army when he qualified for his first Olympic Games at Tokyo 1964. Davenport competed in three more Olympic Games, winning a gold and a bronze, and later participated in the Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Winter Games as a bobsledder.
  • Regarded as the best shooter in U.S. history, Lones Wigger went into the U.S. Army after college and served two tours in Vietman teaching marksmanship. He participated in three Olympic Games and won two gold medals and one silver.
  • S. Naval Academy graduate David Robinson, nicknamed The Admiral, served two years at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay before embarking on a career that saw him play in three Olympic Games and become one of the best professional players.
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