From Kenya to Fort Carson, to the Rio Olympics

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The U.S. Army has had remarkable success this summer qualifying soldiers to compete at the 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 Oregon while the majority are based here at Fort Carson, some of whom only recently became U.S. citizens. 

It's a crowded start of the men's 5000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, held in Eugene, Oregon last month.

The elite runners at the line mostly wear the brightly-colored uniforms of their shoe company sponsors. But there's also a pair of slender guys in beige, black and camouflage with the word "Army" in big block letters across their chests.

After twelve laps, the race comes down to a furious sprint to the finish. U.S. Army soldier Paul Chelimo finishes in the top three to make the Olympic team.

"I was like, 'You know what, let it be what it can be.' I decided to push," says Chelimo.

Specialist Chelimo, 25, is the fourth Army runner to make the Olympic team. All four 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. Chelimo signed up for four years in 2014.

"Actually, my main goal was to represent the United States," he says. "Being an Olympian is the best way to represent the United States. So as soon as I joined, I knew about WCAP."

That's 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," says Chelimo.

Military service can provide 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. 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, 7,700-10,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen per year have taken advantage in recent years. Athletes do not appear to receive any special treatment.

Soldier Shadrack Kipchirchir, 27, qualified in the 10,000-meters.

2016 track and field Olympians, from left, Spc. Shadrack Kipchirchir, Staff Sgt. John Nunn and Spc. Paul Chelimo pose in Fort Carson's boxing training room, nicknamed "The House of Pain."
Credit Holly Pretsky / KRCC
2016 track and field Olympians, from left, Spc. Shadrack Kipchirchir, Staff Sgt. John Nunn and Spc. Paul Chelimo pose in Fort Carson's boxing training room, nicknamed "The House of Pain."

"It's not about me," says Kipchirchir. "It's all about all the soldiers that sacrificed their lives and dedication and hard work. I'm not going to let them down."

The Army's head coach for track and field, Dan Browne, is a former Olympian himself, in Athens 2004, and a major in the Oregon National Guard. He explains why the Army created a Fort Carson-based unit where soldiers collect regular pay while focusing on Olympic and Paralympic training.

"They are great ambassadors for the Army," says Browne. "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 train with.

Kipchirchir says 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," says Kipchirchir. "They concentrate on just running. But ours, we are soldiers first, soldier first."

This year, the Fort Carson-based World Class Athlete Program qualified a total of seven soldier-athletes for the Summer Games in Brazil—the four runners, a race walker, a pistol marksman, 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 U.S, Air Force also has an elite athlete program. Two recent Air Force Academy graduates are going to the Rio Games, one in pole vault and the other in prone rifle.

Tom Banse is a reporter for the Northwest News Network.  KRCC reporter Holly Pretsky contributed to this report.