From Kenya to U.S. Army to Olympics in Brazil

Among the athletes representing the United States at the upcoming Rio Olympics in Brazil will be several new Americans — and they are soldiers in the U.S. Army.

Military service provides a fast-track to U.S. citizenship, and not just for soldier-athletes. Normally, a green card holder must wait five years to apply to naturalize. (A green card documents “lawful permanent resident” status, including the right to reside and work in the United States.) But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress voted to allow immigrants in the military to apply as soon as they wanted.

Leonard Korir running race (© AP Images)
“In Kenya, running is like soccer in Brazil,” says Leonard Korir. (© AP Images)

Kenyan-born soldiers Paul Chelimo, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir applied, and received citizenship in time to compete for a spot on this year’s U.S. Olympic team.

The cradle of champion runners

The new Americans will strengthen the U.S. track team. Kenyans have dominated the Olympic medals podium in distance running for more than 20 years.

Kenyan-born runners are similarly prominent on the track-and-field team in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). WCAP is open to everyone in the Army who can meet the tough entry standards.

After Kipchirchir qualified in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials, the 27-year-old finance specialist explained, “It’s not about me. It’s all about all the soldiers that sacrificed their lives and dedication and hard work. I’m not going to let them down.”

A path to citizenship … and the Olympics

Chelimo, 25, is one of five Army soldiers to make the Olympic team in track and field this year. Four of them followed similar paths, born and raised in the highlands of Kenya. They earned athletic scholarships to American universities. And after college, they enlisted in the U.S. Army, an option open to non-citizens with legal residency.

Runners embracing and smiling (© AP Images)
Paul Chelimo, right, celebrates his win with Bernard Lagat at the July U.S. Olympic Track-and-Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon. (© AP Images)

Chelimo signed up, and kept his eye on the Olympics.

“Actually, my main goal was to represent the United States. Being an Olympian is the best way to represent the United States. So as soon as I joined, I knew about WCAP,” he said. “That was the best program because I could do my career as a soldier and also focus on my talent.”

Head Coach Dan Browne explains why the Army created a unit where soldiers collect regular pay while training for upcoming world competitions like the Olympics and Paralympics.

“They are great ambassadors for the Army,” said Browne, a former Olympian himself. “They represent sacrifice, determination, loyalty, commitment — all of our ethos.”

U.S. soldier-athletes

Since the Army established its athlete training program in 1997, 65 soldier-athletes have competed at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

This year, the Army is sending 10 competitors to the Rio Olympics: four runners, a race walker, four 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 Rio Olympics using the same venues.

The Rio-bound crew also includes a newly naturalized champion wrestler from Uzbekistan who is going to the Olympics as an alternate on the U.S. wrestling team.

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