SPC Alejandro Sancho, member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.

What is the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program?

Release Date: March 30, 2024

On this week’s episode, we spoke with Johanna Garton, author of the new book All In Stride: A Journey in Running, Courage, and the Search for the American Dream. The book chronicles the stories of two long distance runners from Kenya, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Elvin Kibet, who emigrate to America to pursue athletic excellence. Both runners become part of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). But what is this program, and why does the military fund athletes?

World Class Athlete Program History

Soldier-athletes from the U.S. have competed throughout modern Olympic history. Many of the early American Olympic heroes also served in the military, like sprinter Charley Paddock, who won two gold medals and two silver medals over three Olympics in the 1920s. General George Patton competed in the first modern pentathlon competition at Stockholm 1912, finishing fifth. Other Army veterans, like our own John Register, became Paralympians.

Although soldiers have been representing the U.S. at the Olympics and Paralympics for decades, the official U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program started in 1997. As a special unit of the Army, it’s a way for soldiers to train for international competition, and they also travel to high schools to talk about the Army and WCAP. Along with training, members of this unit still have other military obligations like training and formations.

WCAP is only open to existing soldiers, be they on Active Duty, Reserves, or in the National Guard, so you have to join the Army before you can apply to be part of this unit. Applicants must also already be elite athletes–and meet standards to prove it. Once you’re in the program–as we learn in Johanna’s book–you have to maintain standards to keep your assignment in this unit.

According to the program’s website, it currently supports athletes in the following sports: Boxing, Cycling, Modern Pentathlon, Rugby Sevens, Shooting, Taekwondo, Track & Field, Winter Sports, Wrestling, Paralympic Sports, Archery, Soccer, Swimming, and Triathlon. That said, it provides standards for most sports on the Olympic and Paralympic programs, so soldiers aren’t limited to just these sports.

World Class Athlete Program Olympic and Paralympic Medals

Over 450 soldiers have represented the Army in the Olympics and Paralympics, and they’ve won over 100 medals. Some of the program’s medalists include:

Maj. Michael Anti joined the military in 1988 and was one of the first athletes recruited for WPAC. He also won the program’s first Olympic medal, a silver in 3-position rifle in 2004.

WCAP notched its first Winter Olympic medal in Sochi 2014, when Maj. Christopher Fogt, competed in 4-man bobsled with famed driver, the late Steve Holcomb.

1st Lt. Amber English was the first woman of WPAC to win Olympic hardware, a gold in skeet shooting in Tokyo.

Distance runner Spc. Paul Chelimo has two medals in the 5000m, a silver in 2016 and bronze in 2021.

SFC Elizabeth Marks won the first Paralympic medal, a gold in 2016 in 100m breaststroke SB7. She has added another gold, a silver, and two bronzes in her three Paralympics.

TKFLASTAN and the World Class Athlete Program

Over the years, we have spoken to several Olympians who are also members of WPAC: Bobsledder Nick Cunningham, wrestler Alex Sancho, who is still in the program, and one of the show’s favorites, Samantha Schultz. Sammy also appears in the book and we will have an update from her coming later this month.

The World Class Athlete Program in Paris

So far, soldiers-athletes have qualified in wrestling, shooting, and rugby sevens for Team USA for Paris 2024. We expect to see plenty more, especially in boxing. In the meantime, take a listen to our conversation with Johanna Garton, and how WPAC impacted the three athletes in her book.