The name John Napier may be familiar to those who followed the Vancouver Olympics.
The Vermont National Guard sergeant was the USA-2 pilot in the two- and four-man bobsled events in 2010. More importantly, before the Games, he begged the Army to deploy him to Afghanistan once he returned from Vancouver.
Napier was part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which paid him a full Army salary to be a full-time bobsledder. But he requested off that program so he could rejoin his National Guard unit overseas.
It was a rare ask, Army officials said. Napier, then 25, was applauded for altruism, loyalty and courage. He spent nearly six months in Afghanistan, ran into an Olympic teammate in Kuwait, returned home to bobsled and retired from the sport in May 2012.
Today, Napier is far from mortar fire and ice chutes. He’s in Lakeland, Fla., studying biochemistry and molecular biology at Florida Southern College. He water skis in his spare time.
“I just got a feeling I was being led to do something else,” Napier said in a phone interview. “It’s great to pursue something else. With the Army and with sports, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to be academically successful.”
Napier first joined the Vermont National Guard after the death of his father, Bill, to kidney cancer in 2005.
Bill was 66, a Marine and a bobsledder for parts of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Napier joined the National Guard to repay his mother the debt his family accrued financing his bobsled career from age 8.
He earned a spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team and finished 10th in the two-man race in Whistler, British Columbia, nine days after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died on the same track after a training run accident.
Napier withdrew from the four-man event won by the USA-1 team piloted by Steve Holcomb after a crash. In 17 years of sledding, Napier can count his total crashes on two hands. It was an unfortunate end to an Olympic career.
In June 2010, the Army set out to deploy him as an engineer with a desk job. Napier, never one to do things the easy way, asked for infantry instead.
He spent nearly six months in the Middle East, mixing 100-degree days with 40-degree nights. He was an M249 sawgunner, carrying a 22-pound gas-powered machine gun capable of firing off 17 shots per second, according to The Associated Press.
“Totally out of my element,” Napier said. “I experienced some things you would never experience other than being overseas with a bunch of your brothers.”
His unit was attacked four days per week at its busiest. Fire hit their moving trucks and blew up their tents.
Napier talked of the life-on-the-line times with the same fervor he used to recall flag football games, Easy Mac meals (boiled, not microwaved) and a small-world encounter with one of his Olympic teammates.
In Kuwait, Napier was unloading a truck when he saw Chris Fogt, who was en route to Iraq to serve.
Fogt, a 2014 Olympic hopeful with Holcomb on USA-1, was on Napier’s USA-2 sled at the 2010 Olympics.
“Chris, Chris!” Napier yelled, before remembering he was in uniform. “Hey, Lieutenant Fogt!
“I was captain of the ship as the (bobsled) driver. Put on your uniform, know your role. He’s an officer. I’m a sergeant.”
When his time was up, Napier flew to Calgary, Alberta, for a December 2010 World Cup race two days after returning from Afghanistan. He competed for two seasons and struggled mentally. Not with post-traumatic stress but with a void sports couldn’t fill.
“I experienced something extremely rare, getting shot at with these guys,” in Afghanistan, Napier said. “That kind of brotherhood and looking out for one another. That kept resonating in my head.”
So Napier retired after the 2011-12 World Cup season.
“It made me realize there was more in life than being an athlete,” Napier said of those two seasons. “I feel so blessed for my time as an athlete. People supported me from everywhere. It was time for me to move on, to give back, pursuing my college degree and something in the medical field. I would really like to give back.”
Napier enrolled in his hometown Schenectady Community College and then transferred to Florida Southern beginning this semester with an eye on graduating in 2016. His roommate in Lakeland is a man named Lucky Lowe, a 56-year-old Hall of Fame water skier.
His next career plan was inspired by one of his previous ones.
“A lot of chiropractors helped along the way when I was competing,” Napier said. “It lifted a whole spectrum as an athlete, made you perform better biomechanically. I’m hoping to get into that field as well for grad school.
“I miss going down that hill,” Napier said. “But I really, really enjoy putting my nose in the books.”
As for his other career? Napier is still, proudly, part of the National Guard.
“I will go wherever my country calls me,” he said. “With the world the way it is, I would hope for peace everywhere, but I’m prepared.”
Napier said he wouldn’t be bummed if called for duty again.
“I would probably buy my favorite beer, drink it down and pack my bags,” he said. “I love the military.”