Veteran John Napier sets out on new career after Olympics, tour in Afghanistan

John Napier

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.”

“This picture was taken Oct. 10, 2010, right before we were ambushed.” — John Napier

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.

John Napier (left) and Chris Fogt (right) in Kuwait. (Photo courtesy John Napier)

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.”

U.S. women’s rugby team qualifies for 2024 Paris Olympics as medal contender

Cheta Emba

The U.S. women’s rugby team qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics by clinching a top-four finish in this season’s World Series.

Since rugby was re-added to the Olympics in 2016, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished fifth, sixth, sixth and ninth at the Games.

The U.S. women are having their best season since 2018-19, finishing second or third in all five World Series stops so far and ranking behind only New Zealand and Australia, the winners of the first two Olympic women’s rugby sevens tournaments.

The U.S. also finished fourth at last September’s World Cup.

Three months after the Tokyo Games, Emilie Bydwell was announced as the new U.S. head coach, succeeding Olympic coach Chris Brown.

Soon after, Tokyo Olympic co-captain Abby Gustaitis was cut from the team.

Jaz Gray, who led the team in scoring last season and at the World Cup, missed the last three World Series stops after an injury.

The U.S. men are ranked ninth in this season’s World Series and will likely need to win either a North American Olympic qualifier this summer or a last-chance global qualifier in June 2024 to make it to Paris.

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Oscar Pistorius denied parole, hasn’t served enough time

Oscar Pistorius
File photo

Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius was denied parole Friday and will have to stay in prison for at least another year and four months after it was decided that he had not served the “minimum detention period” required to be released following his murder conviction for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 10 years ago.

The parole board ruled that Pistorius would only be able to apply again in August 2024, South Africa’s Department of Corrections said in a short, two-paragraph statement. It was released soon after a parole hearing at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre prison where Pistorius is being held.

The board cited a new clarification on Pistorius’ sentence that was issued by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal just three days before the hearing, according to the statement. Still, legal experts criticized authorities’ decision to go ahead with the hearing when Pistorius was not eligible.

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, are “relieved” with the decision to keep Pistorius in prison but are not celebrating it, their lawyer told The Associated Press.

“They can’t celebrate because there are no winners in this situation. They lost a daughter and South Africa lost a hero,” lawyer Tania Koen said, referring to the dramatic fall from grace of Pistorius, once a world-famous and highly-admired athlete.

The decision and reasoning to deny parole was a surprise but there has been legal wrangling over when Pistorius should be eligible for parole because of the series of appeals in his case. He was initially convicted of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter, in 2014 but the case went through a number of appeals before Pistorius was finally sentenced to 13 years and five months in prison for murder in 2017.

Serious offenders must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole in South Africa. Pistorius’ lawyers had previously gone to court to argue that he was eligible because he had served the required portion if they also counted periods served in jail from late 2014 following his culpable homicide conviction.

The lawyer handling Pistorius’ parole application did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

June Steenkamp attended Pistorius’ hearing inside the prison complex to oppose his parole. The parents have said they still do not believe Pistorius’ account of their daughter’s killing and wanted him to stay in jail.

Pistorius, who is now 36, has always claimed he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law student, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after mistaking her for a dangerous intruder in his home. He shot four times with his licensed 9 mm pistol through a closed toilet cubicle door in his bathroom, where Steenkamp was, hitting her multiple times. Pistorius claimed he didn’t realize his girlfriend had got out of bed and gone to the bathroom.

The Steenkamps say they still think he is lying and killed her intentionally after a late-night argument.

Lawyer Koen had struck a more critical tone when addressing reporters outside the prison before the hearing, saying the Steenkamps believed Pistorius could not be considered to be rehabilitated “unless he comes clean” over the killing.

“He’s the killer of their daughter. For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said before the hearing.

June Steenkamp had sat grim-faced in the back seat of a car nearby while Koen spoke to reporters outside the prison gates ahead of the hearing. June Steenkamp and Koen were then driven into the prison in a Department of Corrections vehicle. June Steenkamp made her submission to the parole board in a separate room to Pistorius and did not come face-to-face with her daughter’s killer, Koen said.

Barry Steenkamp did not travel for the hearing because of poor health but a family friend read out a statement to the parole board on his behalf, the parents’ lawyer said.

Pistorius was once hailed as an inspirational figure for overcoming the adversity of his disability, before his murder trial and sensational downfall captivated the world.

Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was a baby because of a congenital condition and he walks with prosthetics. He went on to become a double-amputee runner and multiple Paralympic champion who made history by competing against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, running on specially designed carbon-fiber blades.

Pistorius’ conviction eventually led to him being sent to the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison, one of South Africa’s most notorious. He was moved to the Atteridgeville prison in 2016 because that facility is better suited to disabled prisoners.

There have only been glimpses of his life in prison, with reports claiming he had at one point grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking and was unrecognizable from the elite athlete he once was.

He has spent much of his time working in an area of the prison grounds where vegetables are grown, sometimes driving a tractor, and has reportedly been running bible classes for other inmates.

Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told the Pretoria News newspaper before the hearing that his family hoped he would be home soon.

“Deep down, we believe he will be home soon,” Henke Pistorius said, “but until the parole board has spoken the word, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

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