John Napier

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

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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.”

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

“I don’t like usually comparing the years,” he said. “But I think [the conditions are] quite suitable to my style of the game.”

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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U.S. men off to best French Open start in 24 years

Sebastian Korda
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The last time U.S. men started this well at the French Open, Sebastian Korda wasn’t alive and his dad had yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Eight American men are into the second round at Roland Garros, the largest contingent in the last 64 since 1996. It could have been nine, had Sam Querrey served out the match in the third set against 13th seed Andrey Rublev of Russia.

Still, the U.S. has more men in the second round than any other nation. Astonishing, given U.S. men went a collective 1-9 at the 2019 French Open.

Back in 1996, nine American men won first-round matches. That group included Pete SamprasAndre AgassiJim Courier and Michael Chang (in Sampras’ deepest run in Paris, to the semifinals).

Clay has long been kryptonite for this generation of Americans — the last U.S. man to make a Roland Garros quarterfinal was Agassi in 2003.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

This group includes veterans like Jack Sock, who swept countryman Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 on Monday. Sock, 28, was once ranked eighth in the world.

He then dropped out of the rankings entirely, missing time due to injury and going 10 months between tour-level match wins. He’s now at No. 310 and preparing to play No. 3 Dominic Thiem in the second round.

“A pretty horrific two years in a row,” Sock said. “I’m not opposed to silencing some haters after the last couple years I’ve gone through. I’ve read and seen enough of it, heard enough of it. I’m kind of ready to reestablish myself out there, let people know that I’m back.”

Then there’s 35-year-old John Isner, the big server who swept a French wild card in round one. Isner, the highest seeded U.S. man at No. 21, has posted some decent Roland Garros results, reaching the fourth round three times.

There are new faces, too. Taylor Fritz is seeded 27, aged 22 and in an open section of the draw to make his first Grand Slam fourth round.

On Sunday, 20-year-old Korda became the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since an 18-year-old Andy Roddick beat Chang in 2001.

He is the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda and brother of the world’s second- and 22nd-ranked female golfers (Nelly and Jessica).

So far, Sebastian’s biggest feats: winning the 2018 Australian Open junior title and, in his only golf tournament, beating both of his sisters when he was 11. It was around that age that he gave up ice hockey and focused solely on tennis.

Korda was hooked after watching a Czech whom his dad coached, Radek Stepanek, at the U.S. Open in 2009.

“He played Djokovic on [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] like at 10:30 at night,” Korda, nicknamed Sebi, said on Tennis Channel. “Completely packed. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I went home, and I was like, this is exactly what I want to do.”

An American man is already guaranteed to make the third round in Paris. Korda faces Isner on Thursday.

“I grew up on the clay,” Korda said, “so I know how to play on it a little bit.”

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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