John Napier: The good teammate
The Army and Afghanistan await American bobsledder when the Winter Olympics end
The other day in the Olympic Village at the Winter Games, bobsledder John Napier stopped snowboarder Shaun White and asked, "Hey, you mind if I get a picture with you?"
Both men are 23. Napier is about seven inches taller. White is about $30 million richer.
White obliged. Napier got his snap and thanked him.
Here's why it should've been the other way around:
Napier, the driver for two of America's six Olympic men's bobsled teams, wants to do two remarkable things.
First, he wants to win a gold medal in these Olympics, something no American bobsledder has done in 62 years.
Then he wants to leave immediately and go fight in Afghanistan.
Napier is a member of the Vermont National Guard. He joined three years ago to help his mom out of the $25,000 debt she ran up paying for his bobsledding dream. Some of his friends in the Army have already deployed to Afghanistan. He wants to be with them as soon as the Games are over.
"They're doing their duty and I want to do mine," he says. "I want to be with them. If I were on a four-man [bobsled team] and three of them were at the Olympics and I wasn't, it wouldn't feel right. I'd want to be there. We're a team."
It both breaks and swells his mother's heart.
"Neither me nor Bill [her late husband] wanted him to go into the military," says Betsy Napier. "Neither of us believed in these wars. Why does this country keep sending its young people to fight somebody else's battles?"
At the same time, she couldn't be prouder.
"He's such a good kid. He's loyal. He's an American, through and through."
Napier hears from his buddy soldiers nearly every day via e-mail. He's freezing in the Vancouver rain and they're sweating in the Afghan sun. "They complain about the heat a little. But mostly they just pump me up, tell me how I'm doing great, how they're going to be watching."
But here's why this decision by Napier is striking. Once, for a year, Napier had on his sled another soldier named Brian Freeman, from Temecula, Calif. In 2007, after Freeman shipped out, he was ambushed, taken hostage and killed near Karbala, Iraq.
"Man, that really touched us," Napier says. "We didn't even know he was over there."
So, doesn't that make him scared to go?
"Look, there was just a fatality here, on this track [Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili]. We're going to be going 95 miles per hour on this thing. Everybody's nervous. But every athlete has a job to do. And every soldier has a job to do."
"They're doing their duty and I want to do mine. I want to be with them."” --John Napier
Napier's job lately is with the Army's World Class Athlete Program, which allows him time and money to train full-time. Eighteen months ago, he was plucked out of his Guard duties -- he worked on an engineering crew -- to train with U.S. Bobsled in Lake Placid, N.Y., a couple of hours from his hometown of Schenectady.
He's already put in his request to deploy after the Games. Now he's just waiting to see what the Army will do with him.
"I'm at the Army's mercy," he says. "If I serve a better purpose by staying in the sports program, if my story inspires other athletes and soldiers better, than I'll keep spreading that story. But if it's my turn to serve, I'll serve."
He prefers to serve.
"Any mother would be sad to see her child go off to war," says Betsy, a slider herself, as was her husband, a member of the U.S. National team and a man whose sled missed by one spot a berth at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Betsy and Bill met bobsledding in Lake Placid. Their son has been driving a sled since he was 8.
He and his team are not favored to win a medal, but Napier did win a World Cup event this year, in the two-man sled. And he's sliding for something bigger than himself.
"I'm going out there representing my unit and the U.S. Army," he says. "They gave me a chance to do this. I mean, look at me. I'm in the Olympics! This is the biggest blessing of my life!"
Seriously, this is how the kid talks. It's not fake. You should've seen him at the Opening Ceremonies.
"I was speechless," he says. "In the first couple hours, every emotion came pouring out of me -- sadness, anger, happiness, depression. I was tingling. I was crying. I was laughing. I had tears in my eyes the whole time. I was thinking of all my parents did to get me there, all I'd done, all the thousands of people who helped me get to that moment."
This might not be worth anything, but I've got to say it. Sometimes, in the middle of all the commercialism and politics and cynicism that are sports and life today, you meet someone who squirts a bottle of seltzer in your face. Napier -- brave, na´ve and full of honor -- is that for me.
Because whatever your opinion is of the Olympics and of war, you cannot help but be proud that a man like him is wearing your flag in both.
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RICK REILLY, 52, has been voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times. His new book -- out May 4, 2010 -- is called "Sports From Hell: My Two-year Search for the World's Dumbest Competition." It's the account of his search for the dumbest sport in the world.
Not to give anything away, but a good bet would be either Ferret Legging or the World Sauna Championships. It also includes embarrassing attempts by Reilly to try Nude Bicycle Racing, Zorbing, Chess Boxing, Extreme Ironing, the World Rock Paper Scissors Championships and an unfortunate week on a women's pro football team.