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The USA's soldier-athletes

Published August 16, 2004

ATHENS - All Daryl Szarenski had to do to was let his hair grow.

Take a little bit less off the top, allow the sides to fill in a little bit, and there wouldn't have been nearly as many questions, or concerns, about the potential for trouble.

Security has been, and will continue throughout the Games to be, a popular topic for all members of the U.S. Olympic team. But for Szarenski, seven of his teammates on the shooting squad and 10 other athletes in different sports, it could be a much bigger issue.

The 18 are active members of the military.

They are Army soldiers, Air Force personnel and a Navy sailor.

Given the world political climate and heightened terrorism warnings, those might not be the best things to be. Especially for athletes trying to focus on performing at the highest levels and not be distracted by real-life events.

Donning the red, white and blue could be akin to wearing a target in an environment that has the potential to be extremely anti-American, singling them out for abuse, or worse. The U.S. team was booed in absentia at Tuesday's rehearsal of the Opening Ceremonies, and there was at least a smattering of discord amid Friday's pageantry.

So far, that's all there has been.

Szarenski, and others, say they don't expect worse. More defiantly, they say they aren't concerned, that they are what they are, and they like their chances.

"I know I stick out like a sore thumb because of my haircut, but I would rather look like a soldier than anything else," said Szarenski, a sergeant first class who finished tied for 13th in the 10m air pistol Saturday and will compete Tuesday in the 50m event.

"I'm very proud to represent the United States Army. If I get my picture plastered somewhere, I don't want to have long hair or be out of uniform. I want to look like a soldier.

"If they target me for it, that's the way it is. I'd rather be an American soldier and be recognized for that."

Szarenski; Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker, the world-record holder who begins qualifying today for the 10m air rifle, and six other shooters are members of the Army's marksmanship unit at Fort Benning, Ga. They compete in elite meets, they instruct, they recruit, they do PR, and they shoot.

Very well.

"We are active-duty military, regular soldiers," said Sgt. 1st Class Bret Erickson, a three-time Olympic trap shooter. "We keep current in our military training, but most of the time we are trained to shoot. Our job is to shoot, compete and win..

"We are soldier-athletes, but we always put the soldier first."

Technically, they could be summoned for active duty at any time. But that's unlikely. "If the Army needs our capabilities, they can call on us at any time," said Army Maj. Mike Anti, a three-time Olympic rifleman. "I would leave tomorrow if they needed me. . . . This is my dream to be at the Olympics, but there are more important things than the Olympics."

Most of the soldier-athletes, at the least, know somebody who knows somebody who is on the front lines in Iraq or other points of conflict. And as hard as they are working to try to win a gold medal - whether shooting, rowing, wrestling, fencing, running the marathon or competing in the modern pentathlon (that's Army 1st Lt. Chad Senior, a Fort Myers native) - they have not forgotten that some of their colleagues and compatriots are fighting for a more important goal.

"I would say a lot of motivation for winning and doing my very best is dedicated to the soldiers that are over there in Iraq," Anti said.

"Because of them, I'm able to do this. If it wasn't for those soldiers making that sacrifice, I wouldn't be able to. I'm a major in the U.S. Army. They have given me that opportunity. And I'm going to try to make them proud."

The feeling may be mutual.

At the Tallil Air Force base in Iraq, Air National Guard Maj. Mike Ray, a 1979 graduate of Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, said the success of the soldier-athletes is important.

"I am extremely proud of our service members competing in the Olympics, and right now I would not want them anywhere else," Ray said in an e-mail interview. "These soldiers have a gift and are representing our nation on a global scale. . . . Right now, our nation needs them most right where they are. To coin one of the Air Force core values, these guys are demonstrating "excellence in all we do.' "

The soldier-athletes are not trying to attract attention. They aren't wearing military uniforms during the Games, dressing instead like other members of the U.S. team. They are not flaunting their status, nor taunting their opponents, insisting they would not make it personal if competing against an athlete from a country the U.S. government was in conflict with.

Simply, their bigger victory would come on the medal stand.

"Like they say, it's an Army of one," Szarenski said. "Everyone has their job, everyone has their mission. This is my mission. Those guys have done an excellent job over in Iraq accomplishing their mission, and it's our time to show the Army is strong, as everyone of us is going to be doing everything we possibly can to win."

If they take a little grief for their military connections, that's one thing. They seem pretty confident they can handle whatever comes their way.

And if there were to be a situation?

Well, as shotgun specialist Kim Rhode said, they can defend themselves pretty well:

"Being a shooter, what concern do we have?"

[Last modified August 16, 2004, 01:20:21]

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