Napier retires from sliding to pursue military career
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (May 8, 2012)-While most 25 year olds are just being seated at their first job, John Napier is retiring from an illustrious 18-year career as a bobsled pilot. But Napier is not most 25 year olds. He’s an Olympian and a war veteran, and now he hopes to be a member of either the “ultimate brotherhood” with the U.S. Navy SEALs or become one of the Army’s most specialized experts in the Special Forces.
Napier, a National Guard sergeant, is hoping to receive a conditional release provided he passes Navy SEAL or Army Special Forces selection. The process could take months, but Napier is already on a mission.
“I don’t want to be in something because I’m good at it. I want to be in something because I can help the people around me,” Napier said. “That’s why I want to do this. But, I have a long way to go. My status as an Olympian by no means makes me better than anyone else. I need to turn myself into an endurance athlete and give everything possible to be eligible for one of these elite teams. I’ve dedicated myself to this.”
Napier first drove a bobsled at the age of 8 under the guidance of his best friend and coach, his dad, William Napier. Both of his parents were former sliders and were excited to share their passion with their son, who grew into one of the U.S. program’s best drivers. Napier made his World Cup debut on his home track in Lake Placid, N.Y., when he was just 18, in front of a cheering crowd filled with friends and family.
“I’ve known the sport of bobsled since I was two weeks old when my parents took me to the track,” Napier said. “I’ve grown up in the sport; it’s all I’ve known. It was my mom and dad’s passion, and it’s still a passion of mine.”
Three months after Napier’s debut, William passed away after a two-year struggle with kidney cancer. Napier floundered without his role model before pouring his heart into sliding. He went on to win gold and silver medals in the 2009 Lake Placid World Cup race series, and was named to the Olympic team just months later. Napier put fire to a dream his father kindled.
Napier became a Soldier-athlete in the spring of 2007 as a member of the Vermont National Guard, and spent six months serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army 3-172 Infantry Battalion shortly after competing in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. One of his four-man bobsled teammates, Chris Fogt, was deployed for a year to Iraq, and the two friends gained strength in each other when they returned to the bobsled circuit. A new passion was ignited.
“I saw this spark ignite,” Eric Duncan, an Army commander, wrote in a comment on a story posted about Napier’s retirement on the USA Bobsled & Skeleton Facebook page. “He’s one of the blessed. He’s just good, inside and out. I have never seen someone’s idealism bend the reality around him to create opportunity like it does around John.”
Napier said doors were opening in other directions over the last two years, and the tug to make a change was finally too strong. He’s always been interested in pursuing a military career, and feels ready to make the transition.
“During this last season, we frequently discussed our deployments, military life, and how much we missed putting on the military uniform every day,” Fogt said. “I wish him the best of luck in the next chapter in his life. If he applies the same hard work, dedication, loyalty and passion for the sport that made him an elite pilot and respected member of the bobsled community, then he will be successful and a great asset to our military’s elite.”
While some team members weren’t surprised by Napier’s retirement announcement, others were shocked to consider the sport without Napier. Bobsled and Napier were synonymous.
“People come and go in this sport, but John was a staple,” said Chuck Berkeley, who competed with Napier in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. “It’ll be strange not having him around. He could drive any track in the world in his sleep, so maybe he’ll come back someday. Regardless of what I feel, I think it’s great that he’s doing this. We are all really proud of him.”
Reigning Olympic and World Champion Steven Holcomb has mixed feelings about Napier’s departure from the sport. While he’s happy that Napier is following his heart and doesn’t doubt he’ll succeed, Holcomb is disappointed not to have Napier alongside on tour.
“I have no doubt in my mind that he is a medal contender for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games,” Holcomb said. “He also pushes me to stay on top of my game and get better. It’s going to be difficult not being able to talk with him on the circuit. He’s a great driver and he definitely helped make me become the driver I am today.”
Emerging pilots Cory Butner and Nick Cunningham have been swapping positions as USA-3, but now the teammates will be battling for reign of USA-2. Despite the open spot, Butner and Cunningham aren’t happy to lose Napier as a teammate.
“John is one of the best drivers in this sport,” Butner said. “He has given a big part of his life to bobsled and has helped get the U.S. program to where it is today. It was a pleasure to have raced with John as a brakeman and against him as a driver. I wish him the best of luck.”
“Napier has always been someone I could turn to,” Cunningham added. “He is a class act and a true representative of this country.”
Cunningham competed as a brakeman in Napier’s sled during his rookie season and during the 2009 World Championships. The biggest impact Napier made on Cunningham was when they were competing against each other at the 2012 World Championships. Napier was disqualified during the four-man event when a team member failed to load into the sled. Despite the heartbreaking conclusion to the season, Napier stepped up to help Cunningham succeed.
“Instead of being upset and pointing blame, he immediately thought about how to help the team,” Cunningham said. “He gave me his runners and any advice he could to help me do the best I could. He knows the meaning of ‘team’ and will always be a part of team USA Bobsled. He helped bring the sport to the level it is at today. A true American hero, athlete, and friend.”
While Napier embarks on the next chapter of his career, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation will always consider him a member of its family.
“John is a selfless, determined individual, and elite pilot, and a very loyal friend,” said Steve Langton, a member of Holcomb’s two-man and four-man World Championship gold medal winning teams. “As unfortunate as it is for his teammates and the federation that he will not be competing for the U.S. next year, John is following his heart and will still be representing his country, just in a different uniform. I know he will find successes in the next stage of his life, and I wish him the very best.”