LAKELAND, Fla. — John Napier used to race for America. And he used to fight for America.
These days, he misses both.
The former U.S. Olympic bobsledder was once thought of as someone who would be a top contender for a medal at next month's Sochi Olympics. Instead, he's studying biochemistry at Florida Southern College, dabbling with some competitive water skiing on the side, continuing his transition each day from life as both a slider and a soldier who fought in Afghanistan.
And he's not regretting anything.
“I miss going down the hill. I miss going down the hill with my friends,” Napier said, sitting outside sipping coffee one recent morning before class. “But I'm in a really good place and I've been given amazing opportunities right now to succeed in life. So I would say this is most important right now, school, college.”
He joined the National Guard in 2007 and became part of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, which meant he got support in exchange for a small time commitment and being a military ambassador through bobsledding. Thing is, Napier didn't want to short-change the arrangement, so he looked for ways to keep doing more with the military.
That led him to make an unusual decision. After the Vancouver Olympics four years ago, here's how he stunned friends inside and outside the Army world: He asked to go to war. Eventually, the Army granted his wish and didn't just deploy him to Afghanistan, but gave him the opportunity — also as he insisted — to see battle.
His first night there, bullets flew his way.
“I see the world from a different angle,” Napier said. “There were days when you're driving around on roads or on patrol and you know you've got probably a 50 percent chance of getting blown up on this road. There's terrifying moments. I drive bobsleds at 90 mph, I go over water ski jumps, I'll do any sport known to man. And I was scared. Anybody would be. But you get the brotherhood experience, and there's no price you can pay for that.”
So he traded his bobsled for an M249 light machine gun, strapped 70 pounds of water and ammunition onto his 180-pound frame, read his Bible in tough moments and did the job. When it was over after nearly 6½ months, he came back to bobsledding. It just wasn't the same, and after two seasons where results just weren't what he wanted, he retired.
“It was my time,” Napier said. “I still felt the need to win, but there was something else too. There was a frustration, a thorn, a sadness almost. It was almost depressing for me to be there. I would say it was time. I got led out of the sport. One thing led to another, leading me to where I am right now, and I'm happy where I'm at.”
He chose biochemistry for a reason: “Because it's hard,” he said.
That's pretty much been his reason for choosing almost everything.
Bobsledding isn't easy, even for those like him who got started as an 8-year-old. War wasn't easy; Napier speaks openly about friends who were either killed there or committed suicide after coming home, unable to deal with the transition back to a normal life. Water skiing competitively isn't easy, as evidenced by how he was immobilized for three months after shredding one of his hamstrings. Biochemistry isn't easy; those who know him say a 10-hour study day isn't uncommon.
And his next chapter won't be easy either, given that Napier is considering becoming a chiropractor.
“He's the American dream,” said Dr. Dave Gabay, a close friend of Napier's who has a chiropractic practice in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., just north of Napier's hometown of Schenectady. “It's about moving forward in a positive direction, overcoming adversity. The number of his friends who are well-adjusted coming back from over there are a minority, not the majority. This is a kid who has risen above all this. It's a positive story.”
Next month, Napier will be on the couch, watching and rooting.
Many members of the U.S. Olympic bobsled team that will compete in Sochi are his close friends. One of them, push athlete Chris Fogt, even served simultaneously in Afghanistan with Napier, the two crossing paths one day in what became quite a hilarious moment. Seeing his buddy, Napier yelled “Fogt!” instead of “Sir!” because he temporarily forgot that he was addressing an officer.
Even without Napier, the Americans might be in position to collect more bobsled medals in Sochi than any other nation.
“Hoping and praying they make it happen,” Napier said.