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From combat to competition: Army Olympians

Several athletes in the Army will be competing in the 2008 Olympics and they say that they are driven by the support and encouragement they received from the Army.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

When Dremiel Byers enlisted in the Army 14 years ago, he thought his athletic career was finished.

“I had a football scholarship to North Carolina A&T and after one year I had some problems at home that required my attention,” said Byers, 33. “So I gave up my scholarship and signed up for a two-year enlistment.”

Byers had no idea that step would one day lead him to the Olympics.

He is one of at least eight people representing both the United States and the U.S. Army in Beijing. At least three others may join them, pending the outcome of the Olympic trials. If the hopefuls are successful, the Army will have Olympians competing in wrestling, boxing, marksmanship and track.

At 6-foot-2 and 286 pounds, Byers will compete in Greco-Roman wrestling after successfully defeating his opponents in the Olympic trials last Sunday. Byers began his wrestling career in 1996, after joining the Army’s World Class Athlete’s Program (WCAP), which encourages and supports talented athletes while they maintain their military careers.

“In 1996 I didn’t even know what Greco-Roman wrestling was,” laughed the mild-mannered staff sergeant, who resides in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Three years later, I took the silver medal in the Pan American Games.”

Army of one, representing for thousands
Without his Army experience, Byers said, the Olympics would have been an unattainable dream.

“It wouldn’t have been possible without the Army,” he said. “There’s a direct correlation between competing as an athlete and soldiering tough situations — being able to count on the person next to you, team building — all of that helps you.”

In addition, he adds, his fellow service men and women have been cheering him on every step of the way.

“Several people in Iraq that I know are sending me messages, e-mails, saying, ‘Man, we’re so proud of you,’ ” Byers said. “I know it’s just not me that’s doing it, they’re with me, too. That’s the best feeling.”

The other Army Olympians and hopefuls also credit the Army with their success.

“The Army and the Olympics have the same values — respect for competitors, honoring people, dedication and motivation and sincerity in everything you do,” said Libby Callahan, who will be competing in women’s sport pistol.

No limitsCallahan, who retired as a captain in the Special Operations Division in August 2003, is about to make history as the oldest woman to compete in the Olympic Games.

But that’s not important, says the petite blonde.

“Everybody brings that up, but I don’t think about it,” the 56-year-old said. “I don’t set those kinds of limitations on myself and I don’t let anyone else set them for me.”

The South Carolina native was introduced to marksmanship as a Washington D.C., police officer, a title she wore for 28 years. She joined the Army Reserves in 1985 after deciding she wanted a second career, and began working as an instructor on M-16 rifles and 9mm pistols.

In 1992, Callahan had her first experience as an Olympian in Barcelona.

“Unless you’ve had that experience before, it can be a little nerve-racking, and it showed in my performance,” she said. “I didn’t shoot very well, but it gave me the impetus to keep going.”

Now Callahan can call herself a veteran Olympian. This will be her fourth time competing in the Olympic Games, in addition to other competitions, including the 2005 World Cup USA where she won a bronze medal for air pistol.

Both competitors say that going to the Olympics is about more than winning for themselves.

“I represent soldiers all over the world that can’t do what I do,” Callahan said. “That to me is the most rewarding thing.”

Byers added that a win would be representative of his patriotism.

“Getting our flag raised and our song played while the world is watching — that’s the goal,” he said.