Army Soldiers, Now Team USA Athletes, Share Olympic Training Experiences as Tokyo Awaits

By Joseph Lacdan

Army Sgt. Amro Elgeziry knows the rush that comes with competing at the Olympic Games. At 34 years-old, he will make his fourth Olympic appearance this summer in the modern pentathlon after previously representing his native country Egypt three times.

But this time will be notably different.

Competing for the first time as an American, Elgeziry hopes to become the first U.S. competitor in the sport to win an Olympic gold in more than 100 years.

“This is a special Olympics for me, because I get to represent the United States,” Elgeziry said during a live panel discussion. “I have a big chip on my shoulder. I really want to represent Team USA and the U.S. Army well.”

After immigrating to the U.S., he joined the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) in 2017 with his wife and fellow WCAP member, Sgt. Isabella Isaksen.

Elgeziry has had mentors throughout his storied career, from Cairo to Fort Carson, Colorado. His older brother Emad set the example, piquing Elgeziry’s interest in the sport when Emad qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney as a pentathlete. At the time, Elgeziry and his three other brothers had been training as swimmers.

Enamored with the prospect of competing on the world stage, Elgeziry began training for the multi-disciplinary sport, eventually qualifying for the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016. He had been ranked as high as No. 4 in the world but finished the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro at 25th place.

Photo credit Courtesy photo

Sgt. Amro Elgeziry, right, is congratulated by Sgt. Samantha Schultz during the 2019 Biathle/Triathle World Championships in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“I’ve learned something after every Olympics,” said Elgeziry, who is currently ranked No. 62 in the world.

After WCAP’s Olympic training center closed last summer, Elgeziry and his wife transformed their backyard into a makeshift gym, where he lifted weights and practiced pistol shooting and fencing.

“It was definitely hard,” he said. “But we did the best we [could].”

The modern pentathlon draws inspiration from traditional military disciplines. Athletes battle each other in fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian racing and a combination run-and-shoot race. The most renowned American athlete was Gen. George S. Patton, who competed in the first pentathlon tournament at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm.

Joining Elgeziry in Tokyo will be Sgt. Samantha Schultz, a first-time Olympian in the pentathlon, and WCAP coach Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Bowsher.

U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft in 2019. | Photo credit DVIDS/Maj. Michelle Lunato

Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft also qualified for the Tokyo Games in the 10-meter air pistol after taking the gold at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. Uptagrafft will be returning to the games after competing in shooting at London in 2012.

“It’s an honor to be able to serve in the Army and still pursue my sport at the highest level,” she said. “And I’m grateful to WCAP for giving me the resources to put myself in contention at the Olympic Games.”

Uptagrafft, wife of former Olympian Eric Uptagrafft, began competing in the sport as a student at the University of Southern California. The Los Angeles native credits the Army with giving her the discipline to compete at the Olympic level.

“I don’t think I would have the longevity that I’ve had without the Army teaching me certain things like hard work, strength and resiliency to help me accomplish the mission of not only making the Olympic team, but also getting me to where I am today,” Uptagrafft said.

Spc. Benard Keter, a Soldier-athlete in the World Class Athlete Program, crossed the finish line of the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 8:21.81 at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials June 25, 2021, earning his spot to compete at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. | Photo credit U.S. Army/1st Sgt. Alex Ramos

Other soldiers will be competing in the games as well.

Spc. Benard Keter braved a record heatwave in Oregon to qualify for the Olympics in the 3,000-meter steeplechase on June 25. By competing in Tokyo, Keter completes a journey that began 2010, when Keter first immigrated to the U.S. from his native country Kenya.

During the pandemic, all competitions for the steeplechase halted. Without access to a track, Keter measured running distances on street pavements. He credits the WCAP track coaches and the Army for supporting him throughout the challenging training process.

“I love the atmosphere within our track and field program and the coaches and chain of command,” Keter said. “They give us all the support that we need to be better soldiers.”

Joining Keter in Tokyo along with the other Army athletes, Sgt. Terrence Jennings hopes to make an impact on Team USA as an assistant coach. Jennings previously competed at the 2012 games where he took bronze at 68 kg.

Jennings credited WCAP head taekwondo coach Master Sgt. David Bartlett with helping him transition from athlete to coach. Jennings helped train Olympic hopefuls such as heavyweight Pvt. Russell Gresham.

“He really kind of showed me what it meant to be a leader and showed me how to handle situations and things that soldiers deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Jennings said.

Photo credit DVIDS/1st Lt. Tristan Manderfeld/WCAP

Spc. Alejandro Sancho earned his spot on the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team in the men’s Greco-Roman 67kg weight class at the 2021 U.S. Wrestling Olympic Trials, April 2-3, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Beyond Tokyo, the soldier-athletes said they were grateful for the opportunity to serve in the Army.

Spc. Alejandro Sancho, who will be representing Team USA in the Greco-Roman wrestling’s 67 kg event, said he hopes to transition from the National Guard to active duty and continue his career as a military police officer once he finishes competing.

“I think the Army has been a really big mentor to me. Striving for excellence and being a leader and all that stuff has taught me to become a better human being,” Sancho said.

- This story originally appeared on army.mil. It has been edited for USO.org.

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