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U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program puts runners on fast track to citizenship

5K specialist Paul Chelimo, others in program make their mark in U.S. track and field

U.S. runner Paul Chelimo delivered on the promise of a transcendent season when he captured the bronze medal in the 5-kilometer run last week at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships — track and field’s biggest event apart from the Olympics.

In a tactical touch-and-go race in which not even the unbeatable Mo Farah could maintain his stronghold on first place, Chelimo displayed the racing agility and resolve that recently carried him ahead of world-class fields and positioned him close to the American 3K record.

If an Olympic sport like track and field lives on in the national consciousness through highlight-reel moments (think Derek Redmond), 5K specialist Chelimo has already been full of them in his two years running under the American flag. People who casually tuned in to the Rio Olympics last summer might remember Chelimo as the guy who got his silver medal taken from him and reinstated on live television. Last week, he topped himself in the theatrics department by falling in his semifinal heat, getting back up and catching up to the field in time to qualify for the final.

Chelimo runs for the U.S. Army under its World Class Athlete Program, and with his signature salute and his dominance in the past year, Chelimo has the makings of a star in his sport — to the degree that such a thing exists in track and field in this country.

Chelimo had been a Kenyan citizen competing for the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. NCAA distance running has been dominated by foreign talent, but for a few exceptions, like Bernard Lagat and Eritrean-born three-time Olympian Meb Keflezighi, a naturalization process that typically takes up to five years deters many of these runners from staying in the United States after college.

That was until the Army’s World Class Athlete Program started offering expedited citizenship for permanent residents after they completed basic training in 2009. Chelimo joined the U.S. Army in 2014 and got his citizenship the same year.

Chelimo’s rise to stardom is a reversal from the dominant narrative that the U.S. track and field community has been developing over the past 15 years in magazines and podcasts, a narrative based on native-born or long-naturalized citizens.

In 2001, the sports world briefly turned its attention to track and field when 18-year-old Virginian Alan Webb broke the national high school mile record set by America’s greatest miler, former world record holder Jim Ryun. Webb appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with another distance runner, Michigan-based high schooler Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished third in the U20 World Cross Country Championships the previous fall. Considering that Ryun won a silver medal in the Olympics and no American has placed that high at the World Championships, it seems reasonable to think that the U.S. might finally be able to compete for distance medals in a sport that has primarily been won by East Africans over the past few decades.

As the years rolled by, the number of athletes capable of performances comparable to the best in the world accelerated. A decade ago, only one American runner had run under 13 minutes for 5 km, but in 2010, Ritzenhein and three other runners — Chris Solinsky, Lagat and Matthew Tegenkamp — joined the sub-13 club in the span of less than a year, breaking the American record three times. Each of these achievements was celebrated on magazine covers as a measure of America’s progress against the best in the world.

At the trials for the Athens Olympics in 2004, only three Americans met the qualifying standard of 13:25 for the 5K, and because one of the runners opted out to run the 10K, the U.S. was unable to send a full complement of three runners for the event. At the 2016 Rio Olympic trials, 11 runners met the standard. In other words, there was no shortage of U.S. talent. What was more striking, however, was the lack of fear against the best in the world.

“If you begin looking at the last few years, you start seeing that Americans are slowly climbing back up, that we’ve started to compete and beat Africans,” said 29-year-old American athlete Ben True in an interview with Deadspin. “I was aware that East Africans are dominant, but I never wrote them off as unbeatable.”

True was being interviewed in the middle of a hot streak in 2015 that saw him beating some of the world’s top athletes. When asked about his proudest achievement, he spoke of leading the U.S. team to a second-place finish at the World Cross Country Championships, finishing ahead of running superpowers Ethiopia and Uganda.

A year later, True lined up to run the 5K in the 2016 Olympic trials with Ryan Hill and Galen Rupp, the silver medalist in the 10K at the 2012 London Olympics, joining him as favorites. All three represented the U.S. in the event at the IAAF World Championships a year earlier, finishing a promising fifth through seventh in the final. For Hill and True, the race represented their first chance to call themselves Olympians, and for U.S. track and field, it represented two more weapons with unique racing styles on the world stage.

Thirteen and a half minutes later, all three were left in the dust. Instead, the top three were Kenyan-born Lagat, Somalian-born runner Hassan Mead and Kenyan-born Chelimo.

Lagat came to the United States in 1996 to run at Washington State University and attained U.S. citizenship while winning a medal for Kenya at the 2004 Olympics. He released a public statement declaring his intentions to live out the rest of his life in America in 2005. When he won two golds at the 2007 World Championships, he was rightfully celebrated. Similarly, Mead was a familiar sight on the racing circuit, having emigrated in middle school and being an established runner in both high school and at the University of Minnesota.

Chelimo is a former All-American in cross country and track and field at UNC-Greensboro. He became a U.S. citizen and joined the WCAP three years ago.

Over the course of the 2016 Olympic trials, three other Kenyan-born WCAP athletes would join Chelimo on the U.S. National team: Hillary Bor in the 3K steeplechase and Leonard Korir and Shadrack Kipchirchir in the 10K.

The WCAP has been taking up a growing share of the world slots. Within a couple of years of True boasting about leading a squad that could match up against Kenyan runners at the World Cross Country Championships, the 2017 U.S. World Cross Country Championships squad was led by four Kenyan-born athletes: three members off the WCAP and a fourth, Stanley Kebenei, who is in the Army Reserve (Kebenei emigrated as a child and was already a citizen). At last week’s IAAF World Championships, the WCAP increased its contingent from four to six Kenyan-born athletes.

While this growth has been an astounding success for the WCAP, it has thrown some in the track community into a state of confusion. On the message boards at Letsrun.com, although the debate is mostly tempered with appreciation for the performances, one poster writes, “EZ-PASS to citizenship or honorable? Will I see Chelimo in battle if things go haywire? How do they have the time to train if they’re soldiers?” Another adds, “They probably have about 18 months of citizenship combined & definitely haven’t served in the ‘real Army’: a bunch of ‘1 & Done’s!’ ”

Robert Johnson, co-founder of Letsrun.com, said in an email: “I think instinctively most people have a problem with athletes representing countries where they don’t live or really plan on living permanently unless they or their parents were born in that country. Some of the Kenyans and Ethiopians that have switched allegiances to run for Middle Eastern countries still train and live in their home countries for much of the year. On the other hand, it seems that only a few people have a problem with athletes running for a country different than their birth if that’s the country where they actually live.”

Johnson primarily refers to Bahrain and Qatar, which have lured international stars in track and field as well as other sports. In a bid to become a world sports capital, for example, not only did the Qataris import over half their team when they hosted the World Handball tournament in 2015, they even hired 60 Spaniards to travel to the tournament to provide a cheering section. Similarly, Nigeria naturalized over half a dozen track and field athletes before Rio.

“If you come from an impoverished or extremely corrupt country, living in the United States could be a dream for you,” said David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “There are extremes that are unnatural like Qatar and Bahrain, so there’s an extreme that goes against the grain for me, but to a certain extent, its understandable from the point of view of the athletes.”

While active U.S. military personnel have been representing the United States since the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, the World Class Athlete Program officially coalesced in 1997 in Fort Carson, Colorado.

“We didn’t have the level of success that the Army expected them to have, so we looked at each sport and we raised the entry for each program — not just track and field but for all the individual sports. At that time we recommended Dan Browne to take us to the next level,” said WCAP program manager Willie Wilson.

Browne was one of the first disciples of Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project, which has produced countless global championship medalists since its inception in the early 2000s. When Browne took over the WCAP distance program in 2013 as coach, he used everything he had learned from the marathon greats and briefly moved the team near Nike’s Oregon facilities.

It was the coinciding of the citizenship expedition process — launched across the entirety of the military, independent of the WCAP — and the return of one of the program’s greatest success stories — Browne is a 2004 Olympian and West Point alum — that allowed for an influx of runners who were able to meet the standards.

According to Wilson, the program doesn’t recruit but has become known through its success. He also mentioned that a number of the Kenyan athletes have raced in the same circle collegiately and they come from the same villages in Kenya, so there is a certain effect of agglomeration at play. Hillary Bor, for instance, is the younger brother of WCAP recruits Julius and Emmanuel Bor, who earned accolades at the University of Alabama with fellow WCAP runner Augustus Maiyo.

“Elite athletes want to continue to compete after their careers are over. The World Class Athletes affords the opportunity to do that from whatever university or from whatever country,” said WCAP’s new coach, Lt. Col. Sean Ryan.

Of the 16 soldiers who are currently runners in the WCAP, 13 are originally Kenyan and one is originally Ugandan, and all of those athletes got their citizenship while in the program. What Wilson is eager to stress, however, is that nine of these 13 athletes received their citizenship while serving in units around the Army.

“The vast majority of those soldiers did their work in units just like any other soldier. There were no exception in terms of communication abilities or meeting entry standards,” he said.

As for the work that they do, the WCAP spokesmen concede that once the athletes reach a world-class level, their work shifts to training, but they still have work details (known as military occupational specialties) and continued military training.

As the Army hopes that soldiers will pick up life skills that will last in their careers and make an impact, Chelimo is on track to do that as well. Having grown up in a village with severe water shortages and having been treated for dysentery (infection of the intestines) as a child, Chelimo is working as a water specialist in the Army in hopes of eventually establishing a water treatment plant in his native Kenya.

The athletes also conduct Total Soldier Enhancement Training (TSET), where they instruct drill sergeants across the board on the mental strength, attention control and resilience that produces high levels of physical performance.

“I’ve witnessed them training fellow soldiers and was immediately impressed by their ability to make meaningful and lasting connections that strengthen a trainee’s physical and mental resiliency. WCAP athletes expose soldiers to mental skill training that leads to consistently higher levels of performance,” said Army spokesman Scott Malcolm.

Wilson also noted that many of those soldiers speak Swahili, which is one of the 44 languages the Army looks for in recruiting. Maiyo’s special forces unit assignment was with the United States Africa Command. The Army did note, however, that Maiyo did not deploy to the area of operations.

This year, the program has grown by six recruits and has shown little sign of abating from the national scene.

“We did have four Olympians, which is nice, but what I’ve tried to instill in them is this is 2017. We have bigger goals, and my sights are on 2020 and we have [the Olympics in] Tokyo,” said Ryan.

Perhaps the best perspective on the externalities of the WCAP comes from Andrew Bayer, who missed qualifying for both the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships by one place behind a WCAP runner. Although he questions the speed at which the citizenship is conferred, he supports the athletes 100 percent.

“I think our country was built by immigration. Welcoming new citizens is what the nation has been about,” he said. “At times I’ve gotten frustrated because I didn’t want to lose to them, but when I step back and see how we should be as a people, it’s a lot different.”

Orrin Konheim is a freelance blogger and journalist who has been published in the D.C. and Richmond markets as well as publications such as Mental Floss Magazine, Nostalgia Digest, TV Fanatic, Santa Barbara Independent, Cracked, Skagit Valley Herald and NBC4. He used to run track and cross country but realized it was much easier to watch other people run on TV instead.