The euphoric feeling of winning a silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics had barely begun fading into memory before Army Spec. Paul Chelimo experienced a moment that challenged to top it.
Less than six weeks after becoming the first American since 1964 to win an Olympic medal in the 5,000 meters, Chelimo was at the White House receiving a hug from President Obama, whom he greeted in his native Swahili. Obama, in turn, joked to the Olympian that he “might need a pacer soon” for his runs, Chelimo said.
It is days like these that have surpassed even Chelimo’s most ambitious childhood dreams. To the 25-year-old native of Kenya, none of this would have been possible if he had not enlisted in the U.S. Army two years ago and joined the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which specifically trains nationally and internationally ranked soldiers for the Olympics.
“After I won the silver medal, I couldn’t believe it,” he said shortly after arriving in Washington last week. “I was just super excited and pumped about the future. It’s a dream come true.”
The hectic schedule will continue for Chelimo, who will line up Sunday morning at the 32nd annual Army Ten-Miler, where he is the defending champion. He will be one of four U.S. Olympians competing in the race for the all-Army team. All four Olympians, like the majority of runners in WCAP, came to the United States from Kenya and received college scholarships to run. For many of them, enlisting in the Army was a way to express their gratitude for the opportunities they received in America.
Growing up in Iten, Kenya — the home town of many decorated distance runners — Chelimo knew by a young age that he wanted to serve in the military. While playing games with his friends, Chelimo always would pretend to be an Army soldier.
“It’s something that was always on my mind,” he said.
Chelimo discovered his talent for running when his brothers would fail to catch him while playing tag, and he realized it would be his ticket to an education in the United States. He first competed for Shorter College in Georgia before transferring to North Carolina Greensboro, where he flourished in NCAA competition.
After graduating in 2014 as a five-time all-American, Chelimo enlisted in the Army as his way of repaying his adopted country. The decision also allowed him to train with WCAP and eventually receive his U.S. citizenship.
Chelimo is stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado as a water treatment specialist but has been training with Coach Dan Browne — a three-time Army Ten-Miler champion — and members of WCAP in Portland, Ore.
“They’ve been there for me the whole time,” Chelimo said of the WCAP team. “I’ve been training hard, and that’s why I’ve been able to do [well]. They’ve shown me that they believe in me.”
The program began in 1997 and supports elite soldier-athletes in a variety of disciplines, including track and field. Soldiers have to complete basic training and advanced individual training before being selected to WCAP. The program is typically designed for a three-year assignment leading up to the Olympic Games.
Capt. Matthew Hickey, the WCAP commander since September 2015, was in the stadium in Brazil when Chelimo won the silver medal and speaks in awe of the runners in WCAP — not just of their talents but of their backgrounds.
“I think the runners are the epitome of what we look for in a soldier,” Hickey said. “They really tell the American story unlike anything else. . . . [Chelimo’s] story really tells what it’s all about, being a soldier, an athlete and an Olympian to go from Kenya all the way to the [Olympic] podium.”
The Army also played a role in reviving Sgt. Hillary Bor’s running career. Bor, a 26-year-old native of Eldoret, Kenya, graduated from Iowa State in May 2012 and figured he was done with competitive running after a poor performance in his last collegiate race.
A four-time all-American for the Cyclones, Bor enlisted in the Army in July 2013 and took a year off from running before deciding to test the waters again at the 2014 Army Ten-Miler. He finished seventh and immediately became one of the best runners on the all-Army team. Bor was fifth in the race last year.
“I wanted to be part of the United States,” said Bor, who finished seventh in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in Rio. “And the only way that I was going to do it was sign up for the U.S. Army and give back what they gave me because if I had stayed in Kenya, I would have not gone to school.”
With two more Rio Olympians — Spec. Leonard Korir (14th in the 10,000 meters) and Spec. Shadrack Kipchirchir (19th in the 10,000) — and several highly accomplished runners on the team, the all-Army team looks to repeat or exceed last year’s performance of placing in the top five male individual spots and winning the team title by more than an hour.
“The Army Ten-Miler is the best way to finish off the year,” Chelimo said. “Last year, I was really pumped. Going home I was happy because it was mission accomplished. . . . We don’t want to be in an Army race and get smoked. It’s good that when we represent, we want to go for the win.”
The Army Ten-Miler road race began in 1985 and is one of the largest 10-mile races in the world, with a field of 35,000 participants. The race course begins and finishes near the Pentagon and runs through various landmarks in the District. The first of eight waves will begins at 7:50 a.m.
Spectator locations: Memorial Bridge (East side), Kennedy Center, 14th and Independence Avenue, Army Navy Drive and finish line at the Pentagon
2015 champions Men’s — Paul Chelimo (48:19); Women’s — Tina Muir (55:20)
Website Race results will be posted here.