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From Afghanistan to the bobsled track, in a month and a day

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.-- Spectators and athletes cried last year, when John Napier won his first World Cup gold medal in two-man bobsled. Saturday, they cheered his seventh-place finish.
 
The local boy, who grew up in the shadow of the bobsled track, was home from the war safe and sound.
 
Just one month and one day after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with his Vermont Army National Guard unit, Napier was back in the driver's seat of USA 2 Saturday, hoping to duplicate last year's result.
 
But 34 pounds lighter and still finding his way in a civilian world, Napier finished .35 seconds behind the winner, Italy's Simone Bertazzo.
 
Still, Napier was smiling at the finish line.
 
"It felt great. It really did," said Napier, 24, the hometown boy who learned to drive from his father, also a bobsledder, while sitting on a phone book to see over the cowling. "Athletically, I'm not where I was when I won this race last year."
 
The 6-foot-3 Olympian was never a hulk. His nickname among bobsledders was, "Skinny." But during his time with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Napier spent long hours hauling a machine gun and mountains of other gear on patrol. The weight fell from his frame.

Napier, a sergeant who asked for a transfer from a desk job to a combat unit, said he benefited from his six-month tour of duty.
 
"It really did give me some great perspective, and now I hope I can be a better leader for my team, a stronger leader," said Napier.
 
A little more than two weeks after returning home, Napier was on the bobsled track in Calgary for a World Cup two-man race, where he finished 11th. A week later in Park City, Utah, he finished sixth. Back on his home track, Napier was in fifth-place after the first run of the day. However, a small slip by his brakeman, Laszlo Vandracsek, at the start cost USA 2 the chance at a medal.
 
Afterward, Vandracsek was visibly upset with his performance, shouting and stomping his feet. But Napier remained cool, clearly enjoying his return.
 
"I definitely wouldn't recommend doing this ... don't go right from Afghanistan to compete in a World Cup," he said, laughing. "With every day and every week, I'm getting more comfortable and I'm kind of assimilating back into normal society."
 
The Vancouver Olympics, where he finished 10th in two-man competition and crashed in the four-man event, "seem a long, long time ago."
 
While he was in Afghanistan, Napier had a large deck and a hot tub installed at the family home on Bobsled Run Lane.
 
"At the point I was in, I didn't know if I was coming back," he said. "I said, 'Well, at least I'm leaving my mom with something.' "
 
With world championships two months off, Napier wants to rebuild his body and "put on weight, put on mass, put on size because mass moves mass and it's a gravity sport." His goal: 215 pounds.
 
But first, he gets a four-week break before the World Cup circuit resumes and Christmas at home with a relieved family and a town that adores him.
 
"I plan on maybe not leaving the house for a good four or five day stretch," he said. "I'm probably going to turn into a vegetative state and watch a lot of cartoons and drink chocolate milk and egg nog."

-- Candus Thomson

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