Athlete-soldiers march to Sochi

LAKE PLACID – Four New York Army National Guard soldiers will be part of the United States Olympic team at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, next week.

Sergeants Nick Cunningham and Justin Olsen will be part of the United States Olympic Bobsled Team while Sgt. Matthew Mortensen and Staff Sgt. William Tavares are part of the United States Olympic Luge team.

Olsen, a bobsled push athlete won a gold medal in the sport at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, while Cunningham is a bobsled driver who is ranked 17th in the world.

Mortensen, a native of Huntington Station who now lives in Lake Placid, will compete for Olympic gold, while Tavares, also a Lake Placid resident, who competed in the Olympics himself in 1992 and coached the 2010 American luge team, will coach the 2014 luge team.

All four men are part of the United States Army’s World Class Athlete Program in which Active Army and Army National Guard Soldiers serve while training as an athlete on an Olympic sports team. The Army pays them their military salaries, while allowing them to focus on honing their skills.

Of the seven Army athletes who will participate in the games, four are New York National Guard members.

Athletes who enlist in the program attend basic training and become qualified in their military skills. National Guard soldier-athletes attend unit training drills when not competing.

Both the luge and bobsled teams train at the United States Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.

Mortensen, 28, enlisted in the New York Army National Guard in 2010, and is a member of the 1156th Engineer Company based in Kingston. Mortensen secured his spot on the Olympic team when he and fellow Army athlete Sgt. Preston Griffall earned a ninth-place finish in doubles at the Luge World Cup stop at Utah Olympic Park on Dec. 13.

Mortensen is a graduate of St. Dominic’s High School and has been a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program since April 2011. He and Griffall won silver medals in the 2013 Lake Placid World Cup team relay race.

Mortensen said he was looking forward to representing his country at the Olympics.

“It’s unbelievable,” Mortensen said. “I get emotional thinking about it. It’s been almost 17 years that I’ve been working toward this point, and for it to finally happen is like a dream come true.”

Tavares, 50, is an infantryman in Company B, 2nd Battalion 108th Infantry, which is headquartered in Morrisonville. He has served in the New York Army National Guard since 1982. He has been involved in the Army’s World Class Athlete program since 1998.

Tavares finished ninth at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games as a luge competitor. He coached the U.S. women’s bobsled teams at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics. As a coach for U.S. national teams since 1997, Tavares has helped lead athletes to five world championships and 70 medals in World Cup competitions.

In luge, athletes ride small one- or two-person sleds an iced track at very fast speeds.

Olsen, 26, enlisted in the New York Army National Guard in January 2011 and serves as a personal services specialist in the Headquarters Detachment of the Joint Force Headquarters in Watervliet. He is originally from Wittenburg, Texas and now lives in Lake Placid.

“I already represent my country,” Olsen said. “Now I have an opportunity to serve and represent my country at the same time.”

In 2010, Olsen was one of the three pushers on the U.S. four-man bobsled team that took the gold medal.

Cunningham, 28, enlisted in the New York National Guard in March of 2011 and was trained as a carpentry and masonry specialist in the 1156th Engineer Company, based in Kingston. He comes from Monterey, Calif. and now lives in Lake Placid, too.

A fifth New York Army National Guard Soldier is a part of the U.S. National Luge Team but did not make the Olympic team.

Sgt. Emily Sweeney is a 20-year old member of the 206th Military Police Company headquartered in Latham who finished ninth in the 2013 Lake Placid World Cup. She lives in Suffield, Conn.

The Army World Class Athlete program was created in 1997 to help soldier-athletes excel at their sports. The soldiers must successfully complete required military training to participate. The program pays them to train full time and, in return, they host clinics for soldiers and act as goodwill ambassadors for the Army and the United States at international games.

Since the Army’s World Class Athlete Program was created, 55 Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard athletes have won gold, silver or bronze medals at the Olympic Summer or Winter games.