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Rio 2016: Military Olympians struggle in medal battle — still more to come

August 18, 2016 (Photo Credit: Luca Bruno/AP)
More than halfway through the Summer Games, Army 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks was the first among a platoon of military Olympians to claim a spot on the podium with his bronze-medal finish in the men’s pole vault.

Kendricks jumped to an early lead with a first-place vault in the qualifier round. Air Force 1st Lt. Cale Simmons was eliminated in the same round, but Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva nailed a third-place finish.

By the finals, however, Kendricks and Braz de Silva traded places, the hometown hero taking gold with a 6.03-meter vault and new Olympic record.

Kendricks stretched over the 5.85-meter notch to land his medal-winning spot.

For Team USA’s much vaunted shooting squad, it was a few narrow misses — and a few wide — for the military marksmen on the team.

Shotgun shooter Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Richmond just missed making the double trap finals in a shoot-off with another military shooter, ending with an eighth-place finish. That other military shooter, however, wasn’t teammate and 2008 Beijing Games gold medalist Sgt. 1st Class Glenn Eller.

Instead, squeezing past Richmond was Kuwaiti army officer Fehaid Al-Deehani, who went on to win the double trap gold.

In his sixth trip to the Summer Games, Al-Deehani almost wasn’t allowed to complete. Kuwait's Olympic committee is currently suspended, accused of “undue government interference” by the International Olympic Committee.

In a last-minute concession just before the Rio Olympics, the IOC allowed Kuwait's athletes to participate as independents under the IOC flag. Six days before his gold medal win, Al-Deehani turned down a chance to carry that flag during opening ceremonies.

“I am a military man, and I will only carry the Kuwait flag,” he told reporters.

Richmond didn’t begrudge Al-Deehani’s success.

“He's a good friend and very good guy. I knew it was going to take me a while to get through him if I could. I was confident that I could. Maybe I sped up just a little bit."

Richmond, who moved up eight places from his finish in the London Games four years ago, said he’s more committed than ever to keep zeroing in on his own berth atop the Olympic podium.

“Certainly a lot better feeling than London’s performance,” Richmond said. “It’s not what you are after at the end of the day, but anytime you’re progressing in your sport, that’s a good thing. Overall, I couldn’t be happier with the experience I’ve gained here. Getting closer and closer to that medal is creating a bigger fire for me, and I look forward to trying out for another team.”

Frustrating finishes

Meanwhile, Army veteran and two-time reigning skeet gold medalist Vincent Hancock was eliminated in qualifications, finishing in 15th place.

“It was frustrating. I didn’t shoot well here or in practice,” Hancock said in a USA Shooting statement. “I felt really well down here, but it was just little things here and there that I can’t really pinpoint what they were. I felt that these were some of the hardest targets we’ve seen in quite some time.”

Hancock had been determined to win a third gold medal.

“Pretty simple when you look at things. You just have to go out there and execute, and I just didn’t do that,” he said.

In the men’s 50 meter rifle competition, Army shooter Sgt. 1st Class Michael McPhail bested teammate Marine Corps 2nd Lt. David Higgins. McPhail finished 19th, trailed by Higgins in 40 th place. Higgins graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy a few months ago, but cross-commissioned into the Marine Corps.

In the 25 meter rapid fire pistol competition, Army Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson, who is also a Marine Corps veteran, finished in 10th place.

Sanderson was just three points shy of the 583 points out of 600 he needed to make into the finals.

Not bad, especially considering he’d been dealing with a trigger break after pre-event training.

Army Spc. Daniel Lowe finished 28th in the men’s 50 meter, three-position rifle competition and 34th in the 10-meter air rifle event.

Track and field fights

Two Army runners were up against defending 10,000-meter gold medalist Mo Farah.

Spc. Leonard Korir and Spc. Shadrack Kipchirchir were hoping to give him a run for his money.

Farah, who has won every global title on offer at this distance and is unbeaten over 25 laps of the track since 2011, took a tumble at halfway when an accidental clip from his sometime training partner Galen Rupp saw him sprawled out in Lane 2.

Despite the tumble, he still crossed the finish line for the win with 27:05.17 on the clock. Korir followed 30 seconds later for 14th place, with Kipchirchir taking 19th place.

In the women’s 100-meter sprint, incoming U.S. Naval Academy freshman Regine Tugade finished in the top half of the pack running for Guam.

Finishing third in her semifinal heat with a time of 12:52, she told reporters, “I didn’t run my personal best, but I honestly felt like I ran my hardest, and I felt like I performed well. It may not show time-wise, but my body and my mentality feels like I pushed it to my limit.”

Tugade said she’s looking forward to just getting faster at the Naval Academy.

Meanwhile, Naval Academy graduate Lt. Edward King made it to the finals in the men’s four-man lightweight rowing event Aug. 11, ending with a sixth-place finish.

What's next

There’s still action left for the remaining military Olympians.

On Aug. 19, Army Staff Sgt. John Nunn will compete in the 50K race walk. The next day, Army Sgt. Nathan Schrimsher begins the modern pentathlon, while Spc. Paul Chelimo runs the 5,000-meter race.

Capping off the Summer Games for current and former U.S. military Olympians, Navy veteran Peter Lombard is in the mountain bike race competing for Guam.

Email Military Times staff writer Jon R. Anderson at jona@militarytimes.com.

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