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Military Olympians' storylines show discipline, dedication on road to Rio

The 2016 Summer Games are on their way. A joint-service contingent of elite U.S. troops — as well as veterans, family members and military-connected civilians — are all to preparing to deploy into the spotlight of world-class competition.

Among them:

Three Kenyan immigrants-turned-U.S. Army soldiers slog it out in the races of their lives, while a Navy officer digs deep to prove his mettle on the rowing crew.

Two pole vaulters — one in the Army, the other in the Air Force — face off in a high-flying interservice shootout for the top of the medals podium.

A freshly minted Marine Corps second lieutenant joins the Army-dominated shooting squad in his first bid for Olympic glory bid, while an Army veteran returns for this third Games and a third gold medal in his sights.

These are just a few of the stories to look out for as the 2016 Summer Olympic Games prepare to kick off Aug. 5 next month in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Aug. 5.

Representing the 555-strong Team USA will be 17 U.S. military athletes including 15 active troops, one veteran and a civilian employee of the Navy — as well as three alternates and five coaches.

Meanwhile, a Naval Academy grad and will compete for Guam, while a star runner on her way to her first year as a midshipman at Annapolis this fall will race for their homeland of Guam U.S. protectorate as well.

They'll be among more than 10,000 athletes from 207 nations competing across 28 sports and 306 events in the first-ever Olympic Games hosted in South America.

And because they're in the Southern Hemisphere, this will also mark the first Summer Games held entirely during the host country's winter — not that cold weather is expected to be a problem in a country known for its year-round balmy tropical beaches.

Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, seen here practicing at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been selected for his third U.S. Olympic Team and will compete in the men's rapid fire pistol event at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and at the Military World Games, Oct. 2-11. (U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs)
Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, seen here practicing at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been selected for his third U.S. Olympic Team and will compete in the men's rapid fire pistol event at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and at the Military World Games, Oct. 2-11. (U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs)

Army Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, seen here practicing at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., is on his way to his third Olympic Games competing in the men's rapid fire pistol event.

Photo Credit: Tim Hipps/U.S. Army

Staying on target

No surprise, perhaps, shooting remains among the top Olympic events for military athletes.

But it’s no accident, either. The Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Georgia, and the Army’s World Class Athlete Program in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are both incubators for top-level competitors and have been regular suppliers to Team USA for decades.

But this year, a recent Air Force Academy graduate, who just cross-commissioned into the Marine Corps, will join the pack of six current and former Army shooters looking to zero in on podium-notching wins at the Games.

Marine 2nd Lt. David Higgins hasn't even had time to go to basic officer training since graduating in May as he prepares to compete in the prone rifle event.

This dark horse medal contender beat out three-time Olympic medalist Matt Emmons in a made-for-the-movies, come-from-behind win, shooting a personal best in the final round of competition at the qualifiers to earn his berth to Rio.

He’ll join former Marine veteran, and now active-Army pistol packer Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson, who is returning for his third Summer Games and, he hopes, he’s hoping, his first medal.

A Marine for eight years before joining the Army Reserve, Sanderson still serves as a chief marksmanship instructor for Marines stationed in Hawaii as a civilian when he's not on active duty training for the Olympics.

He’ll be competing against Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael McPhail, who is returning to his second Games and also looking to claim his first medal. In another shootout, Sgts. 1st Class Glenn Eller and Josh Richmond will compete be competing against each other in the double trap event.

Meanwhile, skeet shooter and Army veteran Vincent Hancock is aiming for his third Olympic champion title in his third consecutive Summer Games.

Shooting events begin Aug. 6, with the last of the finals wrapping up Aug. 14.

Track & and field favorites

Leonard Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Paul Chelimo each emigrated from came to the U.S. from Kenya with their own version of the American dream in mind. Now all each U.S. citizens — and U.S. soldiers — all three are representing their adopted country as Olympic long-distance runners.

"They're soft-spoken guys, but also total warriors," says their U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program coach Maj. Dan Browne, a two-time Olympic distance-running veteran himself.

"It's amazing how much they've accomplished to get to this place in their careers," adds Browne, who travels with them to Rio.

Staff Sgt. John Nunn is returning for his third Olympic Games as a speed race walker.

Suffering from a bout of the flue, he almost didn’t make it.

"Last night I was in a fetal position, crying," said the 38-year-old athlete of just after his 50K race walk qualifier in February. "I couldn’t fathom the idea of how I would do this."

Yet he did, notching a 4 hours, 3 minutes finish, averaging a 7:49-minute mile for more than 31 miles.

And then there's the interservice battle between Air Force 1st Lt. Cale Simmons and Army 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks in the pole vault event.

At the team qualifiers in Eugene, Oregon, on July 4, Kendricks broke the Olympics trial record for the event, clearing the bar at 5.91 meters. Simmons was in close pursuit, taking second place with a 5.65-meter -vault.

Track and field events run Aug. 12-21.

Spc. Nathan Schrimsher of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program earns a berth in the 2016 Olympic Games with a third-place finish in the men's Modern pentathlon event Sunday at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs #WCAP #RoadToRio #TeamUSA #2015PanAmerican Games
Spc. Nathan Schrimsher of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program earns a berth in the 2016 Olympic Games with a third-place finish in the men's Modern pentathlon event Sunday at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs #WCAP #RoadToRio #TeamUSA #2015PanAmerican Games

Spc. Nathan Schrimsher of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program earned a berth in the 2016 Olympic Games with a third-place finish in the men's Modern pentathlon event at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

Photo Credit: Tim Hipps/Army

Following in footsteps

Sgt. Nathan Schrimsher will be following in the footsteps — and horse jumps, pool laps, sword thrusts, and pistol shots — of the one of the military’s most famous Olympians, Gen. George Patton, who competed in the modern pentathlon in the 1912 Summer Games.

Navy officer Edward King earned his SEAL Trident in 2012, but says his military career has largely been on the back burner while he’s been allowed to pursue elite-level rowing since taking up the sport at the Naval Academy, where he graduated in 2011.

"It was the camaraderie of the team that was truly captivating for me," he recently told Navy Sports, the official website for Naval Academy athletics. "The atmosphere in the boathouse established by the varsity [team] was a competitive brotherhood where respect was earned, never given. We were expected to maintain discipline, and a quiet work ethic was valued above all else. It was quite an amazing experience to completely and utterly exhaust yourself side-by-side with your brothers ... for your brothers."

Meanwhile, incoming Naval Academy midshipmen midshipman Regine Tugade will start classes this fall after her trip to Rio. The sprinter will be competing for Guam.

Also on Team Guam is 1999 Naval Academy graduate Peter Lombard, who will compete in the mountain bike event.

Waiting in the wings

Three Army wrestlers — Sgt. Caylor Williams, Spc. Ildar Hafizov, and women’s team Sgt. Whitney Conder — will be on call waiting in the wings as alternates in case injury or other disqualifiers force the primary athletes to drop out of the Games.

While there were several promising military contenders for both the men’s and women’s boxing teams, none were able to clinch a spot on the Team USA.

However, Army World Class Athlete coach Sgt. 1st Class Joe Guzman, will work on the coaching staff for Team USA’s lady boxers in Rio.

In addition to long-distance coach Browne, other military coaches include:

  • Army Staff Sgt. Dennis Bowsher, a 2012 Olympic athlete, will coach the modern pentathlon team.
  • Army Cpt. Capt. Andrew Locke, Two two-time rugby All-American at the U.S. Military Academy, and four-time combat veteran with the 75th Ranger Regiment, Locke is the assistant coach for the women’s rugby team.
  • Longtime Naval Academy coach Bruce Burnett is the head coach for the men’s freestyle wrestling team.

All in the family

Military family members are representing at the Rio Games as well.

  • Gymnast Gabby Douglas, who brought home two gold medals from the London Games, is the daughter of an Air National Guard non-commissioned officer and Afghanistan veteran. She’ll be competing again competes again this year on the artistic gymnastics squad.
  • Sailing team competitor Pedro Pascual Suitt credits his grandfather, retired Navy engineman Ira Suitt, for helping instill a love of the sea. Suitt will compete in the wind surfing event.
  • Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Verice Bennett, who received the Silver Star after a 2011 tour of duty in Afghanistan, will be cheering for his half-brother, decathlon star and London Games gold medalist Ashton Eaton.

How to watch

NBC's primetime coverage, anchored by Bob Costas, will run most days from 8 p.m. to midnight Eastern/Pacific, with additional daytime coverage hosted by Al Michaels, and late-night programming with Ryan Seacrest.

Meanwhile, NBC Sports Network will air nearly full-day coverage beginning August Aug. 3, two days before the opening ceremony, starting with women's soccer prelims and running through closing ceremonies.

If you want to catch every second of the action in a particular sport, for the first time this year NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app will also live-stream all Olympic competition for authenticated pay TV subscribers to desktops, mobile devices, and tablets, plus connected TVs.

The networks says it's also planning new 4K Ultra HD and immersive 360-degree virtual reality programing.

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