U.S. military swimmers guided by former Olympian
Stars and Stripes August 24, 2009
STUTTGART, Germany — Maj. Greg Burgess doesn’t wear it like a badge.
Outside the confines of his office at U.S. Africa Command headquarters, not many people even know about his past. The little factoid was even absent from a profile describing team leaders taking part in the 43rd Military Swimming and Lifesaving World Championships.
"It’s just not something that I like to advertise," said Burgess, a 6-foot-4, Stuttgart-based Marine who still walks with an athlete’s gait.
Burgess was at one time one of the world’s best swimmers, holding multiple American records and winning a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
With that history, it was natural for Burgess to lead the U.S. military team at the annual swimming competition in Montreal. Years removed from his swimming days, Burgess served as the team chief, functioning as an adviser to the group of eight swimmers. The competition, which concluded Aug. 14, featured 175 athletes from 18 countries.
The American team won five medals in the life-saving category, including one gold, but finished far behind other squads in the standard swim races.
The U.S. team did win the event’s sportsmanship award.
"That pretty much made the meet. We normally don’t get things like that," said Burgess of the sportsmanship prize.
"The reason why you’re there is friendship through sport," Burgess told his team.
But in the main swimming events, the American servicemembers were outmatched. The U.S. team members have full-time jobs that keep them out of the pool, Burgess noted.
But in many other countries, compulsory, "weekend-warrior-type" of service is commonplace and that means athletes can go about their regular athletic training. Indeed, some of the competitors in the military event were of world-class caliber and regular competitors in international swimming events.
So, did the lopsided affair get the old competitive juices flowing?
"No, I got over that a long time ago," said Burgess.
In 1992, Burgess was a 20-year-old student at the University of Florida in Gainesville when he won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. It was the culmination of years of training and sacrifice.
Burgess won a silver medal in the 200 individual medley. And during his career he set four American records: two in the 200 IM and two in the 400 IM.
"It was a phenomenal experience, representing the U.S.," Burgess said of his Olympic experience.
In 1996, Burgess was again representing his country at the Atlanta Games. But with a sixth-place finish, he knew the clock was ticking on his athletic career.
With a degree in economics from the University of Florida, he had plenty of options. But Burgess took an unlikely step for an Olympian — he joined the Marines in 1997.
"I felt it was time to move on. At some point you have to decide to get on with your life," said Burgess, who has served two tours in Iraq. "I just wanted to put some time in and serve my country."
The initial plan was to serve for three years, but now Burgess is looking to make it a career.
The transition from the pool to the corps wasn’t without challenges, though. The years of swimming had him well-prepared for the physical grind, but the leadership part was new.
"This is a little bit different. When you’re in the pool, you don’t necessarily lead anybody," Burgess said.