US Army athletes out in full force in Rio
By JEFF SEIDEL | Detroit Free Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 18, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO (Tribune News Service) — The email came from the military.
I was intrigued, in a James Bond sort of way.
“Michigan-native and Secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning, is traveling to Rio to highlight the stories of the 12 Army Olympians competing in the Games,” it read.
The Secretary of the Army is from Michigan?
I had no idea. And there are 12 Army Olympians?
I was surprised.
So I called the Secretary of the Army from Rio — yes, that’s a blatant name drop there — and he was back in Michigan.
Fanning spent a few days this week on vacation on Gun Lake between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. “I’m taking four days to sit on the lake,” he said, in a phone interview. “We came to this lake as kids, every single summer. I think I have succeeded in checking in every summer of my entire life.”
Fanning was born in Kalamazoo, moved to Saginaw and spent most of childhood in Oakland County. He went to Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook. “I did play sports in high school,” he said. “I played lacrosse and soccer and I was a fill-in for the track-and-field team, not a very memorable participant in that sport.”
Fanning is going to Rio as a member of President Obama’s delegation to Sunday’s closing Ceremony, although he didn’t know what role he will play.
I suppose those details are classified anyhow.
“For me, the main draw of going down there is knowing there are 12 soldiers competing, which I don’t think most people in the Army even realize, alone the rest of the United States,” Fanning said.
Earlier this week, I was at Olympic Stadium, covering hurdles. I watched a little bit of the pole vault and, at the time, I didn’t realize that the American pole vaulter was a soldier, Lt. Sam Kendricks, an Army reservist, who took bronze.
“They are soldiers first,” Fanning said. “They have to complete all of their training. In fact, Lt. Kendricks, in October, has to start the next round of his basic training, training to be a transportation officer.”
Most of the Army Olympians are part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which allows soldiers to train and compete, while also being soldiers.
“Most of the track and field athletes, I think all of them, but Kendricks, compete as a part of that program,” Fanning said.
Fanning has always been intrigued by the Olympics. As a kid, his father, Bruce Fanning, was working in marketing for McDonald’s, which supported the Saginaw Gears. Fanning remembers getting to wear Stu Irving’s silver medal, which he won in the ’72 Winter Olympics.
“I never would have imagined that I’d be going to an Olympics, ever, let alone that it would be merged with a job,” Fanning said. “When I found out we had this many athletes competing in the games in Rio, I pressed the team, we have to get the word out. People would want to know about this.”
He is scheduled to arrive in Rio Thursday.
“My priority going down there,” he said, “is to spend as much time with the soldiers as I can.”
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