The 2024 Olympics are not far off, and potential athletes are already preparing to compete. Athletes in the USAF are no different, and an internal program is ready to help them down that path.
The World Class Athlete Program is the Air Force’s way to provide exceptional athletes an opportunity to compete at the highest levels of their sports. The program is designed to maximize athletes’ abilities and give them a shot at representing the US on the world stage. Since its establishment in 1995, the Air Force WCAP has produced 13 athletes that represented Team USA at Olympic Games. WCAP was established to recognize the spirit of US military athletes, starting with Mal Whitfield.
A First in the World
Malvin “Marvelous Mal” Whitfield was the first active-duty Olympian to win a gold medal. Mal joined the Army Air Forces in 1943 as a B-25 tail-gunner in the Tuskegee Airmen. He competed in the 1948 Olympics, earning gold in the 800-meter and 4×400 meter relay, as well as a bronze in the 400-meter. Four years later, he repeated his 800-meter performance, earning a gold medal, and followed that with a silver in the 4×400-meter relay.
Marvelous Mal flew a total of 27 combat missions as a tail-gunner on the B-25 during the Korean War. On his off-time, he trained between missions by running on the airstrip and taxiways. Though he did not make the cut for the 1956 Olympics, Mal remained heavily involved in the sport. He worked for the United States Information Service, conducting clinics and coaching athletes all over Africa, retiring in 1989. Marvelous Mal passed away in 2015.
World Class Athlete Program
Mal’s legacy lives on in the Air Force World Class Athlete Program. This program has produced 13 Olympic athletes and many more who have competed for slots on US Olympic teams. For the 2024 Olympics, the WCAP has two contenders for spots on US Teams.
The first is Second Lieutenant Leanne Singleton-Comfort. Lt. Singleton-Comfort is a 2020 Air Force Academy graduate and NCAA champion fencer. Singleton-Comfort began her athletic career at the University of California San Diego. She transferred to the Air Force Academy in 2016 and began competing for the Falcons. Singleton-Comfort distinguished herself in fencing at UCSD, enrolling as a freshman in 2015 and quickly qualifying for the NCAA Championships in Sabre Fencing. She then continued that streak throughout her time at the Academy, qualifying a total of four times. She earned All-American honors three times, and is a two-time NCAA West Regional/Western Fencing Champion, once in 2017, then again in 2020.
Lt. Singleton-Comfort initially wanted to be an investigator in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, at least according to her UCSD athlete bio. She has since made some career changes, now acting as assistant coach to the AFA’s fencing team. A 2020 article released by the AFA stated Singleton-Comfort was to serve as a “space operator” but pointed to the fact she was applying to the WCAP. She is currently training for a spot on the US Fencing team to compete in Paris in 2024.
Airman First Class Tyler Evans is another athlete prepping for the 2024 Summer games. A1C Evans enlisted in the Air Force in July of 2021 as an Aerospace Physiologist. Evans is a modern pentathlete and has qualified for the US National Team and the World Championships.
A1C Evans began his athletic career at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. At Canisius, Evans was a backstroke and freestyle swimmer, graduating in 2014 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Athletic Training. After graduation, Evans added to his athletic retinue by competing in triathlon events. Evans quickly became a professional triathlete and was drafted into the first Major League Triathlon Series in the United States.
Evans competed as a triathlete for only a short time before he found himself looking into the modern pentathlon. Math geniuses will understand that tri- is three, and penta– is five, which means going from a swim-bike-run format to a fence-swim-ride-shoot-run format. Apparently, Tyler Evans made that change so seamlessly he qualified for the US Modern Pentathlon Team the first year he tried. In the subsequent two years, Evans qualified for the Modern Pentathlon World Championships.
As an Aerospace Physiologist, A1C Evans will be stationed at Peterson AFB in Colorado. As a World Class Athlete, Evans is training at the Air Force Academy facilities for his chance to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics.
US Army, Navy, and Marine Corps
The US Army is the only other branch with its own World Class Athlete Program. Similar to the Air Force model, the Army’s WCAP was stood up in 1997 to recognize world-class athletes within the service. Notably, the World Class Athlete programs are not meant to develop athletes but to showcase existing talent and provide those with the skills and determination an opportunity, not to compete, but for a CHANCE to compete, on the world stage. The Army sends their athletes to Fort Carson, Colorado, for training, while the Air Force members train at the most advantageous location for their sport.
US Navy and Marine Corps athletes are allowed to compete for and in the Olympics but must apply for special consideration to train. The Navy offers the US Navy Sports Program, an all-Navy program that evaluates its competitors on a case-by-case basis. While they do not train for Olympic spots, the program allows Navy athletes to train and compete against other branches in Armed Forces Championships.
Marine Corps athletes are invited to apply for the All-Marine Sports program. Similar to the US Navy program, Marine athletes are not assigned to a “World Class Athlete Program” but are able to apply for selection to train. Those selected will attend training camps designed to cull the best Marine Corps athletes. These athletes then compete against other branches as part of Marine Corps teams.
Service Before Self
Prospective athletes must have completed the required training, including basic training, advanced training, and must remain current in ancillary training. Athletes receive the same basic pay and allotments as others in their same rank and career field. Travel is handled through TDY (temporary duty) or TAD (temporary additional duty) orders, and the respective services foot the bill for their athletes. If and when the athlete is chosen for the US team, the sport’s governing body takes up the financial aspects.