LAKE PLACID - Ask any bobsledder. Chances are they'll say that fear creeps in when they step up to the start ramp, just before careening down a chute of ice at high speeds.
That used to be the case for Lake Placid's John Napier, who won his first World Cup medals a season ago and also made his first appearance as an Olympian representing the United States.
Napier had a scary crash at the Olympic Winter Games in Whistler, British Columbia when he flipped his four-man bobsled at 95 mph. The crash occurred on the second of four scheduled Olympic runs and resulted in an injury that knocked Napier out of the rest of the competition.
Lake Placid resident John Napier talks to reporters at a press conference before competing in his first Winter Olympic Games in February in Vancouver.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)
But that wreck didn't come close to the danger he faced earlier this year as a soldier serving in Afghanistan with his fellow fighters from the Vermont National Guard.
When Napier first arrived in war-torn Afghanistan in June, his original mission was going to be guarding the huge Bagram Air Base. But instead of assuming that relatively safe role at America's largest and most secure military installation in Afghanistan, Napier found himself in the heat of battle as one of 14 soldiers stationed at an outpost in the country's Paktika Province along the Pakistan border.
With a six-month tour in Afghanistan now behind him, Napier is back in the United States. This weekend, he'll be representing his country as the No. 2 driver for the U.S. Bobsled Team.
"After getting shot at, and dodging IEDs and mortar fire every day, I'm not fearful anymore as a bobsledder," Napier said after taking a training run at Mount Van Hoevenberg during practice Wednesday. "After making it through that, how dangerous can bobsledding be? It was a dangerous road as an infantryman in Afghanistan, but you know me - take the dangerous road, or don't take the road at all."
Napier, an Army sergeant who just turned 24 last Friday, was deployed to Afghanistan as a base engineer but wound up as an infantry solider firing a M249 machine gun in one of the most dangerous regions of the most dangerous country in the world. Napier said he ended up in infantry both because the Vermont unit he joined was short on personnel and because he was an athlete.
It didn't take long for Napier to find out just how tough his mission was.
"I was definitely out of my element," Napier said. "We were living at 8,000 feet, and we were fighting all the way up to 13,000-foot elevations. Altitudes like that are hard to deal with. Fortunately, my fellow soldiers helped me out."
Napier described how difficult life is for troops fighting on the front lines in the war and added that often, U.S. soldiers aren't allowed to take measures to ensure their own safety. In one story he told, his unit saw a man planting a bomb on a road late at night, and they weren't able to apprehend him.
"It was 10:30 at night, and the guy said he was farming," Napier recalled. "Who farms at 10:30 at night? Only Afghan national forces are allowed to make those arrests."
During his tour, Napier also said he stood face to face with members of Taliban in remote Afghan villages. Napier said they would take money and shake hands, then minutes later those same people could be firing weapons at him.
"We took fire all the time, especially during my last two months. During that time, we were shot at every single day," Napier said. "We also shot back. I fired thousands of rounds; 800 was the most I fired in one day."
Napier said his unit didn't suffer any fatalities during his deployment, but he did know that two soldiers from the Vermont National Guard battalion were killed. One of his closest brushes with serious injury or death came when the MRAP Cougar military vehicle he was traveling in flipped while he was propped on top with a machine gun. Napier said a fellow solider near him pulled him inside to safety and wrapped him up as the vehicle flipped.
Napier said that life on the outpost was difficult, but there were also some enjoyable moments as well.
"As National Guard members, we were at the the bottom of the pecking order," he said. "We didn't get anything unless we stole it. The coolest thing we got was a 52-inch TV. We all gathered around it in the tent and watched movies. One day we were all watching 'Black Hawk Down,' and it just happened to be on the anniversary of the day that battle took place in Mogadishu."
Napier described deployment as "addicting" and said he would be excited to do another tour again. But the talented young driver now has his sights firmly affixed on being the driver of USA II on the World Cup tour. After fighting half a world away, Napier will be competing this weekend on his home track, which just happens to be around the corner from his house.
"I served my country in Afghanistan, and now it's time to serve my country competing in bobsled," Napier said. "Behind Steve Holcomb, I feel like I'm one of the best drivers in the world, and I want to win medals for my country. God willing, I have another three or four Olympics still ahead of me."
This weekend will mark Napier's third appearance on this season's World Cup tour following his return to the United States on Nov. 21. Napier said he hasn't skipped a beat when it comes to driving, but there is still work ahead getting the timing down on the push ramp. On Monday in his two-man sled, Napier and push athlete Laszlo Vandracsek turned in the sixth-quickest start time and the fastest driving result during training. Napier said he hopes efforts like that will equal medal performances, both this weekend and during the rest of the season.
"I medaled here last year, and I'll be disappointed if I don't do it again," Napier said, "especially since it's my home track.
Racing at home, Napier will no doubt be a fan favorite in Lake Placid when he competes in his two- and four-man sleds. And the loudest cheers may most likely come from a group of Vermonters, as some of those same soldiers who took fire alongside Napier on that remote Afghanistan outpost have returned home and will make the trip to see the bobsleds this weekend.
A crew member from Napier's four-man Olympic sled from Vancouver, Chris Fogt, is another athlete from the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, serving overseas. Fogt is currently deployed in Iraq. Napier said the two teammates crossed paths in Kuwait while they were beginning their deployments.
"It's a small world," Napier said. "I look forward to having Chris back on the team."