US Army Speeds Up Olympian Runners’ Citizenship

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“I was at Iowa State five years, and that is enough time to understand what the United States is all about. I knew then I wanted to be a citizen, and the only way I was going to do that was to sign up for four years and give back what this country has given me.”

Hillary Bor and Shadrack Kipchirchir are from Eldoret, Kenya. Paul Chelimo and Leonard Korir are from Iten, Kenya. All four are representing the United States at the Rio Olympics. All four are also members of the US Army, part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP).

To be a member of any Olympic team, you have to have citizenship in that country, or have some claim to it through close relatives. To be on Team USA, it’s citizenship only. America takes eligibility a little more seriously than some countries.

The Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP)

Normally, it takes five years for a Green Card holder to be naturalized. In 2009, the rules for military personnel changed. “The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) established the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative, which gives noncitizen enlistees the opportunity to naturalize upon graduation from basic training.”

Now, some people may think that’s unfair, but in my view, if you are willing to put on a uniform and risk your life for the country, citizenship is a fair exchange. That’s more than a lot of native-born Americans have done, and I include myself in that.

So, those four runners took the oath after basic training. Their participation in the WCAP doesn’t give them any special status or quicker naturalization than other enlisted personnel. All it does it give them a chance to run while serving.

Dan Browne is head of the WCAP, and he explained that it is not a soft option. “Number one, you have to want to join the U.S. Army and serve,” he says. “And number two, you have to meet the program’s entry standards, which are rather difficult.”

“These guys have had to do basic training and advanced individual training. So it’s four to six months, at least, of really being away from their focus of running.”

The athletes must obtain qualifying times to apply to be in WCAP in their event specialty. For example, the men need to have raced a 28:15 for 10,000 meters or 2:15 for the marathon.

But listening to Sergeant Bor, the choice of the Army had little to do with a quicker American passport. “I was at Iowa State five years,” he said, “and that is enough time to understand what the United States is all about. I knew then I wanted to be a citizen, and the only way I was going to do that was to sign up for four years and give back what this country has given me.”

That view seems to run (forgive the pun) in the family. His brothers Emmanuel and Julius were runners at the University of Alabama, and they have enlisted.


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