Amy Donaldson: Olympics: Athlete-soldiers find a way to help
Mike Groll, Associated Press
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — If Sgts. Nick Cunningham, Dallas Robinson and Joe Mortensen weren't talented athletes, they'd have been with their Army National Guard units when they were deployed to help storm victims after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeast.
Training for the season's first World Cups, they had the perfect excuse to stay away from the hazards and heartbreak.
Instead, the three men got special permission from the World Class Athlete Program, which allows them to train to be Olympians in bobsled and luge while serving in the National Guard, to join their units in the New York area for a couple of days.
Cunningham, who drives USA bobsled II, and Mortensen, who is a luge racer, serve together in the New York National Guard 1156 engineering company, while Robinson, who is a push athlete for the U.S. bobsled team, is attached to a unit from Kentucky.
Mortensen said that while they were training in Lake Placid, they were also keeping in contact with members of their units.
When 12 states deployed nearly 12,000 National Guard members, the men sought to figure out a way to be part of that effort.
"Sgt. Cunningham was keeping in contact with our commander," said Mortensen. "He got a text about 11 a.m. (Tuesday), and I had about a half hour."
The three men called WCAP leaders in Colorado Springs, Colo., and received permission to travel to affected areas in their own vehicle in hopes of rejoining with their units.
“All I wanted to do was get there as soon as possible,” continued Mortensen. “I wanted to show that even as a member of WCAP, I’m a soldier at the same time. I want to give back as much as I can and show that I am available to help at times like this.”
Mortensen ended up helping in one of the storms most dramatic rescue efforts — the evacuation of Bellvue Hospital.
“We helped move patients from the higher levels down to the ambulance so they could be transported to a different hospital,” he said.
The hospital is New York City's oldest and most well-known, and it is located in lower Manhattan, one of the areas without power. The hospital operated on generators for two days until the conditions became too difficult to endure.
Mortensen said it was a moving experience — from what he saw to how he helped.
"It was an eye-opening experience," he said. "I'm glad I was there to assist."
Robinson didn't hesitate when he found out what his teammates had planned.
"Our job this time of year is to be ready for our upcoming season," Robinson wrote in a blog on Cunnigham's website. "However, once I heard Nick and Joe were going to voluntarily drive six hours to the city to help with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, I immediately put on my uniform and hopped in my truck to follow. I caught up with them a couple of hours later at their unit in Kingston. Regardless of our training, we are soldiers first and always eager to jump at any opportunity to serve our country. We are honored to be soldiers, and we know that the small sacrifice we made pales in comparison to the true heroes who are serving overseas protecting our country."
The two men made their way to Queens, and found the devastation so shocking none of them had the words to describe it.
“I don’t even know the word to describe the amount of damage that was done," Mortensen said. "You could see how high the water rose in certain areas. It was astonishing.”
The men said they just did whatever was needed to help people try and pick up the pieces of their lives.
"Clearing homes and watching the residents open drawers and find ruined priceless possessions was absolutely devastating to watch," said Cunningham, who won the U.S. selection races last month, on his blog. "Some just cried while others wanted to clear out as much as possible before their family returned home to see the destruction. Several times I was just taken back by everyone's attitude. Nobody was mad, pointing a finger or looking to place blame. Everyone was helping everyone. Neighbors were helping each other; strangers were helping move ruined cars from the roads. I have never been more proud to be American."
The three men only spent two days in the city, and all felt that what they'd done wasn't nearly enough.
They missed a few days of training, but they return to competition this week inspired, grateful and with just a little bit of perspective on how sports fits into the world in which we live.
"In the past 48 hours we focused on what was important," said Cunningham in his blog. "It wasn't about bench press, squats, or power cleans. It wasn't about the Olympics, looking for funding or trying to find that fast line. It was all about giving these people their lives back, to give a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. It definitely put everything into perspective and really made me realize what is truly important to me."
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