For at least 18 of America's top winter athletes, dreams of Olympic glory may well be crumbling in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

But if that indeed happens, so be it.

"We are soldiers first," said Kristina Sabasteanski, one of America's top female biathletes and a favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team.

The athletes, primarily world class bobsled and biathlon competitors living and training in Utah in anticipation of the 2002 Winter Games, are part of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, which pays for their training. And they are all soldiers.

Sabasteanski is a U.S. Army sergeant. Jill Krause, another top biathlete, is with an aviation battalion in the Minnesota National Guard.

Lawton Redman, a top male biathlete, is an infantry sergeant with the Vermont National Guard.

"I care about my country," he said. And if it comes to war and he is called to duty, the Olympics will not be his priority.

"I would have absolutely no problem."

All of the soldier athletes are waiting and watching what happens as the U.S. government prepares for war. On Saturday, President Bush warned, "We're at war. Everybody who wears the uniform: Get ready."

Bill Spencer, a veteran biathlete who competed in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, knows what the athletes are going through. He was an infantry officer for the Army, which deferred his assignment to Vietnam so he could compete in the Olympic Games.

"Your first duty is your job, whatever it might be," he said. "The athletics are certainly a bonus."

But in times of war, athletic training takes a back seat to the nation's defense. Even as the nation's top winter athletes continue their preparations for the Winter Games, the inevitable call to duty lingers at the back of their minds.

"It is hard for athletes. The war is pretty high on their minds," said Algas Shalna, coach of the U.S. biathlon team.

Krause said it would be disappointing to miss the Olympic Games, but she willingly enlisted and she knows her commitment to country comes first. "I'm not scared of going somewhere. It was my decision to join," she said.

Max Cobb, program director for the U.S. Biathlon Association, said training and Games preparations are continuing "as normal as possible" under the circumstances. The association has received messages of encouragement from biathletes the world over. "The consensus is to go ahead and compete in the Olympic Winter Games in the spirit of friendship and cooperation that international sports competitions represent.," he said.

If America's top biathletes and bobsledders are called into active duty, the United States will still field teams for the Winter Games. But the pool of talent will be reduced, opening the door for other competitors.

"It would be a huge loss for American athletes if that (call up) happens," said Dave Gieck, a biathlete not affiliated with the armed services.

"That is part of the obligation. You join the Guard and there is always a chance to be called up," he said. "It is part of the gig."

Coincidentally, Gieck was in New York City at the time of the tragedy along with famed Olympic skier Tommy Moe and snowboarder Rob Kingwill.

Paulette Freese, manager of the Army World Class Athlete Program, based in Washington, D.C., said more than 50 summer athletes could also be affected by any military call to duty. The U.S. Air Force has a similar program for athletes, two of whom are biathletes.

Freese did not want to disclose the identity of the athletes participating in the program out of security concerns.

"We have been through a lot of skirmishes," she said. "Their mission is duty first as a soldier and they understand that."

The athletes contacted by the Deseret News couldn't agree more, saying their patriotism to country far outweighs their dreams of Olympic glory.

"If it comes to that," Sabasteanski said, "we will serve."


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