The Department of the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, managed by the Air Force Services Center, was established in 1995 to continue the legacy of Tuskegee Airman Malvin G. Whitfield. Whitfield, a Korean War tail gunner, became the first active-duty American serviceman to win Olympic gold in 1952 in Helsinki. Whitfield had previously won two golds and a bronze in track during the 1948 Olympics in London.
For the 2024 DAF WCAP Summer Olympic cycle, 11 athletes are assigned to the program in modern pentathlon, shooting, boxing, racewalking, fencing, wrestling (Greco-Roman and freestyle), track and field (10,000 meters/3,000 meter steeple chase) and water polo. For the 2026 DAF WCAP Winter Olympic cycle, WCAP has one returning 2022 Olympian in skeleton.
In announcing the establishment of WCAP, then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman wrote, “This new program is not only good for a small number of Airmen-athletes, it’s also good for the Air Force,” citing strong recruiting and retention benefits.
Unlike “Marvelous Mal” Whitfield, who trained for the ’52 Games by running on an airfield between bombing missions, today’s WCAP athletes train full time as part of the three-year program and compete in U.S. Armed Forces events, the Conseil International du Sport Militaire (Military World Games), Olympic Games and qualifying events for those games.
The inaugural WCAP summer session was for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Eighteen of the 19 athletes in the program qualified for the Olympic Trials with three securing positions on the U.S Olympic Team: Maj. William Roy in shooting, 1st Lt. David DeGraff in team handball and Master Sgt. Richard Estrella in wrestling. A fourth athlete, Staff Sgt. Ronald Simms, was a first alternate on the U.S. boxing team.
During the inaugural WCAP winter session, one athlete, Airman 1st Class Debra Nordyke, competed and earned a spot on the U.S. Biathlon team.
Since its inception, 14 WCAP athletes have represented the United States at the Winter and Summer Olympic games.
Although WCAP athletes train full-time in their given sport, they are also required to complete all annual and ancillary training, professional military education, fitness assessments and other mandatory tasks required of all DAF Airmen and Guardians.
Additionally, if their training location is close to an Air Force or Space Force installation, they may conduct clinics and briefings for Airmen, Guardians and their families to educate and inform them on the importance of readiness and resiliency of the mind and body. If the nearby Air Force or Space Force installation has a unit with personnel with their specific Air Force specialty codes, WCAP athletes may also volunteer to assist on defined unit projects.
If their training location is not on or near an Air Force or Space Force installation, the athletes perform duties with their local DAF Recruiting Office.
WCAP is centrally managed as part of the AFSVC, headquartered in San Antonio, and funded using non-appropriated funds. Prior to acceptance into the program, the national governing body for each sport reviews athlete applications and provides recommendations to the WCAP program manager. The AFSVC commander is the final approval authority of athlete participation in the DAF WCAP and all athletes accepted into the program are assigned directly to AFSVC.
WCAP through the years:
1995 – Air Force WCAP inception
1996 – Inaugural WCAP session, 1996 Summer Olympics: 18 of19 athletes qualify for the Olympic Trials; three earned spots on the U.S. team Olympic Team (Shooting, Team Handball, Wrestling); one was first alternate for the U.S. Olympic Team (Boxing).
1998 Winter Olympics – One athlete in the program earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team (Biathlon)
2000 Summer Olympics – Thirty-six of 38 athletes qualified for Olympic Trials; one was first alternate for the U.S. Olympic Team (International Skeet)
2002 Winter Olympics – All three athletes in the program qualified for Olympic Trials
2004 Summer Olympics – Twenty-three of 28 athletes qualified for Olympic Trials; three athletes were selected for the U.S. Baseball Team (DNQ); three earned spots on the U.S. Olympic Team (Racewalk, Hammer Throw, Fencing); and three were first alternates for the U.S. Olympic teams (International Skeet, International Trap, International Rifle)
2006 Winter Olympics – All four athletes in the program qualified for Olympic Trials
2008 Summer Olympics – Twenty-three of 24 athletes qualified for Olympic Trials; four earned spots on the U.S. Olympic Team (Modern Pentathlon, Racewalk, Fencing, International Trap)
2010 Winter Olympics – Both athletes in the program qualified for Olympic Trials; one was first alternate for U.S. Olympic Team (Bobsled)
2012 Summer Olympics – Twelve of 14 athletes qualified for Olympic Trials; one earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team (Fencing)
2014 Winter Olympics – One athlete in the program qualified for Olympic Trials; earned first alternate for the U.S. Olympic Team (Bobsled)
2016 Summer Olympics – Five of 20 qualified for Olympic Trials; one earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team (1st Lt. Cale Simmons in Track and Field, Pole Vaulting)
2018 Winter Olympics –The Air Force did not have athletes qualify for the Olympics
2020 Summer Olympics – The DAF did not have athletes qualify for the Olympics. (The games were held July 23 – Aug. 8, 2021, following a postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic)
2022 Winter Olympics – The DAF had one athlete qualify for the Olympics. (Airman 1st Class Kelly Curtis, Skeleton)
2024 Summer Olympics – The DAF currently has 11 athletes vying for spots on Team USA. The 2024 Summer Olympics will take place in Paris, France, from July 26-Aug. 11, 2024
2026 Winter Olympics – The DAF currently has one athlete vying for a spot on Team USA. The 2026 Winter Olympics will take place in Milan-Cortino, Italy, Feb. 6 - 22.
For more information on joining WCAP and the progress of athletes currently enrolled in the program, visit https://myairforcelife.com/sports-world-class-athletes.
(Current as of February 2023)