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.
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 two-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, 13 WCAP athletes have represented the United States at the world’s largest athletic stage. Many more have excelled in their sport at all levels to go on to compete at U.S. Olympic Trials.
Of the 20 Air Force athletes who entered WCAP in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, five competed in Olympic Trials and one, 1st Lt. Cale Simmons secured a position on the U.S. Olympic team as a pole vaulter.
Simmons, a contracting officer, was assigned to the Air Force Services Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. He was physically located and trained at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. He had been competing in track and field for 12 years and had a personal best of 5.61 meters in the pole-vault.
As of June 2019, 18 athletes were assigned to the WCAP program in track and field, handball, wrestling, swimming, gymnastics and baseball.
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 U.S. Air Force Airmen.
Additionally, if their training location is close to an Air Force installation, they may conduct clinics and briefings for Airmen and their families to educate and inform them on the importance of readiness and resiliency of the mind and body. If their training location is not on or near an Air Force base, the athletes perform duties with their local Air Force Recruiting Office. If an Air Force installation near their training has a unit with personnel with their specific Air Force specialty codes, WCAP athletes may volunteer to assist on defined unit projects.
WCAP is centrally managed as part of the AFSVC headquartered in San Antonio, and funded using nonappropriated funds. Prior to acceptance into the program, the national governing body for each sport reviews athlete applications and provides recommendations to the Air Force. The chief of Air Force Services at Headquarters Air Force is the final approval of athlete participation in the program.
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. 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 and 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 and 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 (Track and Field, Pole Vaulting)
2018 Winter Olympics --The Air Force didn't have an athletes qualify for Olympic Trials.
(Current as of June 2019)