When cameras swung to Army Spc. Jonah Koech after his silver-finished 800-meter race at the U.S. Outdoor Track & Field Championships in June, he knew exactly what to do: salute.
“Saluting at Nationals was to show who we are, and my great sense of pride for serving,” Koech said. “It let people know that athletes can represent all of the soldiers in the U.S. Army anywhere, in any sport, and shows that we’re at the top in everything we compete at.”
The “we” Koech speaks of are his soldier-teammates in the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). The program allows elite American athletes to pursue both top-tier titles like global championships and medals while also serving in the military.
From Africa to America
Koech has been running with an Army uniform since 2019, qualifying for the World Athletics Championships in July after that second-place finish during Nationals. It’s been a relatively quick rise for the Eldoret, Kenya, native. He fell in love with running at age 4 and continued to train as he grew.
The training paid off. In 2015, Koech earned a scholarship to run first for the University of Texas-El Paso track team before finishing at Texas Tech. He did well as an undergrad, snagging a Big 12 championship and first-team All-America honors his senior year. While at college, a teammate from his hometown told him about WCAP. Spc. Anthony Rotich joined WCAP in 2016, serving as a chemical engineer repairer for the Army while simultaneously training in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
“Anthony was a great teammate and a big motivator for me,” Koech said. “We always competed together and running with him was always fun.”
2019 was a big year for Koech, as he became both an American citizen and soldier. He wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
“Being in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program allows me to compete while also serving,” he said. “I’m able to have a balanced career, because the Army allows me to compete full-time while still keeping current with Army requirements and staying competitive with my military peers.”
World Class Athlete Program to Olympic-sized aim
It’s a lifestyle that takes some creativity. Koech, 25, trains four hours a day, five days a week with a coach, then finishes his duties as a mechanic afterward. A day’s training might include running nine miles first thing in the morning in approximately 45 minutes. That’s 5 minutes per mile ― yet quite a bit slower than the pace he ran to accomplish his 1:44.74 800-meter personal record in Eugene, Oregon.
Race officials disqualified Koech at Worlds in July, ruling that he had inappropriately jostled or obstructed his competitors. Even so, Koech said the experience “boosted his mental toughness.”
Capt. Robert Cheseret, WCAP commander, has seen that mental toughness firsthand.
“Since arriving to WCAP, Spc. Koech has shown a high level of focus on the goal of running the World and Olympic time standards, with a bigger goal of qualifying and competing at the 2024 Olympic Games,” he said. “Spc. Koech and soldier-athletes like him live the Army values every day, in everything they do, in and out of uniform.”
Koech hopes for more chances to salute the camera in the future ― maybe even in Paris for the 2024 Olympics. It’s all part of being able to live his dream, he said, to both run at the highest levels and serve his adopted country.
“Being a soldier is something that is very, very important to me,” he said. “It motivates me and reminds me that I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to do in life.”Read comments