LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – While many of the world’s top athletes have huge salaries and lucrative endorsement deals, there are countless others who struggle mightily to make ends meet while competing in the sport they love.
Airman 1st Class Kelly Curtis, a recent Basic Military Training graduate, falls in the latter category.
As a member of the USA skeleton team, Curtis has chased her athletic dreams for years while feeling the financial burdens experienced by many other world class athletes.
Fortunately, Curtis recently enlisted in the Air Force under the service’s World Class Athlete Program, which will enable her to focus on her sport now and set her up for a career in the Air Force while she is competing.
The Air Force World Class Athlete Program, managed by the Air Force Services Center, provides athletes, like Curtis, the opportunity to compete for Olympic glory, while serving in the Air Force. She is able to complete all annual and ancillary training, professional military education, fitness assessments and other mandatory tasks required of all Airmen.
“I first found out about the Air Force World Class Athlete Program from my teammate, Katie Uhlaender, this past February,” Curtis said. “I knew the Air Force had a WCAP but thought it was only open to service members already in the Air Force.”
To qualify for the WCAP, athletes must be nationally ranked in their sport.
“This past season, I finally made our national team and became eligible to be considered for the Army’s world class athlete program. Katie knew of my plans and informed me that the Air Force was opening up its WCAP to civilians interested in becoming Airmen,” Curtis said. “My brother served in the Air Force, so I was intrigued by this new approach.”
Once Curtis decided to pursue the Air Force WCAP, she reached out to Lt. Col. Austin Pruneda, commander of 2nd Air Force’s Detachment 1 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and the current liaison to the U.S. Olympic and Para Olympic committee. “Kelly actually reached out to me after getting a recommendation from a teammate and having a discussion with one of our very supportive alumni,” Pruneda said. “We reached out to Tech. Sgt. Lawton Rich, the local recruiter in Lake Placid. He and I had been in coordination on another winter athlete who was interested in joining the Air Force.”
“Lt. Col. Pruneda has helped me since day one of my Air Force journey,” Curtis said. “He took his time to make sure I would be a good fit for the Air Force and the WCAP. He answered any questions I had throughout the enlistment process and during Basic Military Training.”
Rich said he was eager to help Curtis achieve her goals of being an Olympian and pursuing a career in the Air Force by guiding and supporting her through the process.
“She wanted to continue her athletic journey and she knew the Air Force could help provide support, along with the long-term security of a career, to focus on the sport and not on finances or logistics,” Rich said. “A lot of these athletes don’t have job experience because of the time they have put into their sports at a young age, so knowing the Air Force can provide them with a career during and after their sports careers is a no-brainer.”
Curtis couldn’t be more appreciative of the support as she was eager to not only join the Air Force but the opportunity to compete in the sport she loves.
“Tech. Sgt. Rich was fantastic to work with,” Curtis said. “He answered all my questions regarding recruiting in a timely fashion and was interested in learning about the struggles of Olympic hopefuls. We had a longer conversation regarding my financial and work history since I’ve had to move around a bit working odd jobs to support my skeleton career. He was also on top of my required paperwork, which I appreciated since this was happening during the outbreak of COVID-19 where everything was uncertain.”
For Curtis, the road to becoming a world-class athlete has been long and winding. She began her sporting career competing in track and field as a heptathlete.
“My track and field experience ultimately led me to skeleton,” she said. “I competed for Tulane University and Springfield College in the heptathlon. One of the strength and conditioning coaches at Springfield College, Dr. Daniel Jaffe, suggested I try out for bobsled or skeleton after I graduated.”
While attending graduate school at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, Curtis attended a winter sports combine one summer. From there, she was invited to a driving school where she first experienced bobsled and skeleton.
Once she started training, she realized she was going to need some financial help from family and friends.
“The financial hardships of being an Olympic hopeful in an expensive sport like skeleton are daunting to say the least,” Curtis said. “When I decided to go after this dream, I knew it would be challenging in several ways, but the finances have hands-down been the biggest hurdle. When we travel for our season, we are away from our homes October through April, so finding a steady source of income has always been a struggle. I’ve had situations where I’ve had to decide between another training run or eating dinner that night. In a sport where we only have 120 to 150 runs in a season, missing any training run hinders my overall progression.”
Lt. Col. Pruneda understands the struggles some athletes go through without a strong support system to help them realize their Olympic dreams.
“It’s difficult for some top athletes to continue to pursue their Olympic dreams without the strong support structure of family, friends, coworkers and an understanding employer,” Pruneda said. “Sometimes the best support structure comes in the form of pursuing a career in the military at the same time they pursue their Olympic dreams.”
Curtis said she has learned some valuable lessons throughout her years of pursuing her Olympic dreams.
“Self-funding taught me how to prioritize and budget,” she said. “The struggles have made me appreciate everything the Air Force World Class Athlete Program has to offer.”
She goes on to explain some of the interesting jobs she has held along the way, including pet sitting, ski delivery reservationist, background actor in major motion pictures in New Orleans and site director for an international summer school in New York City.
“My favorite was background acting,” Curtis said. “I was a vampire on one show and nobody did a double take when I was walking around Magazine Street in New Orleans in my costume. It was just another Tuesday night there.”
Through this variety of odd jobs, Curtis has done what it takes to make ends meet. And she is thrilled with her decision to join the Air Force.
“Joining the Air Force is such a relief because it will allow me to make the best decisions as an athlete focusing on skeleton,” she said. “Without the distractions of figuring out how to make ends meet every month, I’ve already felt like a weight has been lifted. I’m very excited for this opportunity and am looking forward to representing the Air Force at the highest levels of competition.”
Curtis is currently ranked 23rd in the world and fifth in the United States, according to the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.
In skeleton, athletes run completely bent over, pushing their sleds downhill on ice, jump onto the sleds and navigate down roughly a mile of frozen track.
“One of my military training instructors compared it to boogie boarding on ice, which it kind of is. We have steel runners underneath the sled that contact the ice and we steer the sleds using our head, shoulders, knees and toes,” Curtis said. “Every sliding track in the world is different so it takes time to gain the experience to be competitive. We slide upwards of 85 miles per hour and experience up to five Gs of gravitational force. It can be rough on the body, especially the central nervous system, so we only slide two or three runs a day. Since it’s so demanding on the body, we only have about 120 to 150 minutes of actual sliding time a season.”
While her goal is to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 2022, she does think her career will go well beyond the next Olympic Games.
“One to three skeleton sliders will make the Olympic team,” she said. “I’ve had my eyes set on the 2022 Olympic team since I started sliding in 2014. I plan on competing through the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympic Games.”
In addition to her Olympic goals, Curtis has Air Force goals as well.
“One of my goals in the Air Force is to become an officer,” she said. “For now, my goal is to earn the honor of representing the Air Force in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. After that, I’m looking forward to working in my career field and gaining experience in the operational Air Force. Hopefully, I’ll earn the right to transition to an officer when the time comes.”
For more information on the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, go to http://myairforcelife.com/sports or email the Air Force sports team at AFSVA.FitnessSports@us.af.mil.