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NEWS | Sept. 1, 2022

Olympian trades spikes for boots, enlists as an Army medic

By Rose L. Thayer Stars And Stripes

Noah Akwu had three lifetime dreams growing up in Nigeria. He wanted to run in the Olympics, to move to America and to serve in the military as a medic, just as his father and grandfather had.

A full scholarship to Middle Tennessee State University helped him realize his dream of living in the U.S. Then, in 2012 he made the Nigerian Olympic team. He ran the 200-meter race at the London Games, racing in the quarterfinals against Jamaica’s Gold-medalist Usain Bolt.

His final dream became a reality this year when Akwu, 31, enlisted as a combat medic in the U.S. Army. Other occupations came with bonuses, but he chose instead to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“It’s like a family tree,” he said. “When I enlisted, it was one of [my dad’s] happiest days.”

Already serving at the rank of specialist, Akwu will finish his advanced individual training at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in Texas in October, then head north to Fort Hood. He hopes his wife, who is in a doctoral program back in Tennessee, will be able to join him.

“Spc. Akwu brings a higher level of maturity to our formation with a wealth of experiences that made him the man and soldier he is today,” said Capt. Ryan O’Leary, commander of Akwu’s unit, Company A, 232nd Medical Battalion. “Overall, he's a phenomenal soldier and I look forward to seeing him finish strong in the course, alongside his fellow combat medics, and have a successful military career.”

Training to become a soldier isn’t that different from the running regimen he’s been on since elementary school.

“To train at a professional level or a competitive level you have to be disciplined,” he said. “So coming to the military, that really helps me — the discipline. Every day you have to show up.”

Coming in already physically fit has helped, too. On his first Army Combat Fitness Test, Akwu scored around a 550 with the sprint-drag-carry as his weakest event. So he hit the gym, strengthening his legs.

He made a near-perfect 599 on his second test, finishing the event in 1 minute, 23 seconds. Now his peers, many a decade younger than him, are asking for training tips in the gym.

“They were surprised,” he said. “They thought I’m old. I said, ‘Yeah, I still work out.’”

That surprise may also have come from Akwu’s humility about his background. O’Leary only learned he had an Olympian in his unit after asking Akwu about his life during a group run.

“If I didn't ask, I'm not sure we would've ever found out. He's not one to brag about his experiences, and never brings it up unless someone asks him,” O’Leary said. “From our talk, I learned that his father is a huge motivating factor in his life, along with his wife.”

Once his medic training is complete, Akwu said he plans to apply for additional training to become a flight paramedic. He also started the paperwork for U.S. citizenship with hopes of becoming an officer someday.

“That’s why I like the U.S. and the Army, too,” he said. “They offer a lot of opportunities.”