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Immigrant turned US Army soldier-runner headed to Tokyo: 'I'll be doing this for the United States'

Written by on July 17, 2021

Spc. Benard Keter, a soldier-athlete with the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, is eager to represent both Team USA and the U.S. military during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics on June 21.

“My goal [at the Olympics] is…don’t let them down,” Keter said of his supporters. “I’ll be doing this for the United States, doing it for the Army, doing it for myself, doing it for my family.”

Keter, 29, is from a small village in Kenya, where a Texas Tech coach scouted him out and helped him come to the United States on a track and field scholarship. He initially went to a community college in Kansas before graduating from Texas Tech.

His brother, who is also an Olympian for Bahrain, encouraged him to leave Kenya for the U.S.

“Everything was different,” Keter said of moving from his village in Kenya to Kansas. “Coming here, you figure out, like, you have your washer and dryer inside the house. You have everything. … I had to learn how to use the shower, I had to learn how to do everything, and you know, everybody was different.”

Spc. Benard Keter trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, July 13, 2021. Photo by Brittany Nelson, IMCOM Public Affairs

Spc. Benard Keter trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, July 13, 2021. Photo by Brittany Nelson, IMCOM Public Affairs

College was a difficult but rewarding experience for Keter. He worked hard to go to class, get good grades and train as an athlete so he could keep his scholarship and eventually graduate from a U.S. college.

“When I came, I had no relatives. I had nobody to say, ‘Hey, it’s hard here.’ … It wasn’t like that,” he said. “So I was like, I have to pick myself up and do everything I can. Go to class. If I had any issues, I would go to my coach.”

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He knew coming to the United States that “you have to have a purpose.” Now, when he looks back on the village where he came from, he sees how he wants to help “make it better,” he said.

He joined the Army in 2016 while he was still in school because the Military needed a soldier who was fluent in both English and Swahili, his native language.

Keter said there is some overlap between being a service member and an athlete.

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“It’s a family,” he explained. “…You have to be part of the team.”

In that sense, transitioning from college to the Army was an experience he felt prepared for because he used some of the experiences he took from college with him into the military. The main difference, he said, was that in college he sometimes felt “left out” because he mostly kept to his roommates. When he joined the Army, however, he became close to those he met in Basic Training.

Spc. Benard Keter takes a quick break while training in Colorado Springs, Colorado July 13, 2021. Photo by Brittany Nelson, IMCOM Public Affairs

Spc. Benard Keter takes a quick break while training in Colorado Springs, Colorado July 13, 2021. Photo by Brittany Nelson, IMCOM Public Affairs

“Being in the Army is a life-changing experience. You have your chain of command. You have your teammates. You have soldiers in the platoon. You have soldiers in the company. It’s a great family to be in,” he said.

Keter qualified for the Olympics on June 25 when he completed the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in Oregon on June 25 with a time of 8:21.81, all in the midst of a heatwave.

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The soldier lives in Colorado and attributed some of his success to training in high altitude, though he said the past year has brought challenges due to COVID-19. His goal now that he’s qualified for the Olympics is to represent the Army and the United States as a nation.

“There are a lot of people who root for you,” Keter said. “When I made the team – even my drill sergeant from Basic Training texted me and was like, ‘Hey, I see you’re going to the Olympics.’ … Everybody in my neighborhood knew I was going to the Olympics.”

While there will be no live spectators at the games, Keter recognized that “the world will be watching” on TV.

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“It’s a lot of weight I’ll be carrying going there,” he said of all the people rooting for him. “…When I’m there, it’s going to be just for me. It’s going to be for the nation. It’s for the Army. It will be cool if I get the medal.”

The soldier-athlete added that his goal in life is to “remain the best soldier [he] can be to the U.S. Army.”

Keter will be participating in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at 4:29 p.m. PST on June 21.

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