A three-time Olympian is at Fort Sill for four weeks to check off one of the boxes required for him to become an Army physician assistant.
First Lt. John Nunn competed as a racewalker in the 2004, 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. He holds the current American record for the one-mile racewalk in 5:49.
Last Friday, he was inducted into the Indiana Track and Field and Cross Country Hall of Fame but was unable to be there in person. That’s because he is now in week two of the four-week Army Medical Department Direct Commission Course taught here.
Medical personnel take the course after they receive a direct commission as an officer. It’s usually for a new soldier coming into the Army who is currently a doctor, a veterinarian, a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner.
Nunn’s case is a bit different. At age 42, he has had roughly 17 years of active duty. He enlisted in San Diego in 2001 when a friend told him about the Army’s World-Class Athlete Program. Authorized by an act of Congress, it allows soldiers to train for and participate in the Olympics like their civilian counterparts if they qualify.
Nunn qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, where he finished 26th in the 20K racewalk. In 2008, he had a slip-up at the Olympic trials and didn’t quite make it to Beijing. But he came back, and that’s when he transitioned to the 50K walk for the 2012 Olympics in London, England, and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He finished 43rd each time.
Among his other career highlights, he placed third in the 2007 Pan American Games and eighth at the 2011 Pan American Games. Altogether, over his 16 years of competition, he made 35 international teams.
His command told him “as long as you’re making Olympic teams we’ll have you stay here and you’ll continue to train.”
Racewalkers compete in two distances, 20K (12½ miles) and 50K (31 miles). Nunn freely admits that sprinters get all the attention while racewalkers while away the lonely klicks in neglect.
But racewalking does keep off unwanted pounds, as Nunn found when he was in a cookie-baking business with his daughter.
“On average we do around a hundred miles a week training, so I could pretty much eat any cookies I wanted and be able to make it through,” he said.
That’s how he was able to stay in fighting trim at 171-174 pounds.
To the eye racewalking looks unnatural. Racewalkers have two hard and fast rules: They must have one foot on the ground at all times, and they cannot bend their knee while the foot’s on the ground. If you break either of these rules and you get three red cards, one from each separate judge, you’re disqualified from the race.
Each step forward lands on the heel rather than the ball of the foot. Running shoes with elevated heels would only make their task more difficult. Flat-heeled marathon shoes are perfect, Nunn said.
“It was a fun career. It was great. A lot of training. So a lot of times of waking up and feeling sore and in pain. The military resiliency side of me definitely played in, because I knew that once I got moving it was just something I had to do and was able to get through the workouts,” Nunn said.
He had always thought of the Olympics as a big, iconic goal on the top of a hill. But when he got there he realized the other racewalkers were all people he had raced against throughout the years leading up to it.
“It was neat. Everyone gets to know each other, and you cheer each other on. The 50K is such a long race, usually within the first 30 kilometers you’re walking in a pack, and people will hand each other sponges or drinks if they missed it. And so even though you’re competing against each other you’re just trying to get through the first bit of it,” Nunn said.
Over the years Nunn reclassified from infantry, his original branch of service, to dental hygiene. After 16 years he realized he wanted to go do some other things.
Becoming a physician assistant was a natural for him. In order to make teams for an event so taxing on the body he needed a better understanding of the physiology side of it. He spent a lot of time in the training room working with doctors, athletic trainers and massage therapists. Little by little, he started to understand what he needed to do to be able to perform at a high level for such a long time.
Toward the end of his competitive career he realized being a physician assistant was an opportunity to go do something in the Army that could help other soldiers understand their bodies and be proactive in helping the fighting force move forward.
“That really got me excited, and fortunately I was accepted into the program and made it through,” he said.
Now, after getting his master’s degree in physician assistant studies from the Interservice Physician Assistants Program (IPAP), he’s almost ready to be a PA, the medical workhorse of the Army. IPAP is based at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, and accredited through the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
After finishing the Direct Commissioning Course he’ll go through a 10-week Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Sam, and then report for his next assignment with 11th Cavalry, 2nd Battalion, at Fort Irwin, Calif. At times he’ll work out of a clinic there, and then every other month he’ll spend 10 days out in the field working with the soldiers and doing field medicine and medical training.
“I’m very excited to be able to go straight from school into a situation that is that demanding. The learning curve is going to go quite quick, and I’ll be able to come out at the end of it having quite a bit more knowledge than most other physician assistants straight out of school,” he said.